Distance less than paramount at Harbour Town

June 17, 2020
Justin Ray

One week after the strongest field assembled at Colonial since the 1941 U.S. Open, the RBC Heritage welcomes the top-five players in the World Ranking to its event for the first time.

It’s been 24 years since the top-three have all competed at Harbour Town: in 1996, one week after Nick Faldo caught Greg Norman to win the Masters, Norman (world no. 1), Colin Montgomerie (no. 2) and Nick Price (no. 3) were each in the field.

Rory McIlroy is playing here for the first time since he was still a teenager. In 2009, a few weeks before his 20th birthday, McIlroy finished tied for 58th, as Brian Gay waltzed to a ten-stroke victory. That week, Anthony Kim (14th) was ahead of Rory (17th) in the World Ranking.

One of the treats golf fans have enjoyed in this restart is seeing some of the top players on golf courses they typically skip over on the schedule. That is certainly the case this week.

COURSE CHARACTERISTICS

Like Colonial, Harbour Town is celebrated in golf circles as a bit of an outlier on the PGA Tour. Distance isn’t rewarded here nearly as much as at the typical Tour venue: this course ranks sixth-to-last in terms of amount of reward given for extra distance off the tee.

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Over the last ten years, the average driving distance of winners on the PGA Tour is 298.2 yards. At Harbour Town, it’s about 25 yards shorter – 272.7. The average winner’s field ranking in strokes gained off the tee is significantly worse than normal, too – 18.8 on the PGA Tour typically, but 24.1 the last decade here in South Carolina.

Contrast that with the increased value of short game performance this week. Strokes gained ‘short game’ combines what a player does on shots around the green & putting, while ‘long game’ combines performance off the tee and on approach shots. The RBC Heritage is one of the few events on the PGA Tour where the average winner’s ranking in strokes gained short game (14.9) is actually better than strokes gained long game (19.0).

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Some of the statistical bests at this tournament in recent years reflect that, too: Matt Kuchar leads all players in cumulative score to par at Harbour Town the last five years (42-under). Luke Donald leads all players in strokes gained total per round here the last 15 years (2.25), while Jim Furyk is second on that list (1.84). None of those three players are renowned for distance.

NOTES ON THE FIELD

– A year ago, Dustin Johnson held a one-shot lead entering the final round here. What happened Sunday was disastrous: a 77 punctuated by an abysmal back nine. In the last eight holes of the tournament, DJ was +6, and had lost a staggering 4.72 strokes to the field tee-to-green.

Johnson underwent knee surgery last September and has struggled to play like his old self since. Just two seasons ago, Dustin led the PGA Tour in birdie average, making 4.70 per round. In 2019-20, he’s averaging just 3.39, ranked 185th.

– More was said last week about Bryson DeChambeau’s reported protein shake intake than was about the non-driving aspects of his golf game. Bryson put together a balanced statistical performance at Colonial – he led the field in scrambling, was third in greens in regulation (79.2%) and 8th in strokes gained approach. He missed nine putts inside ten feet for the week, the only thing that kept him from victory.

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Bryson has some solid course history to fall back on this week: among 155 players with a dozen or more rounds at Harbour Town over the last decade, DeChambeau ranks first in strokes gained tee-to-green per round (2.10), second in approach (1.31) and fourth off the tee (0.64). He’s 150th in putting in that span (-0.83) – can he improve on that number this week?

Collin Morikawa missed an eight-foot putt on the 72nd green last week that would have given him his second PGA Tour victory. Why he will be a force for years to come: among players with 50 or more ShotLink-measured rounds the last two seasons, Morikawa leads all players in strokes gained approach per round (1.08).

– Home of the comeback: each of the last seven winners at Harbour Town were multiple strokes back entering the final round.

Luke List won the Korn Ferry Tour’s return to action last week. List finished tied for third here two years ago and has been a prolific scorer here – over the last five years, his 4.13 birdies per round are fourth-most of any player.

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Justin Thomas entered the final round at Colonial just one shot off the lead, but a closing 71 derailed his chance at victory. That Sunday, JT gained more than three full strokes on the field on his approach shots but missed five putts inside ten feet. In rounds one through three, he was a combined 49-for-50 on putts from ten feet and in. A blip on the overall performance radar, really.

HAPPY PHIFTIETH BIRTHDAY

To celebrate Phil Mickelson’s milestone 50th birthday this week, a few Lefty facts you may not know:

– He is the only player in PGA Tour history with three career rounds of 60 (or lower). Two have come at TPC Scottsdale (2005, 2013), while the other was last year at La Quinta CC.

Can you name the last player to win a PGA Tour event by a dozen or more strokes? Tiger would be everyone’s first guess – or maybe Rory – but it was actually Mickelson in Atlanta in 2006. He won the BellSouth Classic by 13 the week before winning his second Masters title.

–  His active streak of 24 consecutive PGA Tour seasons with $1M or more in official earnings is by far the longest streak in the history of the Tour. Charles Howell III is the only player with 20 or more straight seasons all-time.

Phil is still the last amateur to win a PGA Tour event, having done so 29 years ago in Tucson. From the end of World War II through 1990, there were seven instances of amateurs winning on the Tour – but none have done it since Lefty.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

From the 1999 PGA Championship through the 2002 U.S. Open, Tiger won seven of the eleven majors contested. He was a combined 94-under par, 60 shots ahead of the nearest player (Mickelson, -34). Only five players with 20 or more rounds in those majors were within 100 strokes of Woods’ cumulative score to par.