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Back in the Swing: Who the Data Projects to Shine and Struggle in the PGA’s Return

By: Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads

In the case of accuracy, intuition meets statistics as the PGA Tour returns in the Charles Schwab Challenge Thursday through Sunday.

Of the five golf skills, driving accuracy is the most important for Colonial success, followed closely by scrambling. With only two par 5s and some fairly simple par 3s, it’s a course where par 4 performance is likely to go a long way for the field following a three-month hiatus.

Stats Perform is breaking down the Tour’s return by using a data-driven model to project some of the players to watch and those who might stumble this weekend.

How is this done? We use historical data to examine the skills of each golfer and hole-by-hole information over the last five years across three different tours to create expected rates for players in the following areas:

Colonial Golf Course

Driving Accuracy

Driving Distance

Greens in Regulation

Scrambling

Strokes Gained Putting

Par 3 Performance

Par 4 Performance

Par 5 Performance

(rates are adjusted for strength of tour and tournament)

At around 7,200 yards, Colonial isn’t the longest course on the tour, but at par 70, it plays a little longer than it’s listed distance. There are only two par 5s, a lot of skinny fairways, rough lined with large trees, and bunker defended greens. It’s a course where accuracy and multi-shot planning are key, and without fans to trample down wayward shots, accuracy could be an even bigger component than in years past.

In its return, the tour hopes to take advantage of an opportunity to grab the limelight after The Match II, which is not a tour event, was the most-watched golf event in cable television history. The Charles Schwab Challenge is the first of 14 PGA tournaments over the next 13 weeks.

So let’s take a look at who projects to have a triumphant weekend at one of the longest-standing courses on the tour after the longest unscheduled pause from tournament play since World War II. 

Webb Simpson watches his tee shot during the final round of the Phoenix Open in February.

The Favorites

As a result of the tour’s extended absence, most of the big names have entered this tournament. Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas are considered the odds-on favorites in Fort Worth, Texas. We like all three for obvious reasons, but Webb Simpson is our data-driven pick to win this week.

Not known as a bomber, Simpson does his best work hitting fairways, owning some of the best bunker play, and he has the fourth-best par 4 performance behind McIlroy, Rahm, and Dustin Johnson.

Another golfer who has the skills to succeed this week is Sungjae Im. He’s been a data darling all year for us, even before pulling off his first PGA victory at the Honda Classic back in March. Im is extremely well-rounded, but he’s especially dangerous around the green. He’s in a good position to contend.

Matt Kuchar hits from the tee during the Sony Open in Honolulu.

The Middle Tier

Our model likes a number of golfers in this tier, some even more than many of the favorites. One of the top candidates to emerge out of this group is Matt Kuchar, who has an accuracy baseline of 65.1% one of the best among the entrants. Kuch always seems to be plotting a few strokes ahead, a perfect playing style for this course. 

Daniel Berger is another mid-tier guy who could come up big this week. Berger is coming off back-to-back-to-back top 10 finishes, and much like Simpson and Kuchar, he excels around the greens.

The data also points to Harris English as someone who might outplay expectations. English has had some consistency issues round-to-round, but he’s coming off three straight top 20s and was among the leaders at the Players before it was canceled.

The Longshots

Brendon Todd has one of the shortest average drives on tour, but on a course like Colonial his accuracy and spectacular scrambling skills could net him a surprising top 20 finish.

Todd is fairly average when it comes to par 4s, but hitting the fairways is so important at Colonial that we project him to fare a little better than usual. We also like Lanto Griffin and Denny McCarthy as long-odds golfers to finish in the top 20.

Who Might Struggle

Ordinarily, there are a few golfers in the top 10 in odds that our model just doesn’t like because they’re not a good fit for the course. While Tony Finau isn’t one of the favorites, there’s reason to believe he could fall short of expectations. 

Finau’s a long hitter, but accuracy can be a concern. If he can keep it in the fairways, he should be ok. But on a weekend where accuracy might mean more than ever, the data points to an uneven performance.