As we alluded to in our player preview last week, a slimmer field at the top meant that the four or five favorites were much more likely to win the Rocket Mortgage Classic than in the opening three tournaments.
One of those favorites did win, though it wasn’t either of the two Stats Perform highlighted. Where our data model had success last week was in its upstart picks. Maverick McNealy, Lanto Griffin, Harold Varner III and Mark Hubbard all made the cut, and all finished in the top 30.
This Week’s Course
Due to the cancellation of the John Deere Classic, the PGA Tour has a bit of an unorthodox schedule over the next two weeks. Both the Workday Charity Open and The Memorial are being played at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. The Tour has said it will set the course up differently for the two tournaments, using different tees, shorter roughs, and slower greens for the Workday Charity Open, but it remains to be seen how exactly the course will play.
As we use a data-driven approach, we’ll still use historical scores and data to pick our players to watch, but you can expect scores to be a little lower than usual this week. Muirfield Village is a par 72 course, designed by Jack Nicklaus and playing 7,392 yards. Despite having the same proportion of par holes as last week at the Detroit Golf Club, Muirfield has a far different distribution for where to gain or lose strokes.
In fact, the ways in which these two courses differ give us a great opportunity to show how we look at courses.
Composition – Both courses have four par 3s, four par 5s, and 10 par 4s
Expected Score – Here’s where things start to get different. Detroit Golf Club plays at 1.88 strokes under par per round, where Muirfield Village plays at just 0.19 strokes under par per round.
Expected Score by Par Type – We’ll treat this one a little differently, looking at score difference from par, rather than expected score. This allows us to see which types of holes present the greatest opportunity for strokes gained or lost relative to par.
We can start to see the importance of par 3s when playing Muirfield Village compared to Detroit Golf Club, and conversely, the importance of par 4s and 5s at Detroit. We can get a clearer picture of this through a breakdown of strokes different from par, which is the combined absolute value of strokes different from par for each par type:
|Hole Type||Detroit Golf Club||Muirfield Village|
However, just looking at average score isn’t enough. After all, the golfers aren’t playing against the course, they’re playing against the field of golfers. If a hole is easy and everyone finds it easy, it’s not really a hole where a player can gain a shot on the field. That’s where our variance metric comes in.
Total Variance – Here we continue to see which types of holes offer golfers the greatest opportunities to gain or lose strokes against the field. Using hole-by-hole scoring, we look at the distribution of scores on each, and assign a variance score based on the width of that distribution.
If we look at these two courses, the Total Variance across 18 holes for Detroit is 7.370, where the Total Variance for Muirfield is a whopping 9.429. There are more than two strokes difference between these two courses.
What does that mean? It means the field will end up being more congested on a course like Detroit Golf Club, with fewer opportunities for golfers to pull away from the pack. We saw that last week, where the cutline was only seven shots off the lead. It’s one of the reasons our model backed more longshots than favorites at the Rocket Mortgage Classic.
On courses like Detroit GC, there aren’t as many opportunities for favorites to distance themselves from the longer-odds golfers, which keeps those longshots in range of the lead, and just a hot putter away from challenging for a trophy (see Matthew Wolff, who gained nearly six strokes with his putter in Rounds 2 and 3 last week).
Variance by Hole Type – Here’s where we get a better idea which types of players have the skill sets needed to exploit a course design:
|Hole Type||Detroit Golf Club||Muirfield Village|
Based on the distribution of total variance, we see Muirfield Village being almost identical to Detroit Golf Club, with a little more emphasis on par 3s and a little less on par 5s. In other words, the same types of par-scoring players should do well on both courses.
But we know from both Expected Score and Total Variance that you need to be a better player to play well at Muirfield, where the back-9 par 3s are particularly challenging. In both cases, golfers have to hit onto an island green, and it’s not uncommon to see double bogeys or worse.
Favorites to Back
Muirfield Village is set up ideally for Rahm. He plays his best golf on par 3s and par 5s, gaining an average of 0.107 and 0.191 strokes over the field, respectively. Muirfield’s challenging par 3s offer him great opportunities to gain strokes against the field.
The “defending champion” at this course (he won Memorial last year, which is also played at Muirfield Village), Cantlay is one of the most well-rounded players on tour. He gains 0.087 strokes per hole, which is a little less consistent than Rahm’s 0.108, but he’s shown a greater ability to put up low scores than Rahm, with a hole variance of 0.35 strokes, compared to Rahm’s 0.30. He’s not as safe a bet as Rahm, but if he’s on, he can run away from the field.
Reed has been a little disappointing in the last two weeks, but if you look under the hood he’s been playing better than his scores indicate. During that time, he gained 0.845 strokes per round with his ball-striking (33rd out of 210 measured golfers), but he’s been uncharacteristically bad around the green. If Reed keeps striking the ball well, his short game could return to form and he’ll compete this week.
Golfers Who Could Surprise
Scheffler looked cooked last week after the first round when he sat dead last after losing almost six strokes with his irons. He bounced back in Round 2, shooting 7-under and finishing even par for the tournament. That gave us some hope. He’s currently sitting at 80-to-1, which would have been unheard of for Scheffler before the break. But some poor play has drastically reduced his number, and our data loves him in this spot.
Wu was in the field last week before returning a positive COVID-19 test and being forced to withdraw. He’s back in the field after subsequent negative tests, and he’ll look to continue his early success on tour. He made his debut at the U.S. Open a little over a year ago, where he finished 35th, and has missed just one cut since, including going 2-for-2 so far in 2020. He’s remarkably consistent with his scoring, and has some eagle potential on par 5s, with a par-5 variance of 0.52 strokes. If he can avoid the hazards this week, he could surprise.
Taylor would be a top-20 pick, but he’s not at all likely to win. He’s a king of consistency, with some of the lowest variance on tour. He plays all hole types well, gaining 0.023, 0.039, and 0.082 strokes on par 3s, 4s, and 5s, respectively. It’s unlikely he’ll shoot any 65s this week, but four consecutive scores in the 68-70 range wouldn’t be surprising, and would likely be enough to net him a top-20 finish.
Ortiz has a similar profile as Taylor, but with a little less consistency and more room for low scores. He gains 0.048, 0.019, and 0.060 strokes on pars 3s, 4s, and 5s, respectively, with a variance of 0.37 – just higher than Taylor’s 0.33. Ortiz is less likely than Taylor to finish in the top 20, but more likely to finish top-10.