After a thrilling weekend on one of the most difficult courses for a non-major we’ve ever seen, and a dramatic victory from Jon Rahm, who was seven strokes back heading into the weekend and lost a stroke on Saturday for forgetting to mark his ball on the green, we now head to East Lake for the Tour Championship.
The PGA Tour has a Friday start this week and is using something called a “staggered start,” which rewards strokes to players based on how they finished in the FedEx Cup standings.
East Lake is another par 70, and at 7,346 yards, it plays almost as long as last week’s tournament at Olympia Fields Country Club. Unlike Olympia Fields, which had very few hazards, East Lake features a number of holes with significant water in play.
The eighth hole is a long par 4 where the entire left side of the hole is a lake, and the 15th is an island green playing over 200 yards. They typically play as two of the three hardest holes on the course and are both in the top four in scoring variance. It’s a course you have to plot your way around, and rewards players who put themselves in a good position off the tee, which doesn’t necessarily mean the longest hitters.
Like last week, the best bets will be players with excellent performance off the tee who are also great around the greens.
While the course typically plays about 1.2 strokes over par, almost all of the players in this field are good players, and in this tournament, the average score should be around even par.
PICK TO WIN
We touted him last week at Olympia Fields because of his proficiency off the tee and around the green, and we’ll do it again here. Starting at 8-under, he’ll have two strokes to gain against Dustin Johnson, but we think the advantage he carries with his short game will be enough to make the pass. Among all players in the field, Rahm is second only to short game wizard Mackenzie Hughes in Shots Gained: Around the Green (SG:ARG) at +0.684 strokes per round. Combine that with his almost one full stroke gained off the tee, and Rahm has the recipe for success this week. Our model gives him a 17.4% chance of taking home the Tour Championship.
OTHERS WHO COULD TRIUMPH
Another player who is excellent off the tee, Berger starts the tournament at 4-under par. It’s a lot of strokes to make up over some fantastic players, but Berger has shown the ability to go low in crowded fields. He had a so-so week at the BMW, where he lost strokes with irons for the first time since the restart and lost strokes with his putter for just the second time since the restart. But prior to last week, he had finishes of third, 13th, and second at the Northern Trust, the PGA Championship, and WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. If he can have one of his great tournaments with the putter, a club he’s gained more than five strokes with three times since the restart, we think he can win it.
Few have had the kind of success Xander has had at East Lake. In the last three years, he’s finished first, seventh and then second last year. Schauffele excels off the tee and around the greens, but the big knock on him is his iron play, where he gains just 0.376 strokes per round. He’s above average, but he’s consistently just above average, and it can lead to an ugly number on one or two holes.
However, when scoring conditions are average to difficult, good players with relatively low volatility are the players we’re looking for out of the data. If a hole plays 0.25 strokes over par, a low-volatility golfer is going to consistently shoot around there, which means a lot of pars. A high-volatility golfer might gain or lose 0.70 strokes on that hole, but gaining strokes still means a lot of pars, while losing strokes means a lot of bogeys. The players ahead of Schauffele are all higher volatility golfers, and if they falter Xander could inch his way up the board. Our model gives him a 5.53% chance of winning this week.
LONGSHOTS WHO COULD SURPRISE
Most of these players are starting too far back to have any real chance at a victory, so what we’re looking for with this group are players who could rally for top-5 or top-10 finishes.
You can pretty much pencil us in for some Harris English love every week, especially considering he’s a former Georgia Bulldog playing in his backyard. While our model gives English less than a 3% chance of winning, it gives him almost a 24% chance to finish in the top 5. His Shots Gained: Off The Tee (SG:OTT) variability is just 0.669 strokes, so he isn’t likely to lose off the tee, and his spectacular short game where he gains 1.280 strokes per round should play well into a long course with a lot of hazards.
We’ve been on the Hughes train for the last few weeks, and coming off back-to-back top-20 finishes, we like his chances to finish in the top 10 this week. As we mentioned in the Rahm discussion, Hughes is a short game wizard. He gains 2.089 strokes per round with his chipping and putting, and on a course with a lot of bunkers and lightning-fast greens, we give him a 21.4% chance to finish in the top third.
Griffin is one of the most consistent golfers on tour. In this field, only Cameron Smith has less variability than Lanto Griffin’s 1.954 strokes per round. His iron play is where he shines, gaining 0.677 strokes per round and among all players who gain 0.6 or more per round, Griffin has the lowest variability. While it makes him a tough sell as an outright winner, we give him a 30.5% chance to crack the top 10, and a 9.2% chance to finish in the top 5. If the course plays hard and/or the wind picks up, Griffin should perform well.
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