2016 Year In Review: Part Eight
30. Jason Day’s historic putting
Numbers versus the eye test is a battle that has been going on in sports analysis for years, and with the advanced analytics becoming a larger part of the conversation in golf (more on that in a minute), we know more now about a player than ever.
Jason Day is one of those players who passes both the numbers test and the eye test, particularly on the greens. Day has always been a good putter, ranking no worse than 30th in strokes gained putting on the PGA Tour since 2011, and ranking sixth in the stat for the 2015 season. What we saw from Day in 2016 though was insane. Day led the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting in 2016 with a 1.130 average, meaning that in the 76 rounds that Day played, he was gaining 1.130 strokes on the field per round, just on the greens.
His total was .372 strokes better per round than his next closest competitor in Jordan Spieth, which to put it in perspective, the .372 number is the same average between Spieth and Ricky Barnes, who finished 26th in the ranking. Also, the 1.130 average made Day the first player to gain more than a full stroke on the field per round since strokes gained putting was made an official stat on the PGA Tour in 2004. In the strokes gained era, we’ve never seen putting like we saw from Day over the past twelve months.
Is it sustainable? At that level, probably not but even if Day regresses in 2017 on the greens, it’s only because he did something historic in 2016.
29. Jaeger and Furyk shoot 58
59 has always been the magic number in golf. The list of players who have posted a 59 in official tournaments across the world is a very short one, with it only happening sixteen times across tours that hand out world ranking points, and just six times in the history of the PGA Tour. Coming into 2016, Ryo Ishikawa’s final round in The Crowns on the Japanese Tour in 2010 was the only 58 recorded in a sanctioned tournament.
This year though, not only did we see two players post a 58, but they happened within a few weeks of each other. Germany’s Stephan Jaeger got it started on July 28th when he opened the 2016 Ellie Mae Classic with a 58, making him the first player to break 60 on the Web.com Tour since Russell Knox in 2013. Just nine days later, Jim Furyk shot a 12-under par 58 in the final round of the Travelers Championship, making him the first player to shoot 58 on the PGA Tour, as well as the first player to break 60 on the big tour since…Jim Furyk posted a 12-under 59 at the 2013 BMW Championship.
We might not see another 58 anytime soon, and the fact that we saw two of them in less than ten days is crazy.
28. Advanced stats become more prevalent
As I mentioned above, analytics are quickly becoming a larger part of the conversation in golf after taking other sports by storm in the last decade. Just like we’ve learned that traditional stats like pitcher wins and batting average range from useless to not telling the whole story, golf now has better ways to analyze player performance than fairways hit and greens in regulation. Much of the credit for this can be given to Mark Broadie, who invented strokes gained years ago, earning him the rightful label as the ‘Godfather of Golf Analytics’ as coined by Sean Martin in this Q&A.
Strokes gained isn’t a new metric, as it has been around in some fashion since 2004, but in May of 2016, the PGA Tour expanded strokes gained by breaking it down in more specific sections. Strokes gained putting didn’t change, but strokes gained tee to green now has three specific components: off the tee, approach and around the green. These measurements really allow both players and analysts to tell where players are succeeding and failing relative to their competition, which is important because traditional stats just don’t tell the whole story. A player can miss the fairway by a yard or forty yards, and it will still go down as a missed fairway, but sometimes that’s not what the player is looking to do, which Bubba Watson touched on at Riviera earlier this year. He was asked a question about what he thought of his chances on the weekend (he ended up winning) and he gave this response:
So where I’m at, I feel good. Except they just told me I only hit two fairways today, so I guess that’s not good. But it was about angles. It’s not really about hitting the fairway on some of these hole locations with the greens as fast as they are.
For people like me, these stats are great because it allows us to have a greater understanding of how players are performing, but it’s also a huge benefit for the players themselves. Players like Jordan Spieth have talked about how they need to improve on certain areas based on their strokes gained numbers, and along those same lines, companies like the 15th Club and people like Jake Nichols helped us understand the game so much better in 2016.
We have more knowledge of the game now than ever before, and that’s a very, very good thing.
27. European Tour enforces slow play rules
If there’s one thing that all golfers can agree on, it’s that slow play is awful. The European Tour clearly agrees, and they took some major steps to rectify the issue at the beginning of the year. In January, they created a new pace of play policy which became effective immediately, and they were not shy at all in enforcing it.
The photo above featuring Jordan Spieth and European Tour chief rules official John Paramor, is from the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, which was the first tournament where the policy was in place. Spieth was the first player to be assessed a monitoring penalty under the policy, and while players have been given slow play penalties in the past, what set this policy apart from other initiatives was the way that the European Tour went about promoting it.
In February, they sent out a press release titled ‘New pace of play policy off to a positive start’ where they discussed the effects of the policy as it related to the first three tournaments of the year. Not only did they talk about the time reductions for the rounds played, they actually shamed the players who got penalties! From the release:
A total of 95 groups were ‘monitored’ in the Middle East (36 in Abu Dhabi, 20 in Qatar and 39 in Dubai), while five players were given monitoring penalties. They were Jordan Spieth (Abu Dhabi, round one); Daniel Brooks (Abu Dhabi, round two); Benjamin Hebert (Abu Dhabi, round four); Eddie Pepperell (Dubai, round one); Gavin Green (Dubai, round two). These players will be fined the next time they receive a monitoring penalty during the 2016 season, with the fines increasing for each subsequent monitoring penalty thereafter.
The contrast between the European Tour and the PGA Tour was stunning.
The players took notice as well, with Shane Lowry coming out in favour of the new policy and saying that the PGA Tour should be tougher on slow play. I’ll reiterate the same thing I said about Jordan Spieth after the Masters when he was being accused of playing slowly: yes, he does play slow. However, he’s not any slower than most players on the PGA Tour right now, and if the PGA Tour actually enforced slow play rules, or implemented a policy similar to this one on the European Tour, the pace of play would pick up. According to the article linked above, Glen Day received the last pace of play penalty on the PGA Tour at the 1995 Honda Classic, which is absolutely laughable when you watch the PGA Tour on a weekly basis.
Follow the European Tour’s lead, and not only will slow play disappear, but golf will be way better in the long term because of it.
26. Caddie lawsuit thrown out
Back in February, a federal judge in California threw out a lawsuit filed by caddies against the PGA Tour, ruling that they signed contracts requiring them to wear bibs as part of their uniforms. The caddies were claiming that the sponsorships on the bibs, like the one Bones has above for FedEx, essentially made them billboards for the companies and since they felt they deserved compensation, they filed the $50 million lawsuit with the PGA Tour in February of 2015. The caddies have since filed an appeal, and Michael McCann of Sports Illustrated/GOLF.com has a good primer here on why the caddies lost the lawsuit in the first place.
I don’t think this one is over though. Obviously, the appeal still needs to be heard, but aside from that, the caddies have also been very vocal in the past about the poor treatment they feel they have received from the PGA Tour, and I mean, it’s hard to argue with them. It feels like there’s more than enough money and common sense involved at the pro level that something should be done to make everyone a little happier here, and I hope that we see something change on that front in 2017.
25. Ko vs. Jutanugarn
Even though she’s changing a whole lot of stuff and didn’t have the best end to 2016, Lydia Ko is still, at least to me, the unquestioned queen of women’s golf. She definitely has some competition though, and it’s from a group of super talented and young players who are ready to step up and assume the mantle if she stumbles. The top of that class is Ariya Jutanugarn, who had a phenomenal 2016 season with five wins, including the Ricoh Women’s British Open, and was able to sneak past Ko at the end of 2016 for the Player of the Year award after winning the season long Race to the CME Globe and the 2016 money title.
Jutanugarn has a long way to go to catch Ko at the top of the Rolex Rankings, as she sits almost four full points behind her, but considering that she just earned her LPGA Tour card in 2015, she’s on a meteoric rise to the top. She hits the ball miles, frequently taking less off the tee to avoid trouble, and she’s a fantastic putter.
The combination of Ko and Jutanugarn, along with others like Brooke Henderson, Lexi Thompson and In Gee Chun, are going to make the LPGA worth your time in 2017.
One of the best things about golf over the last few years is that we’ve started to see more players come along and show some real personality, and no one embodies that more than Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston. Beef was known as a fun loving guy for a few years in Europe, but really became known to mainstream golf fans when he won his first European Tour event earlier this year at the Open de Espana. Johnston won at the notoriously difficult Valderrama by posting a 1-over par total, and afterwards, he explained how he was going to celebrate:
This one interview set in motion a pretty crazy series of events, where he was interviewed by people like Dan Patrick and was the focus of all kinds of stories across all online golf publications, including landing on the cover of Golf Digest.
He was absolutely everywhere, and the good news is that along with being an incredible personality, he can actually play too, as he currently ranks 86th in the world. He also earned his PGA Tour card through the Web.com Tour finals, so fans should be seeing an awful lot of Beef going forward. I highly recommend doing a YouTube search for him on your own time, but I’ll embed some of my favourites from the past few months below.
23. Phil just misses the major scoring record
Earlier, I talked about 59 being the magic number in golf, but when it comes to major championships, that number has always been 63. Even though that number has been posted far more often than 59, it still holds a special significance whenever someone posts it, but unlike the 59, no one has ever been able to better the 63. This year though, we were agonizingly close to seeing a 62, and when it comes to agonizingly close, no one does it better than Phil Mickelson.
Mickelson was on fire in the opening round at Troon, posting a front nine 32 and following it up with four birdies on the back nine as he got to the par-4 18th. He was 8-under par, and if he could close with one more birdie, he would accomplish something that no other player in the history of the game had been able to do: post 62 in a major championship. Ernie Els, remember this was a Thursday, putted out to let Phil have his moment. Phil had put himself in perfect position to do it too, about sixteen feet away for birdie on 18, on a day when everything was dropping.
Of course it was Phil, and of course he lipped out. When you watch the replays of the putt, there’s no reason for it not to go in. There’s no reason for it to turn the way it did. None of it makes sense, and yet, it makes perfect sense all at the same time.
Ultimately, this ended up becoming a theme for Mickelson at the Open. He would go on to post 17-under par for the week and beat everyone else in the field by at least eleven shots, save for the one guy who topped him by three. We’ll get to that full story in a little bit.
22. U.S. Open faces weather issues
When you have sports that are played outdoors, you’re always at the mercy of the weather gods. Some sports can play through the bad weather while others really can’t, and it seems like golf finds itself in the middle. Players play through rain all the time on the PGA Tour, but when it gets too bad and the conditions start affecting play too adversely, it’s best to go inside and wait for it to stop. No one likes a Monday finish, particularly when we’re talking major championships, but sometimes, that’s just what has to happen. This year at the U.S. Open, the rain was the story on the first day as shown by Kevin Na:
All told, there were three delays in the first round thanks to dangerous conditions, with 78 players not being able to even hit their opening tee shots until Friday morning. With only nine players finishing their rounds on day one, there were real concerns that ‘Soakmont’ (cc: @djpie) would not crown a champion until Monday. This was especially true after more rain fell overnight, and with so many players still needing to tee off, first round leader Andrew Landry hit one putt on Friday morning, and didn’t hit another shot until Saturday morning.
Play was suspended due to darkness on both Friday and Saturday, and the final group of Landry and Shane Lowry didn’t end up starting their final rounds until 3:30 PM ET, but they managed to get all of it in. We all like to rag on the USGA, myself included and WAYYY more on that soon, but the fact that they were able to get all of this tournament in without having to go to Monday was super impressive.
21. The European Tour is mixing it up
In part seven, I talked about the Zurich Classic going to a team format and how I feel like it’s going to be a nice break in 2017 to not see just another stroke play event on the PGA Tour, and while that’s great, the European Tour under Keith Pelley are really mixing it up. They’ve already announced that in 2017, the Perth International which will be held in February, will be changing from a traditional stroke play format to one that combines both stroke play and match play. Via Wikipedia:
The new 2017 format will retain the 156-player field, with the cut being made at the top-65 and ties after 36 holes. After 54 holes, the field is cut to a hard top-24. The top eight players receive byes, with the tiebreaker being the overall third round score, then the last nine, then six, then three, and then the final hole to break ties. Any ties for 24th place will be determined in a sudden-death playoff.
On the final day, only six holes – the 1st (par 4), 2nd (4), 8th (3), 11th (5), 12th (3), and 18th (4) holes will be played, and there will be up to 42 holes played. The ninth place player will play the 24th place player, 10th place playing the 23rd place player, etc., continuing as six-hole match play events. Should the event be all-square after the sixth hole, the players return to a 100-yard (91-metre) tee near the 18th fairway to play only one hole. The winner of that single hole advances to the next round, but if the two players are tied again, the players will hit one final tee shot from the specially constructed tee, with the player closest to the pin advancing to the next round. In the second round, the eight winners play the eight players that did not play in the first round. In the third round, the eight winners participate in quarterfinals. In the fourth round, the four winners participate in the semifinals, and in the fifth round, the two winners will compete in one final six-hole match.
Will it work? Who knows, but I like that they’re trying to do something different and fun. Back in October, they also held the first of what they are calling experimental events. On the Tuesday before the British Masters, an eight-man, single elimination bracket of one hole matches was held on a simple 145 yard par-3. This was broadcast in primetime in the UK, and featured night time pro tracer, music and fire, which obviously aren’t standard for regular events.
A few weeks later, they followed that up with Brandon Stone and Haydn Porteous playing night golf in Turkey on Facebook Live.
Believe me, I’m not suggesting that these things are going to be better than watching a major or a regular tour stop, but I love the fact that under Keith Pelley, the European Tour is stepping out of golf’s traditional comfort zones and doing some really fun stuff. I can’t wait to see what they come up with in 2017.
Part nine of the 2016 Year In Review will examine stories 20-11.