Sports Nut

The Toughest Test in Golf

Looking at the new golf stats to see who will win the U.S. Open.

Michael Agger’s “Moneygolf” series is available as an e-book for the Kindle. Download it today.

golfer Hunter Mahan

One of the shadows trailing the sport of golf is the idea that golfers are not athletes. This perception will not be helped by the klutzy dancing in “Oh Oh Oh,” the new single from the PGA Tour’s “exclusive boy band,” Golf Boys. As one commenter on YouTube said of the great tour player Hunter Mahan: “Dam look at the gutttttttt on Hunter.” But I am willing to cut Mahan some slack: Those are some tight pants and Mahan has shot a 62 at Congressional Country Club, site of this year’s U.S. Open. Plus, we also learned recently that Jack Nicklaus can dunk! Golfers are more than “merely skilled technicians.”

Tiger, of course, is hurt. As he tweeted yesterday: “Last time I missed a USGA event Salt N Peppa was still cool and Whitehead was a toddler.” (The 23-year-old golfer Michael Whitehead got Tiger’s place in the field.) But the remaining technicians will have lots to tweet about this week. The Congressional course now plays at 7,574 yards, the second longest in Open history. It features an 18th hole that could play at 523 yards, the second longest par 4 in major championship history. Naturally, the short hitters are not happy. Fred Funk spoke for his brethren when he told NBC Sports that the bombers have an unfair advantage: “There are guys who are great athletes that have a lot of clubhead speed, but they generate so much carry with the golf ball. There’s more dispersion between the average guy and these guys that are really, really long.”

Is Funk right? Have the long hitters taken over the game?

Previously on Slate, I’ve written about the new generation of golf statistics that allow us to understand how a pro actually wins a golf tournament. What combination of putting, driving, and iron play will earn a player the glory of a major?

While the PGA Tour hasn’t been as quick to embrace stats as Major League Baseball, golf is becoming more analytical. The tour put the first “Moneygolf” statistic into production at the Wells Fargo tournament in May. It’s called “Strokes Gained—Putting,” and it measures how many strokes a player gains on the field due to his skill with the flatstick. Greg Chalmers is currently first on tour, picking up nearly a stroke per round on his fellow pros. Poor Ernie Els is dead-solid last, giving up just more than a stroke per round. Els is something of a poster boy for the stat, the example of a great player who has excelled despite his putting. He recently took the once unthinkable step of trying out a belly putter to improve his touch.

Putting will be important this week, especially with talk of superfast greens at Congressional that will rate over 14 on the Stimpmeter. But a key insight revealed by the new golf stats is that a pro can do more to distinguish himself with his long game than with his putting. According to Mark Broadie, Tiger Woods gained 2.08 strokes per round with his long game from 2003-2010, the best on tour. David Duval was ranked 297th during this period, losing 1.41 strokes a round, for a best-to-worst spread of 3.59 strokes. On the green, Tiger was ranked third in putting during this period, gaining 0.70 strokes per round, while a terrible putter like John Daly (ranked 272nd) gave up 0.38 strokes per round, for a spread of 1.18. There’s more room to excel with the long game.

Bubba Watson (center rear), is among the long-game leaders

The PGA Tour has not rolled out the “Strokes Gained—Long Game” statistic yet (next year, one hopes!), but Broadie has shared his personal stat trove with me. The regular PGA Tour players who have been picking up the most strokes with their long games are Bubba Watson, Sergio Garcia, Nick Watney, Dustin Johnson, and Gary Woodland. The top five putters are currently Greg Chalmers, Charlie Wi, Brandt Snedeker, Lucas Glover, and Steve Stricker. Together, the top putters have racked up three wins and 10 top-10 finishes. The top five bombers have four wins and 16 top-10s. So, the bombers are faring better than the putting artists, but not by a large margin.

When I looked at Tiger’s game earlier this year, Broadie explained the competitive ecosystem of golf to me this way: “The best golfers tend to be the longer hitters who have good short games and putting. The best at the short game and putting, without the long game to match, have a higher hill to climb and don’t win as often.” Broadie cites the example of Phil Mickelson, who “has a great long game and short game, so he does well in many tournaments, but he tends to win when his putting is also on.”

Fred Funk, then, has a point. The long hitters have a better chance to win this week, because the short hitters will be more ground down by the length of Congressional. But that also doesn’t mean a short hitter can’t compete. So, who do I think will win? First, let me offer the caveat that Robert Connolly, another golf researcher, has shown that winning on the PGA Tour almost always requires being “lucky” (as well as playing great). Sean Martin at Golf Week has the best explanation. Basically, if you make 75 percent of your putts from 5 feet, there will be some weeks when you make nine out of 10 and others when you make six out of 10 without doing much of anything differently. That’s partly why there are new winners each week on tour: Since the players are all so close in skill, tournaments often come down to “favorable random variation.”

The downside of “favorable random variation” is the way it completely drains the human drama out of golf. Let’s step back into the realm of vaguely supported predictions. You can’t ignore the length of Congressional, and you want someone who has been performing well in all aspects of the game. Luke Donald, the No. 1 in the World Golf Ranking, is also number one in all departments in Broadie’s strokes-gained analysis. Steve Stricker is right behind him at No. 2, but he’s weakest in the long game. Phil Mickelson is ranked 11th in the long game, 13th in the short game, and 64th in putting. He could certainly put his five second-place U.S. Open finishes behind him with a stellar week on the greens. But I am going to go with the guy with the gut. Hunter Mahan’s above-average performance in short game, long game, and putting has him as the 8th best player on tour this year. If that holds up under pressure, he’ll soon be famous for something besides a fake boy-band video.