Monday, April 14, 2014

Are the Bombers Taking Over the LPGA?

Luke Kerr-Dineen just made an interesting point about the players who went under par at Augusta last week:  Bubba Watson was the outlier rather than the norm among them when it came to driving distance.  Most of those who played well enough to win the Masters relied more on accuracy off the tee and into the greens; what set Bubba apart from that group may have been his length relative to them--or it may have been his ability to hit good recovery shots and make clutch putts.  Bottom line:  we shouldn't assume just because a bomber won this year's Masters that being a bomber is an advantage in general, at Augusta or anywhere.

This is a point I've been making for about the entire time I've been blogging on women's golf at Mostly Harmless.  And it's a point worth reiterating in the wake of Lexi Thompson's victory over Michelle Wie and the rest of the field at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.  Tony Jesselli is one of many who have been suggesting the last few years that the LPGA is shifting to courses and course set-ups that benefit bombers like Thompson, Wie, and Ya Ni Tseng, who (in their view) are an ever-increasing segment of a tour that used to be dominated by precision players like Ji-Yai Shin, Ai Miyazato, and In-Kyung Kim and straight shooters like Karrie Webb, Cristie Kerr, and Angela Stanford.  If he and others who believe this are right, we should see the pathways to success on the LPGA narrowing for everyone but the bombers.

But look at who's won in the world of women's golf in 2014 and their key performance stats (length and accuracy off the tee, greens in regulation rate, putts per green in regulation, and birdies per round, with ranks for each):

Precision Players (0 wins)
Paula Creamer used to be in this category, but she's actually gotten long enough--and inaccurate enough--off the tee, relative to her career averages, to be considered a straight shooter in 2014.

Straight Shooters (5 wins)

  • Karrie Webb (2):  258 yds. (#30), 76.5% fairways (#38), 72.2% greens (#38), 1.750 ppgir (#3), 4.04 bpr (#11)
  • Anna Nordqvist (2):  256 (#45), 74.4% (#69), 77.3% (#6), 1.769 (#10), 3.88 (#13)
  • Paula Creamer (1):  257 (#43), 76% (#51), 73.8% (#24), 1.753 (#5), 3.96 (#4)

Bombers (2 wins)

  • Jessica Korda (1):  262 yds. (#18), 64% fairways (#123), 69.7% greens (#69), 1.764 ppgir (#8), 3.79 bpr (#15)
  • Lexi Thompson (1):  275 (#1), 64% (#122), 76.9% (#8), 1.781 (#14), 4.15 (#5)

My takeaway from these few examples is that it doesn't matter how you give yourself birdie opportunities on the LPGA; it matters how many you give yourself and how many you convert.

Consider Michelle Wie as another key example here.  Wie is averaging 256 yards off the tee this year and is ranked #46 in driving distance.  She's hitting almost 70% of her fairways, a huge upgrade for her, but still only #93 on a tour known for its accuracy off the tee.  That improvement, however, helps explains why she leads the tour in greens in regulation at almost 81%.  If she can keep improving her putting, which is a respectable but not elite 1.799 putts per green in regulation (#41), she can make even more birdies than her current average per round (3.79, #15).  Basically, Wie has turned herself from a bomber into a straight shooter.  She's sacrificed distance for accuracy and is starting to see results from that change.

Paula Creamer made the opposite decision:  she sacrificed accuracy for distance and is also starting to see results from that change.  I would put Morgan Pressel in that same category, by the way.  Although Pressel hasn't gained enough distance to graduate from being a precision player to being a straight shooter, she has gained a lot (like on the order of 7 to 10 yards).  Yet Pressel, who's usually among the most accurate off the tee on tour, is down at #95 in 2014.  Hitting fewer than 70% of your fairways is usually a kiss of death for someone who averages only 251 yards off the tee.  So what is an even bigger factor for Pressel's success in 2014 than her increase in distance?  She's getting the ball in the hole quickly when she hits greens (1.761, #7) and therefore making plenty of birdies (4.25, #2).

The common thread in all these examples is that putting for dough remains way more important than driving for show on the LPGA.  That's true of everyone, but especially true of precision players.  Since Ai Miyazato is Tony's key example of a struggling precision player, it's worth pointing out that her ball-striking stats are pretty close to her career averages and that she's actually hitting more greens in regulation than in recent years.  But she's making only 2.58 birdies per round and a lot of that is attributable to poor putting:  she's averaging a horrific (by her standards) 1.885 putts per green in regulation, which puts a player who's accustomed to being ranked among the very best on tour in that category at #119 thus far this season.  It's pretty clear that the problem lies not with the longest club in Ai-sama's bag but in the shortest.

I would suggest the same problem with the flat stick is afflicting other top precision players in my career ranking of LPGA rookies since 2005:  it's certainly the case for In-Kyung Kim (1.873 ppgir [#109], 2.92 bpr [#91]).  In fact, I'd be willing to bet that the fact that Inbee Park and Lizette Salas (now both precision players, a bit of a surprise since Park gained length off the tee in the run-up to and during her stretch of dominating the tour) are not putting as amazingly well as they did last year, and that the prototypical straight shooter Cristie Kerr's putting stats are way off from her career averages, helps explain why they haven't quite gotten it together yet in 2014 far far better than any other stat.

Hence, while you might be able to make the case that more LPGAers are doing what it takes to become straight shooters, the key to success remains hitting greens and especially making putts.  Given how long it's taken Wie, Creamer, and Pressel to groove swing changes designed to turn them into straight shooters, I still believe that the short hitters on tour are better off working on their short games than trying to gain a few yards off the tee.  And I definitely disagree with the proposition that the bombers are taking over the LPGA.

Now, if Lexi improves her accuracy off the tee, giving herself better looks at pins, I'd expect to see her ppgir go down and her birdie rate go up.  If that happens, I'd also expect to see her in the winner's circle a lot more often.  But if that happens, Lexi would transcend the "bomber" category and become someone you rarely see on the LPGA:  a straight-up bomber in the mold of Annika, Lorena, and, for shorter periods of time thus far in their careers, Ya Ni Tseng and Suzann Pettersen.  This is probably the best modern path to becoming an LPGA legend.  Nevertheless, it's not the only one, as Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak can testify.

As the LPGA returns to Hawaii, the key for players is what it's always been:  giving yourself a lot of good looks at birdie or better and making more of them than everyone else.


Blue Falcon said...

I agree with your assesment. One of the really annoying things for me watching the LPGA Tour on Golf Channel is the constant chatter about players like Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson about how long they are off the tee. At one point last year, Thompson was the second worst ranked statistical putter on Tour, before she perked up at the end of last year and won twice. Wie has clearly this year sacrificed some distance off the tee, and she is starting to play much better than she has in some time.

What the GC talking heads either don't understand-or choose not to understand-is that the purpose of the game of golf is to get the ball into the hole in as few shots as possible. Is having length off the tee an asset? Yes, it is. Is it awe inspiring to see someone hit a golf ball a long way? Again, yes it is. But, it doesn't matter how far you hit a golf ball if you miss the fairway, hit the ball into the hazard or water and you don't putt well.

diane said...

Watching the final round of the Dinah (Kraft Nabisco for youngsters) was that getting on the green in regulation means little if you're 50 feet from the flag stick. Just ask Michelle Wie.

I think we can all agree that from 50 feet most Tour players will get within "tap-in" range most of the time. Unfortunately most of the time isn't all the time so there will be three-putt bogies. If you don't believe me just ask Michelle Wie.

Colin N.Z said...

I think it's hard to make generalizations about these things to me it has a lot to do with how the course is set up for any particular tournament. For the par 4's and 5's if the 240-260 yard off the tee hitters are penalised more for missing the fairway than the 260-280 yard hitters then you will see them win more often than not. Simply because they should be able to be more accurate to the pin from the shorter distance. That's exactly how the KNC was last week and kudos to Lexi and caddie for quickly working that out. Had the dangers and rough been far worse at that 260-280 yard mark Lexi would have dropped shots. On the par 4 and 5's she was easily able to play from different parts of the course that the 240-260 yard hitters simply never saw. Lexi made the best of the opportunity presented to her and good on her.

Tony Jesselli (Tonyj5) said...

Great job! This is always a very interesting topic. It is one that I find myself discussing more and more, and finding that everyone seems to have a different opinion and they all make valid points.

Many people will say it always comes down to putting. I agree that you have to put on the better side of average to win a tournament, no argument there, but the person who has the least amount of putts over 72 holes, very seldom wins.
Winning is a combination of doing many things correctly.

The big question about adding yardage is, how many fairways are you willing to give up?

This has been debated for a long time and will be for years to come. I will tell you this though, I would rather be hitting driver 8 iron on those par 5's then driver 5 iron.

Yani was #1 because she was always overpowering the course, and I believe Lexi will be #1 for that same reason. All she has to do is be an average putter.

The Constructivist said...

Thanks for the smart comments, everyone. I wish the LPGA had the same deal as the PGA does when it comes to collection of data and development of stats that really help us identify who's best at different kinds of shots and putts. Guess there needs to be more money in women's golf before moneyball becomes available to the masses.

I wonder if any of the top players in women's golf are paying for that kind of top-shelf statistical analysis of their games?