Thursday, April 17, 2008

Paging Steve Elling

Thanks for the speculations on an Ochoa Slam--or even a Grand Slam for her--in 2008. I appreciated the little gems you sprinkled through the piece, such as

True, the absurdity of again crawling this far out on a limb precisely three days after eating crow with regard to Woods' four-runner hopes is self-evident. But at the moment, as transcendent as Woods has been on the men's tour, Ochoa's play has been positively meteoric. The comparisons have been far more frequent as a result.

Frequent? Yes. Quite. Indubitably. To be sure. Although he's expressed doubt that it can be done, even Hound Dog has a poll looking for alternatives to the phrase "Ochoa Slam." So, yeah, join the club.

Membership has its privileges and all, but it also has its responsibilities. Like getting the depth question right:

Whereas Woods' major-championship objective was made more difficult because of the comparatively superior depth in men's golf, Ochoa has likewise ascended to the top so quickly, there's seemingly nothing in her way. She moved into the No. 1 position in the women's world rankings one year ago and last week qualified for induction for the World Golf Hall of Fame, at 26 the second-youngest player ever to do so on career points.

Ochoa's speed of qualification for the Hall evidence of the "comparatively superior depth in men's golf"? Watch it--you're entering Doug Ferguson territory here. And I don't mean that in a good way. In case you weren't paying attention back in January, let's take a look at some of the numbers you ignored. They clearly show that Ochoa's competition is closer to her than Tiger's.

The World Golf Rankings for the men and the Rolex Rankings for the women are quite similar ranking systems. Tiger (22.36) is lapping #2 Phil Mickelson (9.75) and #3 Ernie Els (6.36) is even further behind. Contrast that with the smaller lead Ochoa (18.53) has on #2 Annika Sorenstam (9.47), the only player on the LPGA to have as many top 10s as her this season. It's not just that there are 3 women with higher ratings than Els (Suzann Pettersen at 8.08, Paula Creamer at 7.08, and Karrie Webb at 6.64); it's that you have to go down to the 39th position on the Rolex Rankings to find someone further behind Ochoa than that 16-point lead Tiger has on Els. While a good number of these players compete almost completely on the KLPGA and JLPGA, the fact remains that Ochoa faces more competition on the LPGA than Tiger does on the PGA.

The Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index also supports my claim, although not as starkly. In the men's rankings, Tiger (66.44) has a huge lead on #2 Steve Stricker (68.70), and there are 17 guys within 3 points of him (several of whom split their time between the PGA and European Tour). In the women's rankings, Ochoa (67.87) has a large lead on #2 Creamer (69.29), and there are 16 gals within 3 points of her (2 of whom don't play regularly on the LPGA Tour). So the depth of competition is relatively similar, but Tiger's lead on his nearest competitors is much bigger. (Plus, if the GSPI included KLPGA events in its database, Ji-Yai Shin would most likely be the #2 golfer in their system, much closer to Ochoa than Creamer, and Sun Ju Ahn would likely be within 3 points of Ochoa.)

So, yes, Ochoa's margins of victory have been impressive, but some of her top competitors are rehabbing injuries (Annika Sorenstam, Mi Hyun Kim, Se Ri Pak), coming back from giving birth (Hee-Won Han, Karen Stupples, Catriona Matthew), just beginning to find their games again (Suzann Pettersen, Karrie Webb, Jee Young Lee, Seon Hwa Lee, Maria Hjorth, Inbee Park), slowing down after fast starts (Paula Creamer, Jeong Jang, Momoko Ueda, Angela Stanford, Laura Diaz, Jane Park, Christina Kim), or just plain struggling (Cristie Kerr, Angela Park, Morgan Pressel, Stacy Prammanasudh) while Ochoa has been in the zone. So please do your readers a favor and stop pretending it's going to be any easier for Ochoa to keep winning majors than for Tiger to start winning them again.

Finally, I think you both overestimate Ochoa's power advantage and misunderstand where her game has improved the most:

Ochoa is piling up wins and making jaws drop at a clip Sorenstam can appreciate. Ochoa tweaked her backswing in the offseason and changed to a different ball, picking up 5-7 more yards off the tee. She's No. 1 in driving distance at a hair under 280 yards, which means she can overwhelm courses like no other LPGA player. For perspective, that figure would rank around No. 100 on the PGA Tour in power.

There are 11 other players averaging over 270 yards off the tee on the LPGA including some of Ochoa's closest competitors: Pettersen (270.6), Jee Young Lee (272.8), Stupples (271.5), Hjorth (275.0), and Gustafson (277.4). Moreover, there are a lot of big hitters among the young guns who will provide her toughest competition over the next 4 seasons: in addition to Lee, rookies #10 Hee Young Park (271.2), #13 Ya Ni Tseng (268.2), #15 Na Yeon Choi (266.2), #18 Shanshan Feng (264.8), and #25 Momoko Ueda (262.9) stand out. But length off the tee is not destiny on the LPGA: the last three rookies of the year, Angela Park, Seon Hwa Lee, and Paula Creamer, can not be found in the top 80 in driving distance thus far this season. And Sorenstam's average driving distance is still far behind what it was before her neck and back injuries, but she's managed 5 consecutive top 10s. In fact, where Ochoa has been focusing the most in the early season is on her wedge game; she has made the most improvement from 100 yards and in. We'll just have to see how 2006 champion Mi Hyun Kim, who still holds the 72-hole tournament record at -12, does this week at the Ginn Open, along with all the other precision players in the field....

More in this vein at the end of the month, when I update my Best of the LPGA rankings and rank the Young Gun classes of 2006 and 2007 together for the first time. Until then, I appreciate the spotlight you're putting on the LPGA, but could do without your recycling of myths about Ochoa's competition and women's golf.

[Update 4/18/08: Beth Ann Baldry jumps on the Elling bandwagon in Golfweek, less annoyingly. But I'd love to see the golf writers focusing on the question of who has the best chance to end Ochoa's major winning streak. It's a great opportunity to educate the general public that knows little of women's golf beyond Ochoa, Sorenstam, and Wie.]

[Update 4/19/08: Jeff Rude proves he doesn't read this blog. Way to boil Elling's mistake down to its essence, Jeff. Keep up the good work! Seriously, when are golf writers going to realize that the rest of the LPGA doesn't have to be cast as chopped liver to build up Ochoa? Forget what I said yesterday about golf writers educating the golfing public--they need to start paying attention first.]


The Constructivist said...

Waggle Roomed this.

Hound Dog said...

Outstanding post. You took two questionable statements from Elling's article and statistically slammed them into the turf.

Power does play a part in the women's game. I've shown that far more Top 30 players rank highly in driving distance than they do in accuracy. But to say Ochoa's 2-yard advantage off the tee explains her current dominance displays a poor understanding of golf in general.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand the points. Looks like the editors have hired yet another non-golf guy to write articles.

No, the women's game does not have nearly the depth of the men's game, but the talent level of the two tours is not what is in question.

What IS in question is, how many players have a chance to win when Tiger or Ochoa are in the field ?

On the PGA Tour, Tiger wins about 25% of the tournaments he enters. The rest of those tournaments are won by guys anywhere from 2 in the world to someone possibly down to 100, but generally someone in the top 50.

Ochoa's winning percentage the last two years is equally impressive, but when she loses, it is usually to someone in the top 15-20.

Still no big deal. There are still players in the field who CAN beat a Tiger or Lorena in a given week. Geoff Ogilvy and Trevor Immelman have shown this.

For the last year and a half, Ochoa has been the hottest woman golfer on the planet - nobody can match her unless she has an off week - and she will have off weeks later this year - it happens to moral human beings.

Power is still a dumb way to choose a favorite unless a course is packed with hazards and forced carries. (remember Bethpage Black) The PGA Tour is full of bombers who will struggle just to keep their card - but boy are they long. Woop-dee-doo. If you can't get the ball in the hole from 100 yards in, it doesn't matter how long you are - it can be a help - but it's not the end-all-be-all.

Right now, Ochoa is hitting greens and making putts, and avoiding trouble, better than anyone on the LPGA Tour.

CAN Ochoa win a grand slam ? Of COURSE she can. Right now, she is the ONLY woman in the world who can. Why ? For the same reason Trevor Immelman is the only man in the world who can win one - they both won the first major of the year. Granted, Ochoa's odds are better than Immelman's...because of you-know-who.

Next year, this same silly batch of articles will be written, and if Ochoa and Woods win their respective first majors of the year it will only get worse.

Personally, I don't think Tiger will win the grand slam until 2010 when he will see Augusta, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews, then the PGA at, if you can believe this, the French Lick Resort in French Lick, Indiana. (that's right - home of Larry Bird)

The Constructivist said...

Yeah, power with control matters a great deal. That's Ochoa's strength and helps explain why she's leading the tour in GIR rate and birdies per round (along with her emphasis on improving her 100 yards and in game). Sure, when there are 100 guys roughly within Tiger's range power-wise, the odds increase that some of them will be able to match his control, at least some days. When you look at how many MCs the longest hitters on the LPGA have, you realize that there are many fewer players close to matching Ochoa's control. So in that sense, yeah, Ochoa has a big advantage.

Other stats don't go my way, either. There are only 8 players within 3 strokes of Ochoa's scoring average on the LPGA, while there are 58 guys within 3 of Tiger's on the PGA (although I'm not sure what "adjusted" scoring average is).

But my argument doesn't hinge on every stat going my way. My point is that Elling was too quick to dismiss Ochoa's competition and hence underestimated the obstacles facing her as she continues on her --- Slam and Grand Slam run. When you take stats out of context--say, by ignoring the fact that, Ochoa has been in the zone about 75% of the time, while the best of her competitors at best have only gotten there about 20% of the time (if that)--it's easy to extrapolate your way to inevitable runaway wins. But as we all learned last week, it's very difficult even for Hall of Fame caliber golfers to maintain that "in the zone" disparity. And when that happens, it's much harder to keep winning streaks going.

The Constructivist said...

Sorry, courtgolf, took so long to respond to Hound Dog that I missed your great comment. I agree with just about all you wrote, except that Elling is actually one of the best golf writers out there. It's just that he spends even less time thinking about the LPGA than Ron Sirak or Doug Ferguson, so when he ventures outside his area of expertise, he makes mistakes. And, as I came around to admitting in the last comment, there is some statistical support for his arguments that he can point to in support of his claims, so it's not like they're completely dumb.

What your comment made me realize is that no matter how you measure it, the top 20 on the LPGA have not had the greatest starts to their year thus far. The next month and change we're going to get a really good sense of who's approaching Ochoa and Sorenstam consistency-wise heading into the LPGA Championship.

On the PGA, we'll see who becomes leader of the pack in Tiger's absence, but except for a week off here and there, Ochoa will be facing everyone down week in and week out. It's a great opportunity for the LPGA to get more attention and respect. I know Elling was trying to contribute to that, so I wasn't as hard on him as I could have been. But it sure would be nice for the big names in golf writing to do their homework on anyone other than Ochoa, Sorenstam, or Wie!

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