Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Pathways to Success on the LPGA

Hannah Yun and I have already started working on Part II of our interview, but I wanted to elaborate here today on one of my questions to her. I had been thinking about how I would revise my criteria for LPGA success post from September 2008, which suggested that if you were on another tour, you should try to enter LPGA Q-School if your scoring average was near 72, you were going under par at least a third of your rounds, you were averaging at least 3 birdies per round, you were hitting at least 2/3 of your greens in regulation, and you were averaging under 1.80 putts per greens in regulation. Back then, I suggested that meeting 3 of the 5 criteria would be enough to make you a top 40 player on the LPGA. Probably now it would be 4 of the 5. Since the Futures Tour publishes stats only on its top 15 players in each of its statistical categories, I didn't know where Hannah stood with respect to those criteria. But then I realized that I didn't even know something just as important about Hannah's game: just what kind of player was she?

My regular readers will know what I mean by this question. Over the years that I've been golf blogging, I've developed an informal taxonomy of kinds of women's golfers. There are bombers like Lorena Ochoa, Ya Ni Tseng, Michelle Wie, Suzanne Pettersen, Vicky Hurst, Maria Hjorth, and Brittany Lincicome who may struggle with accuracy off the tee more (Lincicome, Wie) or less (Ochoa), but who know how to take advantage of their length; there are straight shooters like Cristie Kerr, Angela Stanford, Brittany Lang, Song-Hee Kim, and Sun Young Yoo who may not be quite as long as the bombers but reach the fairway much more reliably; and there are precision players like Paula Creamer, Ji-Yai Shin, Ai Miyazato, Seon Hwa Lee, Morgan Pressel, and Natalie Gulbis whose games are keyed by their ability to hit the fairway most of the time. Sure, there are players who are difficult to characterize--is Miyazato long enough off the tee to be considered a straight shooter instead of a precision player?--and the lines between kinds of players aren't that hard and fast. But generally the bombers average around 270 yards and hit the fairway less than 65% of the time; the straight shooters average between 255 and 265 yards and hit the fairway between 65% and 75% of the time; and the precision players average under 255 yards and hit the fairway over 75% of the time. In other words, to be successful on the LPGA, as all of the players I've named have been, you need to be more accurate the shorter a hitter you are and longer the less accurate a ball striker you are. It's not just about how many of the criteria for success on the LPGA that you meet, then, but how you meet them and what combination of ballstriking skills you meet them with.

So let me put to my readers some of the questions I put to Hannah. What do you think of this breakdown? What other categories of players or styles of play would you identify on the LPGA and other women's professional tours? Here's one I didn't ask Hannah: how would you suggest I incorporate putting into this taxonomy? In one sense, it's pretty variable, as most players have good runs and not-so-good runs with the flat stick and their averages can vary quite a bit from year to year. In another, there are definitely some players who have shown that they can maintain their touch on the greens over the years, such as Cristie Kerr and Inbee Park. Park is a good example here, because she doesn't stand out stats-wise with respect to ballstriking--she's either a not-very-straight-shooter or a very imprecise precision player--yet she's consistently one of the best on tour in putting (and not just because she's getting up and down a lot). Is she just an anomaly, or are there other players like her on tour?


Mike said...

I wrote a book on putting, so I can tell you what I think... but I don't know that it matches up to what players actually do. I'll explain why later.

From a technical standpoint, precision players should be the best putters, followed by straight shooters, with bombers bringing up the rear. The reason for this is pretty straightforward: The longer players tend to get their extra distance by twisting their forearms at impact, a move that can destroy a putting stroke. By comparison, precision hitters tend to hit the ball pretty straight, a function of quiet forearms.

It doesn't always work out this way because many (maybe even most) players approach putting with an entirely different mindset. They don't see the connection between the two swings, so they don't exploit the benefits one can give to the other. The main player I can think of who did understand this was Jack Nicklaus, who was long and accurate in his full game, and also an incredible putter. In his book Golf My Way he stressed quiet forearms.

Still, you might try comparing their putting stats with their "taxonomy." Cristie Kerr is probably most like Jack, in that she may be the longest, most accurate hitter who putts well; but based on your list in this post, it certainly seems that the bombers tend to be the streakiest putters, while the precision hitters tend to be the most consistent.

The Constructivist said...

I'm very curious about Michelle Wie's putting stats. I know she gets a lot of grief from TV commentators and fans, but she has a very low putts per green in regulation rate and ranks highly in Hound Dog's total putting stats. What's your take on her putting, Mike? Is her high birdie rate more a function of how good she is with her wedges and short irons--does she just give herself shorter birdie putts than most? Part of the problem is that the LPGA doesn't have the resources, or apparently the inclination, to keep all the stats the PGA Tour does....

Mike said...

Once you get a reputation for something, people refuse to accept when it changes. I compared Sergio and Phil this way in a post once. Phil has a reputation as a good putter, so if he goes 3 months and can't sink a putt, he's just "hit a bad patch, it won't last." Sergio, on the other hand, has a rep as a poor putter; so if he putts lights out for 6 or 9 months, people will still be saying, "he's doing ok right now, I only hope it lasts." It has nothing to do with their putting and everything to do with people's expectations.

Same with Michelle. She's a good putter who's struggled at times with her mechanics, so she's a bit streaky. Short game and putting are essentially identical strokes; take your putting setup, move the ball back a bit and turn your hands on the grip so your wrists are in a stronger position, and the strokes are virtually identical from that point on. She's at the point now where I think it's mainly a matter of feel, because Stockton cleared up the mechanical questions for her. When she's on, she "ham & eggs" it -- a good chip for a tap-in, or a so-so chip with a good long putt. On days when she feels it consistently, the rest of the girls are in trouble.

The Constructivist said...

Interesting! I was thinking less about her chipping--you're talking mostly about what I think of as run shots rather than pitches, right?--but the fact that Wie probably has a wedge in her hands for her approach shots more often than most on the LPGA. My sense of her 40-100-yard game is that it's already very strong. Am I right about that? If so, it stands to reason that she's seeing a lot more birdie putts under 15 feet than a lot of players. So she's probably 3-putting much less often and 1-putting much more often, right?

Mike said...

You're exactly right, she's got a very strong short game, whether you're talking about putting, chipping, or pitching. When you're solid in all three, you aren't going to 3-putt much at all.

Actually, pitching and chipping are not that different. Take the chipping setup I mentioned earlier, add a bit more upper body turn and a bit of wrist cock, VOILA! You've got a pitching stroke, and it's still very similar to the original putting stroke. The fundamentals change very little as the stroke gets longer -- you just make some minor adjustments to allow for the extra length of the swing. That consistency from swing to swing in her short game is why I think she's so good.

It seems to me that when Michelle gets in trouble, it's not because of her short game, but because she hit into a nearly impossible lie from which to get up and down. Once she starts swinging as freely from the fairway as she does in her short game, she's gonna be really tough to beat!