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Matching Skillsets to Courses

Course No. PGA 104

Matching Skillsets to Courses

In baseball, players are called five tool prospects based on their diverse set of skills. In basketball, wing players who can post-up, shoot the three and lock down opposing players are revered among general managers. In football, the running back who can run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield are referred to as 3-down backs, or in other words, they can do it all. But what do you call golfers who can bomb the ball off the tee, pick the course apart with their wedge play, get up and down from a garbage can and make crucial five footers for par? You call them rare, as in Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods (circa 2005) rare.

One of the most appealing aspects of golf is that you can never get good enough at any one part of the sport. It is a constant struggle to balance warring factions of your game that won't stop until you've either quit the game, or quit your job. Believe it or not, this is not just true of weekend hackers, but PGA pro's alike. They make a game that gives people heart attacks and breaks up marriages, look so damn easy. Perception is not reality though, especially in this case. PGA players are constantly practicing, which is main reason they are so good. I remember reading an article about Ben Crenshaw—who was one of the best putters of his era—talk about what he did at practice…Putt, Putt, Chip, Putt. It was an ode to the fact that at the end of the day, putting is what buttered his bread. This is a common theme among PGA players, they understand the specific skills that got them to the PGA Tour. And if they stray from that, and all of a sudden start trying to average 300 yards off the tee, when they've been a 285 driver their whole career, well, you end up like Luke Donald, who dropped from #1 in the world in 2011, to #65 this year.

Each week, around 150 players compete in a given tournament, and while they are playing against each other to determine placing, the real opponent for each individual is the golf course. Every golf course is different, and not just in the aesthetic value, but in the grass that makes up the greens, fairways and rough. They differ in the type of sand that fills the bunkers, and more importantly, they differ in length, altitude and geographical setting. Links courses are wide open and windswept, while parkland courses can be tight with tree-lined fairways that both repel the wind and make it swirl around. I am a self-admitted golf nerd, and have spent a lot of time studying golf course architecture. Just like a painter's canvas, course architects use land to sculpt their masterpieces. As each artist has a style, so do course architects, and they present those styles through the shapes of their greens and bunkers, how much—or how little—they manipulate the land, as well as the options they present the player with for each hole, which in turn dictates what type of shot the players must hit. It is these elements that provide character to each course, but they also hold the key to determining what type of golfer can find success.

Understanding the Golf Course

Each week, when I sit down to start my DFS golf research, I begin by studying the course. By now, I am very familiar with many of the courses that host PGA tour events, either by past research, or in some lucky cases, by playing the course themselves. My first instinct is to look at total length, but I've come to understand that in many cases it provides incomplete information. What you really want to know, is what the average length of each different par 3,4,5 is, and to get even more granular, what is the average length if you remove the longest par 5 and par 3, and the two longest par 4's. This piece of information is the difference between starting a guy who averages 310 off the tee, or the guy who is #1 on tour in proximity to hole, but only drives it 290.

Golf Course Characteristics

I categorize players into three different categories based on statistical criteria. The first takes into account Driving Distance and Driving Accuracy, which allows those players to have a distinct advantage on longer courses. The second is based on GIR, Proximity to Hole and Ball-striking, which is meant to reflect players who excel in their mid to short iron play. The last uses Strokes Gained: Putting and an aggregation of Scrambling stats, and those are players who excel with a wedge in their hand and at all facets of putting.

Driving Distance

Driving distance is a key indicator on courses where length is the main protector of par. Courses that fit into this criteria are Torrey Pines South (7,569 yards) and TPC San Antonio (7,522 yards). Typically, these courses find much of their teeth in long par 4's that average over par for the tournament. They also include long par 3's that instead of being a birdie opportunity for most players, end up being a difficult par. The players who are at the top of the list in Total Driving, are afforded a distinct advantage on these courses, as they are continuously hitting nothing more than a 6 or 7 iron, while shorter hitters are left hitting 4 and 5 irons. To further illustrate this point, the top golfer on tour from 175-200 yards is Justin Rose, who averages 27'11" in proximity to hole. The #1 player on tour from 125-150 yards is Marc Leishman, who averages 22'8". The effect of a difference in five feet is huge, and when calculated over the course of four rounds is even bigger. Just remember, it is not the total length of the course, but where the length occurs.

Ball-Striking

While length is not mutually exclusive with the categories that I segregate my golfers into, courses that are not short, and are not long, generally favor those players who excel at ball-striking. Medium length courses are not long enough to give bombers an advantage, but also not short enough to make all things equal off the tee. These are courses where driving accuracy tends to play a big part, but it is usually within the context of setting up the right angles for approach shots. This is often referred to as “target-golf" and places a premium on well struck, accurate irons from the fairway. These courses are marked by small green complexes, or complexes that have large undulations separating the greens into several different smaller target areas. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, which is hosting the Quicken Loans National this week, is a prime example. These types of courses can have a variety of winners, but very rarely are those winner's not excellent ball-strikers. In addition to the other stats I mentioned, I am also looking at the All Around stat, as courses of this nature tend to favor the player with a balanced skillset. They may not do one thing great, but they do everything well.

Short Game

The last category is meant for courses that mitigate any advantage that is had off the tee. These courses also place a premium on accuracy off the tee, as the most important factor for players is to make sure their approach is being hit from the fairway, not the rough, hardpan or bunkers. Players like Zach Johnson excel on these types of courses because they are some of the best wedge players and putters on tour. When all else is equal, the player who can hit his approach shot closest to the flag almost always wins. A good stat to reference when these courses present themselves, is Birdies or Better. This stat tells you who is making the most birdies per round on average, and is a good indicator of success on courses where the majority of the field will have a short iron into most holes.

While there is no doubt that we all gravitate to the best—and favorite—players each week when setting our lineups, I've found the inverse order to be correct. Let the course dictate which players you pick, and I have no doubt that you will see excellent results.