Burning Questions: Fast starts, the best under-the-radar player, Paul Casey's injury

Wednesday January 11th, 2012
K.J. Choi (left) earned more money in 2011 than Mark Wilson, who won two of the first five PGA Tour events.
Choi, Fred Vuich/SI; Wilson, Kohjiro Kinno/SI

1. How much significance should we read into a player's performance in early-season events?
Every golfer wants to begin his year with a fast start, shoot some low rounds and, hopefully, win a tournament like Steve Stricker did at Kapalua on Monday. But a fast start doesn't guarantee that a player is primed for a great year.
 
For example, Mark Wilson won two of the first five PGA Tour events in 2011, but he was never a factor again. In fact, Wilson missed the cut at the Masters and U.S. Open, tied for 63rd at the British Open, and then tied for 26th at the PGA Championship. A lot of pros will never have a two-win season so Wilson's accomplishment is impressive, but you can't overlook that he missed seven cuts after winning at TPC Scottsdale in February.
 
Conversely, K.J. Choi's two best performances before the 2011 Masters were a tie for seventh at Riviera and a tie for sixth at Bay Hill. But after tying for eighth in Augusta, he tied for third in New Orleans, won the Players, was runner-up at the AT&T National, and tied for third at the Tour Championship.
 
For the year, Wilson earned $3.15 million on the PGA Tour. Choi made $4.43 million.
 
So the bottom line is a fast start to the season is great and can give a player confidence, but solid play through the whole season is what every PGA pro strives for.
 
2. The American golf media seems fixated on Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, but who is the best player out there that no one pays attention to?
I hear this one a lot, and when the TV networks show every shot that Tiger hits—even when he's not in contention—it's a fair beef. That said, Woods and Mickelson also have the biggest followings, so someone could argue that the networks are just giving a lot of people what they want.
 
I used to think Tim Clark was the best player that flew under the radar, but then he won the 2010 Players. Heading into last season I would have said it was Nick Watney, but he's won multiple PGA Tour events, including a World Golf Championship at Doral last season, so a lot of people now recognize that he's got a huge game.
 
These days I think Martin Laird is the guy most deserving of more ink. The Scot went to Colorado State, and got married last summer in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and has won twice on the PGA Tour, most recently at the 2011 Arnold Palmer Invitational.
 
If you look at his 2011 stats, aside from his driving average, nothing would make you think big performances lie in his future.
 

Stat Laird's 2011 PGA Tour
Driving Distance 13th (303)
Driving Accuracy 134th (58.51%)
Greens in Regulation 61st (66.59%)
Scrambling 60th (59.08%)
Total Putting 29th
All-Around 18th
Scoring Average 17th (70.17)
 
But what gets my attention, and makes me think Laird has a lot of upside going forward, is his 71.44 fourth-round scoring average. That ranks 136th on the PGA Tour, yet Laird still earned six top-10 finishes in 2011.
 
If Laird can tighten up his iron game and develop a better finishing kick over the final 18 holes of tournaments, he is going to win a lot more and contend for a spot on the 2012 European Ryder Cup team. His runner-up performance at this season's Hyundai Tournament of Champions was no fluke.
 
3. Paul Casey dislocated his right shoulder while snowboarding after Christmas. What will this mean for his 2012 season?
Did a dozen black cats strut in front of this guy a while back? Casey reached No. 3 in the Official World Golf Rankings in the spring of 2009 and then sustained a rib injury before the start of the British Open. He was forced to miss several events, including the PGA Championship at Hazeltine, toward the end of that season. Then he injured his thumb, and that was followed last year by a turf toe injury that forced him to miss more tournaments. Sadly, Casey  got divorced a few months ago, too.

Paul Casey
Kohjiro Kinno/SI
Paul Casey
 
According to Peter Kostis (a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher, CBS on-course analyst and Casey's longtime coach), the Englishman's right arm is out of a sling and he's started rehabilitation. He plans to see his doctor again in about three weeks, but until then, Casey can only do a little putting. Kostis says Casey has been cleared to ride a recumbent bike, but riding his beloved mountain bikes is not allowed.
 
"The problem with the shoulder is that there are so many small muscles in there that are intricate and the rehab on them can be very, very difficult,” says Kostis. But the good news is that the golf swing strains a right-handed golfer's right shoulder less than his left shoulder, so trying to stay positive, Kostis says things could have been worse.
 
At this point, no one, including Casey, knows exactly when or where he will make his 2012 debut.
 
“I've never seen a player come back too late, I've only seen players come back too early,” says Kostis. “He already wants to do some things, and I've said to him, 'Paul, you can't do that.'" The coach hopes to channel the athlete's frustration into motivation for what will be a shortened season. When he's physically able to play, Kostis wants Casey to be chomping at the bit and have a re-kindled love for both practicing and competing.
 
Team Casey hopes that he will be able to compete at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship (which starts Feb. 22), but everything depends on how Casey's shoulder reacts to rehabilitation.
 
4. Bombers get all the glory on the PGA Tour, but it's the best putters who make all the money. Right?
The adage, "You drive for show but putt for dough," has probably been around since the first big-hitting Scot lost a few pence to a plinker who knocked a 15-footer into a rabbit's hole. But in an era of nuclear powered drivers, golf balls that can fly forever and athletic golfers, distance off the tee seems to be paramount for success.
 
To see who has the advantage, the longest drivers or the best putters, take a look at the chart below which lists the top 15 players on the 2011 PGA Tour money list, along with their average driving distances and their rank in Total Putting, a stat that combines how well a golfer putts from six different distance ranges.

 
  Driving Distance Total Putting Money Earned
Luke Donald 284.1 (T147th) 2nd $6,683,214
Webb Simpson 296.2 (T51st) 40th $6,347,353
Nick Watney 301.9 (16th) 7th $5,290,673
K.J. Choi 285.6 (134th) 109th $4,434,691
Dustin Johnson 314.2 (3rd) 172nd $4,309,961
Matt Kuchar 286.2 (128th) 22nd $4,233,920
Bill Haas 296.6 (T48th) 47th $4,088,637
Steve Stricker 288.8 (124th) 3rd $3,992,785
Jason Day 302.6 (14th) 14th $3,962,647
David Toms 279.1 (175th) 21st $4,858,090
Adam Scott 299.7 (24th) 137th $3,764,797
Phil Mickelson 299.8 (T22nd) 108th $3,763,488
Keegan Bradley 300.7 (20th) 110th $3,758,600
Brandt Snedeker 287 (124th) 10th $3,587,206
Hunter Mahan 291.6 (T84th) 42nd $3,503,540
 
What this chart shows is that the big hitters and the best putters can both make money onTour. However, if you don't crush the ball off the tee, you'd better be able to roll the rock.
 
Luke Donald is not going to have a big week with his driver and suddenly find 20 more yards off the tee, but long hitters can, and do, have hot weeks with their putter. Those are the weeks when they're tough to beat.
 
For example, Adam Scott averaged 26.5 putts per round during his winning week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, almost three shots better than his 29.39 season average. Over four rounds, Scott was almost 12 shots better than his average.
 
Similarly, while the Barclays was shortened to 54 holes, Dustin Johnson had one of his best weeks on the greens, averaging only 28 putts per round. That was 1.56 shots better than his season average, so through three rounds Johnson was more than four shots better on the greens.
 
So it appears week in and week out, great putters have the advantage, but when the big hitters have a hot putting week, they hoist the hardware.

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