The opening weeks of 2016 offer Tour pros more than balmy weather and a chance to knock off the winter rust — for a select few, it’s an opportunity to hit courses that play to their strengths.
Specifically, racking up birdies in bunches.
Waialae Country Club, site of this week’s Sony Open, is one of the more gettable courses on Tour. In the last five years, the average winning score is 19 under par. Of the 45 PGA Tour venues played during 2015, Waialae ranks as the 14th-easiest relative to par since 2011, followed immediately by the host courses of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-am. In fact, the top three courses on the list are West Coast events: Kapalua, the Palm Springs courses (host of the former Bob Hope/Humana now Career Builder Challenge) and TPC Scottsdale (host of the Waste Management Phoenix Open).
So does a certain type of golfer flourish in easy conditions relative to his normal performance? My research says yes. I examined performance from 2008 to 2015 and collected tournament-by-tournament results for each qualifying PGA Tour golfer. I measured each golfer’s performance relative to his typical performance. In other words, if Jordan Spieth normally beats the field by 2.5 strokes and he beats the field by 4.4 strokes at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, he is credited for exceeding his normal performance by 1.9 strokes.
I then aggregated each golfer’s results between easy courses (the 25% of rounds that rated as easiest relative to par), average courses (the 50% of rounds in the middle), and hard courses (the 25% of rounds that rated as the most difficult relative to par). When you compare the results of golfers whose games are more defined by making birdies rather than avoiding bogeys — think J.B. Holmes, Dustin Johnson, or Sang-Moon Bae — their performance was better on easy courses. In other words, their birdie-making abilities were more important on easy courses compared to middle and hard courses. The reverse was true for golfers who tend to avoid bogeys rather than ring up birdies, like Jim Furyk, Francesco Molinari, or Russell Knox. Their results on easier courses lagged behind the harder events.
So which golfers thrive the most on easier courses? Steve Stricker leads the class. Stricker is probably best known for his back-to-back-to-back victories at the John Deere Classic (held at the fifth-easiest course on Tour). His last win came at Kapalua, the second-easiest course, in 2013. One reason for Stricker’s success might be that easier courses are shorter, which provide more chances to hit wedges into greens from 125 yards in. Stricker has been consistently one of the best at that shot during his late-career resurgence. Stricker has also played well in limited starts the last two seasons, so he could be one to keep an eye on this week.
Scott Piercy is another standout. Piercy has played nearly a full stroke better in easy rounds, including a victory at the Barbasol Championship, the Tour’s fourth-simplest venue.
On the opposite side, Adam Scott clearly struggles at easy courses, where he’s played more than half a stroke worse per round. Scott enters the Sony Open aiming to kick-start his first season in years without the anchored putter, so he seems like an even worse bet than usual.
Among the golfers who have excelled on harder courses are Tiger Woods (this dataset includes his pre-scandal performance in 2008 and 2009) and Justin Rose. The trio of Scott, Woods, and Rose all stand out for their phenomenal long-iron play. Longer courses like Bay Hill (Arnold Palmer Invitational), Torrey Pines (Farmers Insurance Open), and most major venues all feature more long iron shots than Tour average. So while this part of the calendar may be tough on those players, rest assured, their time will come.