Who Should Davis Love Choose? A Statistical Analysis

September 8, 2016

The Ryder Cup may be three weeks away, but captain’s picks are approaching. On Monday, Captain Davis Love III will select three Americans to add to his team of eight qualifiers. In a recent press conference, Love noted how the decision will be based on several factors: stats, potential partners, recent form, etc.

Since data will function as a major cog on Love’s second trip down the Ryder Cup river, we decided to dig deeper. The chart below shows the strokes gained averages by each player this season according to four categories: Off the Tee, Approach the Green, Around the Green and Putting. Think of it as a representation of each player’s relative skill per category this year.

Only two players (Will McGirt is slighted by a barely negative average Around the Green) have positive averages across all categories: Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar. Both players have shown they aren’t one-category wonders like Bubba Watson (driving) or Daniel Summerhays (putting). Because of their diverse strengths, Fowler and Kuchar can reasonably be paired with anyone. As Love has mentioned many times, that makes them valuable; players like Fowler and Kuchar are an asset, particularly in foursomes (alternate shot). 

The chart illustrates Bubba Watson’s tee-box dominance — and how far his putting lags behind. In 2012, Love selected Steve Stricker and Brandt Snedeker for their putting abilities, and he has again mentioned his desire to find players who are feeling good about the flatstick. “You don’t want to miss out on a guy that’s hot,” Love said in July. “A guy can get a hot putter the last two or three weeks, and you might just want to throw him in there at the last minute.” Today, Bubba Watson is not that guy.

So, who exactly is hot? It is easy to be fooled by season-long results. Not all T5s (and especially not all missed cuts) are the same.

The chart below illustrates the performance of 16 prospective captain’s picks in terms of average strokes gained per round, from the last six weeks (the PGA Championship through the Deutsche Bank). Note: all 16 players played at least four Tour events during that period. 

From this group, Ryan Moore has played better golf than anyone else, gaining more than 1.5 strokes on the field per round since the start of the PGA. On the other end, Charley Hoffman has been shockingly poor. The difference in their recent form is lost in season long statistics and rankings, particularly Ryder Cup qualifying points. At the end of qualifying Moore (ranked 20th) was just 3.88 points ahead of Hoffman (ranked 21st), or a miniscule difference of just $3,883 earned on Tour this season. In Ryder Cup qualifying terms, they essentially performed equally. But over the past six weeks, their performances could not be more different.

This distinction shows why Hoffman has played his way out of a captain’s pick, but also calls attention to the next-worst player, J.B. Holmes. Does Holmes, as of late, being considerably worse (on average) than other prospective picks mean that, if he made the team, he won’t make clutch putts like he did back in 2008? It’s impossible to know… but the recent trend is a red flag. 

The chart also reveals more about Mr. 58, Jim Furyk. His Sunday performance at the Travelers was incredible and one of the greatest rounds this season (and all-time). That said, it was only one round, and one historic round that made it very easy to look past his relatively average performance over the entire period. Sample size matters!

The chart blends Furyk’s 58 with his other recent performances, including the last two events that dropped him from the FedEx Cup playoffs. His season is over…unless Davis Love tosses him one of his four available lifelines. It just depends on who (and which stats) the captain loves most.