Tuesday, September 2, 2014

And the Picks Are In

Now that Tom Watson has announced his picks, I didn't do too bad. I got all of Paul McGinley's picks and two of Tom Watson's... and while I thought Bill Haas should be the final US pick, I did say Webb Simpson was his main competition. I'm giving myself 5.5 out of 6. Well done, me!

So, in case you missed it today, here are all of the Captain's Picks. For the Euros:
  1. Stephen Gallacher
  2. Ian Poulter
  3. Lee Westwood
And for the Americans:
  1. Keegan Bradley
  2. Hunter Mahan
  3. Webb Simpson
Two very strong teams for one very exciting competition.

The Limerick Summary: 2014 Deutsche Bank Championship

Winner: Chris Kirk

Around the wider world of golf: Austin Ernst landed her first LPGA victory in a playoff over I.K. Kim at the Portland Classic; Trish Johnson won the Aberdeen Asset Management Ladies Scottish Open on the LET; Hennie Otto won the 71° Open D’Italia on the ET; Fred Couples beat Billy Andrade in a playoff at the Shaw Charity Classic on the Champions Tour; Bud Cauley regained his PGA Tour card by winning the Hotel Fitness Championship at the Web.com Tour Playoffs; Nate McCoy won the Wildfire Invitational in a playoff over Michael Gligic on the PGA TOUR Canada; and Jiyai Shin won the Nitori Ladies on the JLPGA (the Constructivist has details).

Chris Kirk

As is typical at the Deutsche Bank on their traditional Monday finish, players had to go low if they hoped to win the event. Perhaps the only real surprise to most viewers was that Rory McIlroy wasn't part of the charge. Nevertheless, the event didn't disappoint.

The young guns like Chris Kirk, Russell Henley, and Billy Horschel joined experienced players like Geoff Ogilvy and John Senden on a romp around TPC Boston that could best be described as a shootout. On the outside chance that you know nothing about classic Wild West gunfights, movies can be misleading. In a real gunfight most bullets never hit their targets, not even at close range. And in the days before smokeless gunpowder, the clouds of smoke further obscured their targets.

Fortunately for us, the gunslingers at TPC Boston were at least close to their targets -- close enough to provide a few bogey-free rounds. And as you might expect, Chris Kirk shot one of those rounds. His 5-under 66 was good enough to hold off all challengers, especially after Billy Horschel's approach on 18 fell just short of the green.

With his win -- the biggest of his career to this point -- I suppose I could write some classic rhyme focusing on his composure and steady play. But with all of the "Captain Kirk" jokes during the broadcast and the Star Trek movie marathon running Monday on Syfy Channel, how could this week's Limerick Summary turn out any different than this?
Chris Kirk is a star on a trek
To Atlanta. Since Horschel’s ship wrecked,
Captain Kirk’s enterprise
Could end up realized—
He might cling on to win the BIG check!
The photo came from the tournament update page at PGATOUR.com.

Monday, September 1, 2014

My Best Guesses at the Ryder Cup Picks

Although the Deutsche Bank doesn't finish until later today, I'm going to take a shot at picking each Ryder Cup captain's picks. We'll see how good I do when the actual picks are made on Tuesday.

The Ryder Cup itself

Let's start with the European Team since, to be honest, I think Paul McGinley's choices are pretty clear.

There was a lot of drama over whether Stephen Gallacher could oust Graeme McDowell out of the final qualifying spot this week, but that was nothing but smoke. Paul McGinley's NOT an idiot! Gallacher has been playing too well and has too good a record at Gleneagles for McGinley to leave him off the team. Likewise, McDowell couldn't defend his position because he was off welcoming his new little girl into the world. Regardless of who got the spot, the other was going to make the team.

Likewise, I don't see Ian Poulter being left off the team. Poults has been injured for much of the year and is just finally healing up. His play is still a bit sporadic but he's got a month to get his game back in shape... including this week, since he made the secondary cut at Deutsche Bank.

So the only real question is the third spot, which is pretty much between Luke Donald and Lee Westwood. While both have struggled somewhat this year, McGinley needs another experienced player in the team room and doesn't have another standout rookie who might be worth the gamble. And if he has to gamble on a veteran, I think it will be Lee Westwood. Westwood was beginning to show some form near the end of the PGA Tour season while Donald has continued to struggle. Simply put, it's not the best of ideas to make swing changes in a Ryder Cup year and Donald is a classic example of why.

Over on the American side, I think Tom Watson finds himself in a bit of a pickle, albeit a happy one. Several of the American players have responded to Tom's challenge to step up and impress him. Without seeing how they perform today in the final round at Deutsche Bank, I'll have to make some real guesses.

In my opinion, there's one clear choice: Keegan Bradley. Despite the ridiculous amount of pressure Bradley has put on himself -- which I'm sure Tom actually likes -- Keegan has managed to step up his play over the last few weeks. And given how much Phil needs him (yes, I said it -- Phil NEEDS Keegan), I don't think Tom can ignore him. Since he's at #13 in points anyway, I think he's a no-brainer.

The other choices are no longer so clear to me. Here are the ones (with their points ranking) I think still have a chance, along with their current Deutsche Bank position in parentheses:
  • 12: Brendon Todd (MC)
  • 14: Chris Kirk (3)
  • 15: Webb Simpson (6)
  • 18: Ryan Palmer (T7)
  • 24: Gary Woodland (T56)
  • 25: Hunter Mahan (T67)
  • 27: Kevin Streelman (T7)
  • 28: Bill Haas (T11)
  • 33: Russell Henley (1)
  • 35: Billy Horschel (2)
Right now I'm leaning toward Bill Haas and Hunter Mahan. The reason is that these two have been playing the most consistently good golf over the last month or so. In addition, Hunter made 3 of 4 major cuts (missed the US Open) while Bill has made all 4 plus THE PLAYERS. In fact, Haas hasn't missed a cut all year (he did have a WD early on) and if he wins today, I'm sure he's in. Both have great driving, GIR, and putting stats. And though Mahan is struggling a bit this week, I'm not so surprised the week after a win.

As far as the other players go, nobody else has been able to put two good weeks together. (That's why Ryan Moore dropped off my list. Despite his match play record, his scores indicate that he may have peaked a couple of months too early.) And I think the only one of them who's played "well enough" recently to benefit from a win today would be Webb Simpson, who would likely take Bill's spot since the one strike against Bill is a poor showing at this year's Accenture Match Play. (And yes, "well enough" is a relative term. Webb has missed the cut every other week for the last couple of months, but he posted pretty good finishes at the cuts he made.)

So there you have my picks. For the Euros:
  1. Stephen Gallacher
  2. Ian Poulter
  3. Lee Westwood
And for the Americans:
  1. Keegan Bradley
  2. Bill Haas
  3. Hunter Mahan
Tomorrow we'll see how I did!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why the OWGR Is So Misleading

How can a Ryder Cup team be so strong "on paper" and yet get beaten so badly in the actual event?

Since this week's Limerick Summary won't come out until Tuesday (the Deutsche Bank has a Monday finish) and I'm planning to make my Ryder Cup picks on Monday (after I see how the other tournaments finish today), I thought I'd take a few minutes to give my opinion about one of the most confusing conundrums related to the Ryder Cup.

In years past the US team has clearly been the strongest according to their world rankings, yet they haven't played the way those rankings might lead you to expect. Likewise, it's obvious the European team is a little nervous about being the strongest on paper this year and are trying to downplay it a bit. I think there's a feeling that your OWGR rankings can be a jinx!

If you want to understand why the OWGR isn't necessarily a good indicator of Ryder Cup potential, you have to realize that all ranking systems make certain assumptions... and those assumptions may not be completely accurate. The OWGR makes a couple of these assumptions, and most analysts never even recognize them.

The first assumption -- and, I believe, the most flawed one -- is the belief that strength of field alone is sufficient for a world ranking system. Although this assumption is never directly mentioned, you hear it voiced when someone complains about "playing the rankings."

For example, if the World #1 plays in a Japan Tour event -- an event where the ranking points awarded for a win would normally be quite low compared to a PGA Tour event -- and then he wins that event (which you would expect if the #1 is really that much better than the rest of the field), the World #1 is "padding his points total" by artificially inflating the number of available points at that event.

This is also why some folks complain about small fields (like Tiger's World Challenge event) getting ranking points. The small number of highly-ranked players creates a large pool of world ranking points that will be divided among them, thus giving them a disproportionate boost in the OWGR.

However, this is only one way in which the OWGR is skewed by the strength of field measure. While you can artificially boost your ranking if you play the numbers, the system can also hide player improvement by keeping their points artificially low.

This is why the European players "suddenly" became top-ranked players. Let me explain.

There is a very real difference between American golf and European golf. (Forgive me for lumping the rest of the world under the "European" label, but it makes this post easier to write. Besides, we are talking Ryder Cup here!) American golf is "target golf" -- the ball is played primarily through the air, flown a specific distance to a specific spot, and made to land softly. European golf, on the other hand, is often played "along the ground," which simply means there is no one prescribed way to get the ball close to the hole. A wider variety of skills is required if you hope to take the best scoring option.

Perhaps the classic example of this disparity is how long it took Phil Mickelson to get good enough to win an Open Championship. Despite a consistently high position in the OWGR, Euro golf requires a set of skills that even a wizard like Phil struggles to master. In fact, you may have noticed that Euro players have more success adapting to American golf than American golfers have adapting to Euro golf.

And that's where the OWGR's strength of field measure falls short.

The OWGR assumes that the best players are in America although you could argue that the style of golf here is easier to learn and excel at. American courses may be better groomed than many Euro courses, but they don't require the variety of shots that Euro courses do.

As a result, the OWGR has historically awarded Euro players fewer points for an equivalent finish than American players received, even when the skill levels of the Euro players were improving more quickly. By the time the Euro players had climbed high enough in the rankings to qualify for the majors and WGC events, their skill levels were much higher than those of an equivalently-ranked American player. Their OWGR rankings -- awarded by the strength of field measure alone -- were not an accurate indication of their playing skills.

In other words, the OWGR unintentionally causes certain players to be sandbaggers by undervaluing their skill levels. And those skills give them a real advantage, especially in the Ryder Cup.

The second assumption -- which represents a misunderstanding by the rest of us as much as it does a flaw in the OWGR -- is that stroke play rankings accurately predict match play ability. The OWGR values consistent play over streaky play, which is a logical approach to stroke play.

While everyone wants to win, our game (predominantly stroke play) is different from most other sports (which are predominantly match play). We don't often play one-on-one, which typically produces one winner and one loser, at the professional level. Rather, we most frequently play one-on-150, and a player may play extremely well yet win only once every two or three years... if that often.

There simply HAS to be some way to rank those who don't win. The OWGR is our response to that aspect of our game. Shooting -8 is a better finish than shooting +2, so we award ranking points accordingly.

However, that mindset is flawed when we approach match play. Consider this:

Stroke play is an absolute measure of performance; as I said, shooting -8 is a better finish than shooting +2. We know that because we are measuring scores against an absolute scale. That -8 is always better than a +2.

But that's not necessarily true in match play. While the scores of two competitors will rarely be so wide apart, the way matches are scored -- winning or losing a hole -- means that all strokes are not created equal. It's possible for a match play winner to take more strokes than his losing opponent, depending on how the strokes fell and on which holes.

In addition, your opponent's play is the measure of your play, not an absolute scale. You might win your match with a +2 stroke score while another player might lose their match while shooting -8. Scores are relative in match play.

The streaky player who doesn't score well consistently may have a weak OWGR ranking yet be a beast in the Ryder Cup because of his ability to "catch fire" and win a couple of key matches. Likewise, the consistent player with a strong OWGR ranking may find himself struggling to make enough birdies at the right moment to steal the winning match.

When it comes to the Ryder Cup, the OWGR is of limited value in predicting the winner. Highly-ranked players may improve your team's odds of victory, but it's the lightning bolts -- can you say Ian Poulter? -- who typically change the balance of power at critical moments.

That's why the OWGR has been so misleading when attempting to predict Ryder Cup winners... and perhaps why the Euro team has been downplaying their "paper advantage" recently. They know the real power players in match play rarely dominate the OWGR's stroke play rankings.

And this year, unlike other years, I think the US team may have gotten enough of our streaky players through the qualifying system to make the Euros a little nervous.

I'll make my Captain's picks for both teams tomorrow.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

So Yeon Ryu Is Going for Two

While the PGA Tour is just getting started (they have a Monday finish this week), the LPGA is well underway with the Portland Classic. And while I.K. Kim has a 3-shot lead on the field and is certainly playing like a champion -- she's shot 65-67 so far -- So Yeon Ryu is in position to make a run at her second win in a row.

So Yeon Ryu

Ryu sits at -8 (T5) with only Mi Jung Hur, Carlota Ciganda, and Laura Diaz between her and Kim. Both Kim and Ryu have won this year -- Kim's win came at the ISPS HANDA Ladies European Masters on the LET in early July -- and both have done so in dominating fashion. It won't be a surprise if either wins.

Neither is a sure bet yet. Defending champ Suzann Pettersen is T10 at -6, as is Anna Nordqvist (and Juli Inkster, who has a very good record at the Portland Classic), and Shanshan Feng is only one shot farther back. However, since most of the other players around them are unproven down the stretch, you have to feel that one of the favorites will have to stumble if anyone else is to have a chance.

Right now, it looks like a fairly small group of likely winners. The course is playing hard and fast, and players are having a tough time putting two low rounds together.

One other thing to consider is the Rolex Player of the Year competition. While Lydia Ko has pretty much locked up Rookie of the Year, the POY race is a long way from settled. According to Neal Reid at LPGA.com, there are 6 players very much in the running (their point totals follow their names):
  1. Stacy Lewis, 200
  2. Inbee Park, 169
  3. Michelle Wie, 151
  4. Lydia Ko, 128
  5. Lexi Thompson, 104
  6. Anna Nordqvist, 100
So Yeon Ryu -- in 7th place with 85 points -- could put herself in the mix with a win this week. (The win is worth 30 points, with 2nd claiming only 12 points.) And with none of the Top5 playing this week, this is an excellent chance for Nordqvist and Ryu to really move up the list. Ryu could reach fifth place (115) while Nordqvist could get to fourth (130).

And in case you wonder, Pettersen and Feng could only move up to around 95-100 points with a win. But with the Evian being worth 60 points...!

I like both Kim and Ryu's chances of winning this week. But will Ryu's desire to get in the POY race overcome Kim's birdie barrage? We'll just have to see. GC's broadcast starts at 7pm ET tonight.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Trailing Foot Shuffle for Better Iron Play

This is one of the more interesting tips I've found recently. It comes from Golf Magazine's Top100 Teacher Brian Manzella, and he says it will help you hit irons like Henrik Stenson.

I don't know about that... but I can see where it could help you improve your footwork.



About that "pushing up at impact" bit... I know that's one way to increase your swing speed but the timing always seems a bit tricky to me. If you want to try that, it's up to you. It's your practice time!

However, I think Brian's idea about lifting your trailing foot briefly to start your backswing could really help some of you. Far too many of you freeze over the ball -- it's amazing that pigeons don't roost on you during your setup! But hand movements like waggles and forward presses don't always help, either.

Moving your feet gets your whole body moving, and that can really help your swing rhythm. And note that Brian says you don't have to move your trailing foot much -- just high enough to slip a piece of paper under it. I don't know how well some of you would feel that, but you might try lifting your trailing heel just a bit above the ground, then "push it down" to start your backswing. That might also help you keep from swaying as much. You want a small weight shift, not a big one!

If you have trouble with getting your backswing started, Brain Manzella's little shuffle just might help you improve your footwork. It's certainly worth a try.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Ladies Prepare for Their Final Major

Since the Deutsche Bank has a Monday finish, there's no reason for any of you to miss this week's LPGA event -- especially since it's live in prime time.

The LPGA heads up to Portland OR for their final event before the Evian, their fifth and final major of 2014. With a week's break between the two, this is an excellent opportunity for someone to double dip. Suzann Pettersen did so last year, winning the Portland Classic and the Evian.

Suzann Pettersen kisses last year's Portland Classic trophy

I'll be interested to see if So Yeon Ryu can triple dip. After winning wire-to-wire last week against a much stronger field -- Tony Jesselli's preview ranks this week's strength at 56% VS 81% last week -- and with next week off to recover, Ryu could conceivably pull a McIlroy and go three in a row.

Conceivably. That remains to be seen, of course. With Stacy Lewis, Inbee Park, and Lydia Ko all taking the week off, Pettersen and Ryu are the top players in the field... and paired together for the first two days (along with Anna Nordqvist).

An interesting note (at least, I thought it was interesting): The Web.com Tour played in Portland last week, at the Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club where the LPGA has played the US Women's Open in 1997 and 2003 (and yes, it was the same Witch Hollow course that the Web.com Tour used last week). However, the Portland Classic (formerly the Safeway Classic) was played at Pumpkin Ridge's Ghost Creek Course from 2009-2012, and has been played at the Columbia Edgewater Country Club since last year.

Here's the interesting bit. Suzann won at Ghost Creek in 2011 and Columbia Edgewater last year... and she told the media folks she doesn't really like either of them!
Q. You know, you won here last year. You've won at Pumpkin Ridge, two really different kinds of courses. But is this a good fit for you because of your ability to shape shots?
SUZANN PETTERSEN: Well, Pumpkin Ridge I never really liked, and this one I never really liked either (laughs) until I won.
Suzann also said that this is an "old, traditional golf course... a driver's course" and that anybody who hits the fairways should get a lot of good looks at birdie. (Perhaps this will be another good week for Mo Martin!)

This is one of the weeks that Charley Hull will be playing the LPGA as well, so it looks like it could be an interesting week. GC has three hours of live coverage today starting at 6:30pm ET. Don't forget that this is the last event before the Evian, so you don't want to miss it.