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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Ryder Cup Lessons, Part 2

Yesterday I looked at some of the specific topics of debate from this Ryder Cup. Today I'd like to look more closely at the team play aspect. Why can a team appear to be so good on paper yet struggle so hard against an apparently inferior team?

And I stress the word apparently. Any of you who have read this blog for a while know that I think the OWGR doesn't tell you much about the players outside the Top 10, as there is generally a greater point differential between 1 and 10 than there is between 10 and 1000. For example, this week #1 Rory McIlroy is at 12.54, #10 Jason Dufner at 5.92... and #1000 Kim Jae-ho at .07. That puts 6.62 points between 1 and 10, but only 5.85 points between 10 and 1000.

So let's take a look at match play in general and team match play in particular. When you think about it, it becomes obvious why "the team on paper" is completely meaningless.

The Most Basic Fact

Look, I know this is going to sound insulting but bear with me: The most basic difference between stroke play and match play is that stroke play counts every stroke while match play doesn't. Yeah, that's stating the obvious but nobody seems to really grasp how deeply this affects the game... or your perception of what makes a good player in match play.

Let's assume a short 3-hole tournament held on par-4 holes, making an even-par "round" of 12. Two players tee it up. Player 1 shoots 4-4-3 for a total of 11; Player 2 shoots 3-7-3 for a total of 13. Player 1 is the clear winner.

Then they play match play over the same 3 holes with the same scores. This time Player 2 wins the first hole, Player 1 wins the second hole, and they tie the third hole -- the match is halved.

You probably say "So what? I know that." And you'd be right. After all, this tells us nothing about who's the better player. Player 1 is clearly more consistent, but Player 2 is "explosive" -- he makes more birdies but occasionally has a bad hole.

But suppose this pattern continues for 18 holes? That is, Player 1 continues to shoot par-par-birdie and Player 2 shoots birdie-triple-birdie over and over until the round ends. (NOTE: Don't get distracted by par-3s and par-5s. With 4 of each on the course, this scoring pattern gives you the same result as 18 par-4s would.) After 18 holes of stroke play, Player 1 cards a 66 and Player 2 cards a 78. I'd say Player 1 is "better on paper," wouldn't you? But after 18 holes of match play -- and this match WILL go 18 -- they still halve the match!

HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE? On paper Player 1 is clearly the better player. But the "paper player" is based on stroke play results, not match play. Perhaps the most shocking observation here is that all Player 2 needs to do to win the match 1up is simply manage a par instead of a 7 on one of the holes he lost. In stroke play he'd still lose badly by posting 75!

In stroke play, consistency seems to mean more than what I'll call "birdie-ability" because two or three bad holes can ruin your chances to win no matter how well you play the other holes. But in match play, the ability to win more holes than your opponent -- regardless of whether you do that with eagles, birdies, pars, or worse -- is more important than consistency. Unless, of course, you consistently make birdies. Then you're the man.

Distance is Overrated

Of course, I'm consistent. I consistently tell you that distance is overrated! This is particularly true in match play. The Euro Team -- especially Luke Donald -- proved just how right I am. Let's just take a look at Luke's singles match against Bubba on Sunday.

Luke never trailed in the match. He made 6 birdies versus 3 for Bubba, and 2 bogeys versus 5 for Bubba. Furthermore, 2 of Bubba's bogeys were on the holes that Luke bogeyed, so Bubba missed 2 chances to make up ground. And, as if that wasn't bad enough, the 2&1 loss could have been 5&4 -- Donald was 4up with 5 to go. Had Donald not missed an eagle putt on 14 and a birdie putt on 15, and had Bubba not holed out from the bunker on 16, this match would have been a blowout.

And bear in mind that Luke did this on a course that was set up to benefit players like Bubba and penalize players like him!

In stroke play, as long as you are an average length hitter, accuracy is definitely more important than distance. That's especially true if you putt well! But in match play, accuracy can be the trump card. The reason is simple: There are at worst only a couple of holes on a long course that you won't be able to reach in regulation. Even if you lose one of those holes by several strokes, it still only puts you 1down. It's much easier to make that up on the other holes.

The Poults Clause

One of my favorite comments after the matches came from Lee Westwood, who announced the addition of a new "Poults Clause" to the Ryder Cup rules. That rule simply says that, going forward, the Euro Team will be made up of 9 qualifiers, 2 Captain's Picks, and Ian Poulter. It's a measure of how important Ian is to the team.

But the question is... why does Ian Poulter, who often struggles in stroke play events, become such a threat in match play? After all, Poults not only has a 12-3-0 Ryder Cup record, but he has also won both the Accenture and Volvo match play events. And this despite being only #26 in the world right now.

Actually, it's not such a perplexing question at all once you understand the differences between stroke play, match play, and Ryder Cup match play. Yes, there are differences between those last two as well.

First, we have to state the obvious: Ian is wired for match play. He's made no secret that he enjoys playing one-on-one, face-to-face with a single opponent or twosome. There have been relatively few truly great match players in history -- Walter Hagen being one of the greatest, having won 5 PGA Championships at match play (4 of those in a row) -- and Ian definitely seems destined to be remembered as one of them. But for Hagen, that killer instinct translated into stroke play as well -- he won 2 US Opens and 4 Open Championships as well. (And 5 Western Opens, which most players considered a major at the time.) Why hasn't it happened for Ian?

At this point in his career, Ian simply makes too many bogeys. (Hagen was wild off the tee, but had a notoriously sharp short game.) He doesn't make a lot of huge scores, but every bogey in stroke play counts as much as a birdie. In match play, sometimes a bogey is as good as a birdie! That's why he hasn't been as dominant in stroke play.

But in match play Ian can make use of another aspect of his game -- he's a streaky player. The 5 birdies he reeled off in the last 5 holes Saturday didn't surprise any Poulter fan. When you add his streaky nature to the fact that bogeys are minimized in match play, it's easy to see how Poults can appear relatively harmless until he gets rolling during the Ryder Cup.

So why hasn't he reeled off several Accenture and Volvo Match Play Championships as well? The reason is simply the format of the matches. In a standard match play tournament, you play single elimination matches -- you lose a match, you're out of the tournament. Although you must win 6 matches in a run for the Accenture title, if you lose the first one your record is 0-1, not 0-6. In addition, if you make it to the 2nd or third round, you'll always have a decent-looking record because you can only have one loss at a match play championship.

At the Ryder Cup, you can lose your first match and still have as many as 4 more. One bad match, caused perhaps by a bad draw, can be offset by good play in the other matches. Ian's record at Ryder Cup will always be more impressive than at the Match Play Championships simply because he doesn't get eliminated at the Ryder Cup... and going forward, he might never get benched again either!

Finally, add in the fact that a partner in the team matches can offset some bad play in the midst of that match... and you've got the perfect recipe for a player like Ian Poulter.

Having said all that, the Americans did pretty much everything right during the team play sessions, giving themselves a 10-6 lead going into the singles. Why couldn't they finish it off?

I'll take a look at that question tomorrow.

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