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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Ryder Cup Musings: Spieth VS Na VS Poulter VS Horschel

In the second of these posts about why I think Team USA struggles at the Ryder Cup I promised you a free-for-all. Today we're going to compare four different players -- two Captain's Picks who I think we can all agree are solid picks and two players who are often considered similar in attitude but have never been picked:

  • Team USA pick Jordan Spieth
  • Team Europe pick Ian Poulter, aka "the Postman"
  • Kevin Na
  • Billy Horschel

The attitude similarity is important. All four of these players are considered 'bulldogs' who never give up. Poulter is the GOAT here with a 14-6-2 record (15 points) in six appearances, four of which required Captain's Picks. He has NEVER been defeated in singles (5-0-1). Jordan Spieth's record of 7-5-2 in three appearances is somewhat amazing in that he has NEVER won in singles (0-3-0).

I'm comparing Na and Horschel to these two, not to try and prove either should be picked for a Ryder Cup team, but simply to compare them to successful Captain's Picks and see if they measure up. The following table compares a variety of aspects in their games. Hopefully we'll discover what makes Spieth and especially Poulter so valuable in a Ryder Cup.

Yes, I know I said that "Statistics lie" in my previous post and here I am posting a bunch of stats. What I've tried to do is pick stats that are basically simple percentages (for example, how many of their drives hit the fairway) or simple averages (total distance of drives hit divided by total number of drives). Averages don't tell you the longest or shortest of whatever is being averaged, of course, so I've tried to add other numbers that might provide a bit more perspective. Still, I mention this to remind you that no stats can tell you everything, no matter how carefully you choose them.

That said, let's take a look at the basic stats I chose. All stats come from the pgatour.com stats pages and show the results at the end of the TOUR Championship.

  • OWGR and FedExCup rankings: At the end of the PGA Tour season.
  • Driving stats: I chose to use the "all drives" stats rather than the stats for specifically measured holes, as those tend to skew longer. I wanted an idea of how the guys play their regular drives.
  • GIR stats: Not only the general GIR stat, but stats from a few specific distances to show how playing from closer to the green improves their percentage. Ideally you'd like all of these percentages to be high numbers. I also added a stat that includes shots that land on the fringe since those lies are often as easy as putts.
  • Proximity to hole: From the fairway, from the rough, and from 50-75 yards.
  • Average approach distance: I find these interesting. How long are their typical approach shots to the green that result in birdies, pars and bogeys? Note that the birdies typically come from longer shots -- perhaps because the shorter shots are the result of bad shots that require scrambling.
  • Scrambling: From 20 yards and in, and from bunkers.
  • Putting: From various distances, plus the length of the putt made for birdie. The Birdie or better conversion stat tells how often they successfully make a birdie putt. And with the Average Distance of Birdie Putts, longer distances mean you make longer putts for birdie.
  • Scoring: Average score for a normal round and for their final round.

The numbers in parentheses beneath the stats show how the Tour lists their rank. I think this is important because it shows how misleading these numbers can be. For example, in the Scoring Average Actual stat, you can see that the difference between #28 and #76 -- 48 players -- is .64, less than two/thirds of a putt. So Horschel really isn't that much worse than Na in this stat.

Now that you know what's in the table, here it is.

PGA Tour
Stat
PGA Tour
Average
Jordan
Spieth
Kevin
Na
Ian
Poulter
Billy
Horschel
OWGR Rank 09/12/21 - 14 25 49 18
FedExCup Rank
(end of season)
- 20 3 77 9
Driving Distance
All Drives
289.8 yd 295.1
(45)
281.9
(T180)
282.4
(179)
290.2
(94)
Driving Accuracy
Percentage
60.69% 53.92%
(180)
66.56%
(35)
66.33%
(36)
65.70%
(42)
Driving %
300+ yds
All Drives
36.10% 44.17%
(51)
22.61%
(176)
23.89%
(T171)
33.75%
(112)
Driving %
320+ yds
All Drives
12.10% 13.98%
(T60)
5.70%
(166)
4.83%
(T178)
10.04%
(T105)
GIR % 65.14% 64.58%
(T139)
64.11%
(152)
60.88%
(190)
66.47%
(86)
Greens or Fringe
in Regulation
71.22% 70.57%
(127)
71.30%
(114)
65.86%
(190)
71.90%
(T105)
GIR %
175-200 yd
54.96% 48.15%
(188)
52.04%
(143)
48.84%
(185)
61.09%
(29)
GIR %
100-125 yd
75.18% 72.97%
(141)
78.57%
(T57)
78.57%
(T57)
81.75%
(15)
GIR %
<75 yd
87.35% 85.04%
(161)
87.92%
(T98)
82.14%
(185)
85.57%
(T151)
Rough
Proximity
45' 7" 44' 9"
(T80)
49' 6"
(T185)
47' 8"
(166)
51' 1"
(193)
Proximity
to Hole
37' 1" 38' 10"
(T167)
37' 0"
(T108)
39' 4"
(T177)
39' 5"
(179)
Average Proximity from
50-75 yd
15' 10" 10' 1"
(6)
18' 0"
(160)
10' 4"
(9)
16' 3"
(124)
Average
Approach
Distance
for Birdie
179.9 174.8
(T51)
180.8
(T105)
183.3
(141)
184.6
(T152)
Average
Approach
Distance for Par
165 yd 169.3
(T180)
169.6
(184)
168.9
(T176)
168.1
(T171)
Average
Approach
Distance
for Bogey
164.7 161.2
(T40)
170.3
(T172)
166.0
(115)
161.2
(T40)
Scrambling %
from 10-20 yd
63.85% 66.15%
(76)
70.48%
(17)
71.75%
(8)
65.54%
(88)
Scrambling %
from <10 yd
85.80% 83.51%
(146)
93.75%
(8)
96.92%
(1)
92%
(T21)
Scrambling %
General
57.94% 61.32%
(42)
65.12%
(4)
64.30%
(9)
59.38%
(85)
Sand Save %
General
50.05% 55.93%
(35)
59.60%
(12)
51.88%
(T79)
61.60%
(8)
Putts / Round 29.1 28.05
(5)
27.91
(4)
27.86
(3)
28.86
(89)
Putting %
from inside 5'
96.70% 96.29%
(145)
96.98%
(T81)
98.03%
(11)
98.56%
(1)
Putting %
from 10-15'
30.19% 29.65%
(114)
33.50%
(52)
31.47%
(77)
35.26%
(25)
Putting %
from <20'
7.18% 9.62%
(9)
7.23%
(T95)
9.06%
(T24)
5.70%
(171)
Average
Distance
of Birdie Putts
9' 5" 9' 3"
(T112)
9' 0"
(T131)
10' 2"
(T28)
8' 11"
(T137)
Birdie or Better
Conversion %
30.23% 36.06%
(4)
32.63%
(43)
31.93%
(T61)
30.51%
(103)
Scoring Average
Actual
70.95 69.94
(31)
69.86
(28)
70.46
(T72)
70.50
(76)
Scoring Average
Final Round
70.62 71.00
(T134)
70.05
(59)
70.69
(114)
71.35
(161)

One thing you'll learn quickly is that, although most of these guys are considered short hitters, look at how long some of their shots are. Take Poulter for example. While his 282 yards of the tee puts him near the bottom of the Tour's distance list, he still hits nearly a quarter of his drives (23.89%) over 300 yards!

In fact, this table makes it very clear why Poulter is so good... and it's neither his driving nor his approach shots. He's actually below average in those areas. Where he excels is in putting and scrambling. He's 9th in Proximity to the Hole from 75 yards and in, no worse than 9th in scrambling from 20 yards and in, 3rd in Putts per Round, T28th in the length of his typical birdie putt, and 11th Putting from 5' and in. And if that wasn't enough, his Final Round Scores are almost identical to his regular rounds, which backs up the idea that he thrives under pressure.

While Spieth isn't as good overall, his stats compare pretty well. There are some where he's better than Poulter and some where he's worse, 

What about our two Ryder Cup wannabes?

Although Horschel compares well in some areas, he has obvious gaps in others. For example, while he's longer overall than Poulter and a good putter from inside 15', he struggles with scrambling and proximity to hole. (If you're leaving your approach farther from the hole, you need to be a better putter from long distance.) And we know from experience that he's a streaky player, so that might count against him.

Then again, when he's on a streak he's gold. He is the defending WGC-Dell Match Play champion and won the BMW PGA at Wentworth, after all. That's some serious playing there!

As for Na, his overall performance is eerily similar to Poulter's. His putting is as close to Poulter's as you're likely to see, and he's better from the sand. But his scrambling isn't quite as good; given his average proximity from 50-75 yards, his wedge play needs some sharpening to catch the Postman. A little wedge work and he could be Team USA's answer to Poulter.

I guess the takeaway here is that distance, while it can be a potent weapon, doesn't seem to be the difference maker at the Ryder Cup. Scrambling and putting seem to be the difference -- and I mean CONSISTENCY across the skills needed around and on the green. And I think Team Europe is a bit better at that simply because the European Tour plays so many different types of course setups, as opposed to the uniformity of PGA Tour setups.

This post is getting awfully long so I'll call it here. I have some ideas about how Team USA could alter its qualification process to try and find players with some of Team Europe's intangibles, but I'll save that for next week.

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