2012 Player Previews, Part 2: Simpson, Stricker, et. al.

Steve Stricker started 2012 in style with a win at Kapalua. Photo copyright Icon SMI.

Here is Part 2 of my player previews, covering Nos. 2 through 8 on the 2011 money list—including Steve Stricker and Webb Simpson, who finished 1-3 at the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Click here for Part 1 on Luke Donald and Tiger Woods.

Webb Simpson
Was the Webb Simpson of 2011 for real? The 26-year-old made a huge leap in his third PGA Tour season, finishing second on the money list after placing 70th and 94th in his first two years. Can he continue playing at that level?

I think so, based on his week-to-week consistency. It wasn’t a case of things clicking for a few good tournaments. Simpson finished in the top 16 in 12 of his last 14 events, with two wins and a playoff loss. And he’s an explosive enough player that he’s clearly capable of going low and winning multiple times in a given year—he ranked first on Tour in percentage of subpar holes.

Simpson’s improvement in ball-striking was remarkable. After averaging 165th in total driving (combined distance and accuracy) his first two years, he moved up to 24th. And after averaging 143rd in greens in regulation, he jumped to eighth. He does it with a somewhat quirky, handsy swing. Simpson admits that he sometimes shanks the ball, but usually on the range and not on the course. The unorthodoxy of a timing-based swing and, especially, the poor ball-striking numbers from his first two years could be considered red flags. But Simpson apparently figured things out in 2011—he didn’t overhaul his swing but made an adjustment to add width to it—and players with much odder swings have been consistent performers (see Jim Furyk).

Much like the emerging star of 2010, Martin Kaymer, Simpson displayed a game last year that had no weaknesses. The one part of his game that wasn’t as much a strength as the others was putting—he ranked 57th in strokes gained-putting. On weeks when his putter was hot, he was a threat to win.

Simpson had the best tee-to-green game of anyone on Tour in 2011. His scoring average of 69.16 was 1.70 strokes better than the field average in the events he played in. The strokes gained-putting stat shows that he gained .21 strokes on the field per round. It follows that he gained 1.49 strokes tee to green. Performing the same calculation for the rest of the Tour shows that Sergio Garcia was next at gaining 1.46 strokes tee to green, followed by Phil Mickelson at 1.45, Charl Schwartzel at 1.44 and Luke Donald at 1.33 to round out the top five.

It’s important to note that this calculation is not strictly a ball-striking ranking since it includes shots around the green. Simpson has an outstanding short-game touch, as evidenced by his ranking of 16th in scrambling (saving par after missing the green in regulation) despite not being a great putter.

Simpson’s overall good play is reflected in the fact that he led the Tour in scoring average on par fours (3.97) and par fives (4.48) and was a respectable 13th on par threes (3.02). Dominating the par fives is the type of play that can lead to victories. Simpson will need to maintain his distance gain of 2011 (he added 11 yards to jump to 296.2 off the tee) to continue to go deep in the red on the par fives. Simpson’s stats were so solid in 2011 that it’s hard to find an area where he needs significant improvement, but here’s one: he ranked 111th in putting in the 3-to-5-foot range.

Nick Watney
Much like Simpson, Watney played well nearly every week in 2011 while boasting the type of power game that enables him to aim for victories and not settle for top-10 finishes. Watney is longer off the tee, averaging 301.9 yards to rank 16th, but not as accurate, with a 136th ranking in fairways hit leaving him at 31st in total driving.

Watney’s biggest improvement last year was in his short game. He went from 84th to 12th in putting and, even more dramatically, from 146th to 12th in scrambling after working hard on his wedge game. His putting included an out-of-this-world week at the AT&T National (one of his two victories) that may not be repeated, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he slipped back a notch on the greens. But he could make up for that by hitting more greens (54th in 2011).

The one dark spot on Watney’s 2011 record was the major championships, which accounted for three of his worst five showings (a 46th at the Masters and missed cuts at the U.S. and British Opens; he missed only one other cut all year). But he finished in the top 10 of two majors in 2010 and held the 54-hole lead at the PGA Championship that year, so he’s capable of better things in the big events.

K.J. Choi
A victory at the lucrative Players Championship helped Choi to his best-ever finish on the money list (fourth), but he wasn’t a one-week wonder as he added a second and a pair of thirds, had eight top-10s, and missed the cut only four times.

Choi is shorter than average off the tee (134th) and middle of the pack in driving accuracy, greens in regulation, and putting. So why was he an elite player in 2011? He’s got a great touch around the greens, ranking 27th in scrambling.

Choi’s stats are a bit misleading because he played the third toughest schedule on Tour based on the adjustment necessary for scoring average relative to the field (he was 19th in adjusted scoring average but 47th in raw average). So he’s actually a better ball-striker than his rankings of 91st in hitting fairways and 81st in hitting greens indicate. Still, the short game is the key for him as it helps him to avoid bogeys. He ranked 13th on Tour in bogey avoidance, even with that tough schedule, while ranking only 112th in percentage of subpar holes.

The only period Choi has been a very good putter was 2007-8 when he ranked 10th and 20th. He was 73rd in 2011, but did take advantage of a great putting week at the Players.

He turns 42 in May, so at this point of his career we’re not likely to see many changes in Choi’s game other than a decline due to age. But if his putter heats up at the right time, he can still be dangerous.

Dustin Johnson
Here’s the good news about Dustin Johnson in 2011. He harnessed his driving, ranking 147th in hitting fairways after never ranking better than 169th in his first three years. For a player who launches it an average of 314.2 yards off the tee to rank third, that’s decent accuracy.

Here’s the bad news. After being an OK putter in 2009 and 2010 (average ranking of 89th), he was awful in 2011 at 171st in strokes gained-putting, losing a half-stroke a round on the greens. His chipping and pitching were bad, too, as he ranked 181st in scrambling.

Johnson’s inconsistency was reflected by a ranking of 51st in adjusted scoring average, but he still managed to finish fifth on the money list because his good weeks were very good and came in big events—a playoff win at the Barclays and seconds at the British Open and WGC-Cadillac. Johnson’s length off the tee combined with very good iron play (27th in GIR despite a tough schedule and 2nd in proximity to the hole on approach shots from the fairway) enabled him to contend on the rare weeks his putter was cooperating. Johnson’s putting was better than average in only five of the 16 ShotLink-measured events he played in, and he had a win, a second, a third, and a fourth in those events.

Beyond the statistics, Johnson continued to be plagued by mental mistakes (missed tee time at the Northern Trust Open) and hitting the wrong shot at the wrong time (an iron shot out of bounds that ended his British Open bid). He’s an exceptionally talented player, with five wins at the age of 27, and he shows a knack for coming to the forefront in the game’s big events (though not for all 72 holes yet). If he can bear down and improve his short game and cut down on the mistakes, he could win majors and perhaps reach No. 1, even after a slight step backward in 2011.

Matt Kuchar
Kuchar was not quite as good across the board in all statistical categories in 2011 as he was in his breakout season of 2010. But the biggest difference was that whereas he managed to sneak in a victory among his 11 top-10s in 2010 to lift him to No. 1 on the money list, he didn’t have any wins among his nine top-10s in 2010 as his consistency still enabled him to finish sixth in earnings.

Kuchar is good at making birdies—he ranked 17th in subpar holes—but he’s better at avoiding bogeys—fifth in that category. He’s a very good at saving pars, ranking 13th in scrambling in 2011 after being 10th the previous year. His putting slid from eighth to 26th.

Job No. 1 for Kuchar in 2012 will be to find a way to convert his consistency into victories—not that there’s a magic formula for that.

Bill Haas
Haas remained pretty much the same statistically in 2011 as he was in 2010. He’s a very good driver of the ball, with rankings of 48th in distance and 67th in accuracy placing him 11th in total driving. He was also 11th in GIR, but he remained a mediocre putter at 84th (though up from 114th).

There are a couple of anomalies in Haas’s stats. He’s bold in going for the green in less than regulation (his “go-for-it” percentage rank of 18th outstripped his driving distance), but only ranked 41st in percentage of subpar holes. He was 14th at avoiding bogeys, more because of his GIR percentage than his scrambling, which was mediocre. He ranked 154th in proximity to the hole on approach shots, only partially explained by l going for more par fives in two and thus having more long approaches. His GIR ranking was better than his proximity to the hole ranking from nearly every distance of approach shot, which suggests that he doesn’t shoot for the flag as often as the Tour norm. So while he’s bold at going for par fives in two, he plays it safe on approach shots. He could improve his birdie rate by aiming more at the flag.

It was also an anomaly that Haas generally struggled in crunch time in 2011, but ended the year by winning the biggest money tournament of all, the Tour Championship. For the year, he ranked sixth in scoring before the cut but 122nd in the final round, sliding out of contention on several Sundays. He hit some wayward shots down the stretch at the Tour Championship, too, but—against type—saved himself with some great scrambling. And if there were a category for scrambling out of water, Haas would have led it.

Steve Stricker
The biggest question mark about Stricker entering 2012 was physical after he suffered numbness in his left arm last fall due to a neck problem. He wasted no time proving his fitness by winning the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions. There’s also the matter of age, as Stricker turns 45 in February. He now has nine wins since turning 40 (out of 12 in all), but in general victories become much rarer after hitting 45.

The short game was the key to Stricker taking over as the top American on the world ranking heading into 2012 (not to mention the failure of any other American to step forward). Stricker wasn’t quite as accurate with either his drives or irons in 2011, but he was deadly with the putter, improving from 22nd in 2010 to second in strokes gained-putting last year, shaving off .769 strokes per round. He was also second in scrambling, saving par 64.93 percent of the time.

Stricker’s wedge prowess extends beyond the area immediately surrounding the green. He was in the top 20 in proximity to the hole on approach shots from 50-75, 75-100, 100-125, and 125-150 yards. That explains how Stricker, who is medium-short off the tee, was able to rank second in scoring average on par fives at 4.49, tied with long-hitting Bubba Watson. Stricker’s iron accuracy dropped off significantly from beyond 150 yards.

Stricker is still going strong, but his window might be closing. That makes 2012 a big year as he pursues his first major title.

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