Kyle Stanley’s Strategic Error

Kyle Stanley’s biggest mistake—or at least the one that set up all the others—in his 18th-hole triple bogey blow-up that cost him the Farmers Insurance Open on Sunday was that he equated playing safe with laying up.

With his ball sitting in the intermediate cut between fairway and rough, 237 yards from the hole on the par-five 18th, Stanley considered how to play from there with a three-stroke lead. His main thought should have been about how to make seven or better, because that’s what he needed to win. (Realistically, it was all about NOT making eight or worse, but framing the question negatively isn’t the best idea when you are trying to close out a victory.)

Three-shot lead, play cautiously, lay up was apparently the thought process. But laying up actually increased Stanley’s chances of making an eight. Third shot spinning back into the water, penalty, fifth safely over the water to the back of the green leaving a long putt, and three putts adds up to eight—and that’s exactly what happened. But second shot into the water, followed by the same sequence adds up to seven and a victory.

Stanley’s situation was complicated by apparently being between clubs. In the playoff from 240 yards in the fairway he hit a three-wood over the green rather than risking coming up short and in the water with a two-iron. So, he should have blasted the three-wood to be sure to stay dry when he played the hole for the first time, right?

That wouldn’t have been the best play, either. The green slopes sharply from back-to-front, so the possibility of catching a bad lie in the rough and hitting a poor third shot that rolls across the green and into the hazard can’t be completely ignored. That again sets up the three-putt triple bogey possibility. That scenario is less likely than the layup triple bogey, so this wouldn’t have been the worst choice but it wouldn’t have been the best.

The percentage play, as far as making seven or better was concerned, was to take the two-iron, which was enough to reach the front of the green if solidly struck, and aim at the right edge of the green. There’s almost no chance to make an eight with that shot.

The pond covers only the left two-thirds of the green, so a shot hit on that line that comes up short ends up in the fairway to the right of the pond (indeed, that’s where Tiger Woods’ second shot landed in one of his victories at Torrey Pines). Even if the shot is both short and pulled, finding the hazard isn’t a disaster. Given the extreme unlikelihood of a pro fatting a pitch shot from the drop spot into the water (no worries about spinning it back in from that distance), a seven is pretty much the worst you can make.

If the second shot comes up short and is pushed, it leaves a third shot from the rough that doesn’t have to be hit over the water (nor is there water on the opposite side of the green, as on an over-the-green second shot). The same goes for a solidly-struck pushed shot, while a solid, straight shot would leave a putt, easy chip, or routine bunker shot from the right side of the green. And a pulled but solid second shot would have landed on the front of the green in the vicinity of the flag, bounding onto the back portion and leaving an eagle putt. Imagine if Stanley had hit that shot. Everyone would have marveled at what a gutsy shot he hit; most would have wondered why he dared to be so bold. But it actually would have been the safest play with a three-stroke lead!

For that matter, after laying up (preferably farther right than he did), Stanley could have aimed his third shot at the right edge of the green. That might have seemed like a wimpy shot, but from where he was in two that was the percentage play with a three-stroke lead—no way to make an eight from missing the green to the right.

Either the bold-looking (but not really) second shot or the excessively cautious (but not really) third shot would have taken eight out of the picture. The conventional route of not risking a long carry over water on the second shot and not worrying about the water on a 77-yard wedge shot was exactly the wrong way to go.

Of course, it must be said that luck played a role for poor Stanley, who landed his third shot 10 or 15 feet past the flag and must have been stunned to see the ball spin all the way back into the water, not to mention the fact that the ball came agonizingly close to stopping on the bank before tumbling in (though it is fair to say that he should have controlled the spin better).

Then it came down to putting. That’s bad news for Stanley, who as a rookie was one of the worst putters on the PGA Tour last year when he ranked 174th out of 186 players in strokes gained-putting. Not the guy you want putting from three feet, eight inches for the victory—especially not for his first career victory after a gut-wrenching last 10 minutes. And not the guy you want in a putt-off from five feet on the second playoff hole with Brandt Snedeker, one of the best putters on Tour (ranked 10th in 2011).

This leaves two questions about Stanley. Will he be scarred by this epic disaster? And will he putt well enough to take advantage of his ball-striking ability?

Look for Stanley to recover and do what Robert Garrigus did—bounce back from losing a three-stroke lead with a triple bogey on the 72nd hole and go on to win a tournament. The 24-year-old has too much talent to remain shut out, and he can take comfort in the fact that he didn’t even strike the ball badly on the fateful 72nd hole (though, on the other hand, he did look pretty shaky for the whole back nine).

Putting is a greater concern. The good news is that even bad putters can have good putting weeks, as Stanley did last year when he finished second at the John Deere Classic and again last week at Torrey Pines. But to become an elite player and a threat to win multiple events in a year, he needs to improve on the greens.

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