As the 2011 season gets underway, here’s Part 1 of a preview of what to look for from various players this year, with special emphasis on where they need to improve. Today, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
There were many intangible reasons for Tiger Woods’ fall of the cliff in PGA Tour performance in 2011: rustiness from a four-month absence from the game, some of it spent in rehab; psychological effects of having his reputation shattered by his off-course shenanigans; distractions from going through a divorce and the effect it would have on his relationship with his children; changing swing teachers; a neck injury; a loss of confidence.
Most of those will go away in 2011. I fully expect a comeback from Woods. The question is of degree. It will be very hard to climb back all the way to where he was, which after all is a pinnacle that perhaps no one else has ever reached. But he should be ready to resume winning and to resume his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ career record of 18 majors.
Looking at it strictly in terms of his performance on the course, the three biggest areas where he needs to get back on track are scrambling, hitting greens in regulation, and making putts in the 15-to-25-foot range.
Woods’ biggest dropoff in 2010 was actually in getting up and down for a par after missing the green. In this basic but underpublicized stat, Woods ranked first on the PGA Tour in 2009, saving par 68.18 percent of the time. In 2010, he ranked 166th, with a par-saving percentage of 54.30. (Actually, he didn’t play enough rounds to qualify for the ranking but would have ranked 166th.)
That’s an extraordinary fall. It’s not necessarily all attributed to the short game. To some extent, he may have been missing greens in worse spots than before, which would hurt his scrambling figures. Still, the numbers can’t be that misleading, you’d have to say that his short-game prowess pretty much abandoned him in 2010.
Maybe this is where his absence from the game hurt him the most. He played only nine rounds through the end of May, not enough to keep his short game sharp. And in worrying about his swing, he might have neglected this area of his game. It’s even possible that with less practice and less tournament experience, he might even have had more trouble than most players adjusting to the groove change—he ranked 189th in scrambling from the rough.
I’ve never been under the impression that Woods has relied on any of his teachers—Butch Harmon, followed by Hank Haney, and now Sean Foley—for much help with his short game. All indications are that he is solidifying his swing with Foley. But if he’s smart, Woods is spending a lot of time this winter working on his short game.
One of Woods’ most impressive statistics is that he has led the greens in regulation statistic six times and consistently been near the top. Why is that so impressive? His schedule is concentrated on major championships, WGC events, and other tournaments played on strong courses so there is no chance to pad his stats on easier courses. If you look at other players with similar schedules like Ernie Els or Padraig Harrington, you will find that their GIR stats are pretty poor. It’s not that they are terrible ball-strikers, it’s that they play tougher courses.
Woods became mortal in 2010, and his GIR stats took a nosedive. From first in 2006 and 2007, a virtual tie for first in 2008, and 16th in 2009, Woods plummeted to 167th in 2010.
He was shockingly bad at hitting the green from between 75 and 150 yards, ranking 190th or 191st (virtually at the bottom of 192 players) in GIR from 75-100 yards, 100-125 yards, and 125-150 yards. It’s good to point out here that he compiled this terrible record playing on courses where the greens are tougher to hit. Also that his stats on proximity to the hole tell a different story: he ranked 88th in proximity to the hole on approach shots of 75-100 yards, 4th in proximity to the hole on approach shots of 100-125 yards, and 1st in proximity to the hole on approach shots of 125-150 yards.
Those proximity numbers indicate that his poor GIR on short-iron shots resulted from firing at the pin. But those GIR numbers are way down from the previous year. It seems that what happened was Woods wasn’t hitting his short irons quite as accurately, but didn’t adjust by playing any safer and therefore missed a lot more greens.
Some of those missed greens merely resulted in being able to use a putter from the fringe, not a big deal. But many were more costly than that, because Woods’ scoring was affected. He ranked 85th in scoring relative to par after approach shots of between 100 and 125 yards and 48th after approach shots between 125 and 150 yards. And here is perhaps the most stunningly bad statistic of Woods from 2010: after approach shots of between 75 and 100 yards, he ranked 186th in scoring relative to par. And he was actually cumulatively over par on those holes!
The stats also show that Woods’ performance from the rough was awful in 2010. On approach shots of all distances, he ranked second in proximity to the hole on shots from the fairway and 189th on shots from the rough—in other words, he was virtually the best from the fairway and virtually the worst from the rough. This could be partly due to playing courses with tougher rough than average. It possibly shows that he was slower adjusting to the groove change than most. In any case, it’s a stat he needs to improve in 2010. For that matter, since he’s so good from the fairway, it would help to hit more fairways, too.
Driving accuracy has been Woods’ weakest stat through the years, though you can’t say it has hurt him much. While he won seven majors in six years with Haney, Woods’ driving accuracy rank in those years was 182, 182, 188, 139, 152, and 169. So last year’s rank of 167th was right in line. But the devil is sometimes in the details, and the stats don’t show how many of those tee shots were so wayward that they landed in jail.
And here’s a note that he might have discussed with Foley: Whereas in the previous several years his misses tended to be to the right, in 2010 more than half of his misses were to the left.
Woods averaged 295.8 yards in driving distance to rank 26th. That’s a far cry from the 316.1 yards he busted it when he ranked second in 2005, though it’s in line with his 2008 and 2009 numbers. While still a long hitter, his ability to absolutely overpower a course may not be what it used to be. And with the shorter distance, the lack of accuracy hurts more. When you average 316 yards off the tee wildness is less of a concern than when you’re 20 yards shorter.
Some observers detected a shakiness on the greens in 2010. But the stats show that the problem wasn’t missing putts he should have made—it was that he made so little from beyond 15 feet.
He ranked 14th on putts from 3-5 feet, 68th on putts from 5-10 feet, and 36th on putts from 10-15 feet—but 183rd on putts from 15-20 feet and 192nd on putts from 20-25 feet. Keep in mind that if you factor in the difficulty of the greens he putted on, he wasn’t necessarily one of the worst putters on Tour from those distances. But he certainly wasn’t as good as he used to be.
According to an advanced putting metric put together by three MIT professors that more accurately reflects putting skill than the PGA Tour stats, which are compromised by failing to take into account the length of putts, Woods was the best putter on Tour from 2003-8 (the period they analyzed). It’s safe to say that wasn’t the case in 2010. (By the way, the Tour is considering adding the professors’ stat to their menu of statistics, which would be a great move.)
If he’s going to catch Nicklaus, Woods had better start making more of those 15-to-25-footers, stop missing so many greens with short irons, and display the kind of short game he’s demonstrated through most of his career.
There is also reason to think that Mickelson will be less distracted in 2011. Last year was impacted by the cancer treatments of his wife and mother, which should be less onerous in the coming year. Regarding his own health, Mickelson had problems over the first half of last year with what was eventually diagnosed as arthritis. If medication is working, he will be less affected this year. Here’s a look from a performance aspect:
When he began working with Butch Harmon in 2007, the consensus was that Harmon would be able to get Phil’s driving straightened out. It hasn’t happened. In fact, Mickelson has gotten wilder: his driving accuracy rankings since 2007 are 181, 181, 179, and 188 out of approximately 190 players each year. He wasn’t always so inaccurate. From 1996 to 2001, for example, his average ranking was 110th. From 2002 to 2006, it was 151st.
Fortunately, Mickelson has retained his driving distance even at age 40, ranking 13th last year at 299.1. And there’s been plenty of evidence in the last decade that if you hit it long, you don’t have to hit it straight to be a winner. But when your accuracy dips to the bottom 10 on Tour, that could be a problem.
Here’s an example of what you have to overcome when you’re that wild off the tee. In 2010, Mickelson ranked 10th in proximity to the hole on approach shots from the fairway (31’7”) and 5th in proximity to the hole on approach shots from the rough (42’0”). But he ranked only 37th overall on proximity to the hole on approach shots (37’3”) because he was hitting so many of them from the rough.
Mickelson’s greens in regulation ranking has been on the decline over the last five years: 21, 84, 70, 127, 155. If he wants to win more than once in 2011, it would behoove him to get that ranking back up to where it was.
It’s no mystery that “go for broke” Phil’s GIR numbers are adversely affected by shooting at the flag so much. Like Woods, this is reflected in his proximity to the hole figures. On approach shots of 100-125 yards, Mickelson ranked fifth on getting his approaches close to the hole but 115th in GIR. On approaches of 125-150, he was 3rd in proximity and 165th in GIR.
With that pin-seeking mentality, there’s no reason for Mickelson to become a GIR machine, but some improvement over 2010 is needed. And on occasions when he feels his iron game isn’t quite as sharp, it might benefit him to aim just a little bit away from the most dangerous flags.
It may have something to do with the positions in which he leaves himself, but Mickelson’s reputation for having the best short game on Tour isn’t borne out by the statistics. In his career, he has ranked in the top 10 in percentage of getting up and down for pars only three times—and outside the top 100 seven times. Last year was a pretty good one for scrambling, with a ranking of 31st for saving par 61.84 percent of the time.
Mickelson’s reputation is that he misses short ones too often. That’s not quite the case according to the stats, though perhaps for an elite player he should be better. The Tour’s stats on putts in the 3-to-5-foot range extend back to 2002, and over that period his average rank is 58th.
In 2010, Mickelson posted his best ranking ever on 3-to-5-footers, 14th. The bad news was that he was mediocre (87th) on 5-to-10-footers and downright terrible in the 10-to-15 and 15-to-20 ranges (189th and 170th). It’s tough to have a great year when you don’t convert many of those, so that’s an area where he needs to improve in 2010.