2011 Player Previews, Part 2

Can Lee Westwood remain No. 1? Photo copyright USGA/Steve Gibbons

Here is part 2 of my preview on what to look for from various players in 2011. I’ve covered Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, here are the rest of the top 10 in the world ranking:

Lee Westwood
The questions about Westwood are 1) Can he keep playing so consistently well? 2) If he does, can he win more often?

I’m actually more concerned about the first than the second. Granted, Westwood hasn’t been much of a closer in 2009-10, winning just three times out of 12 top-three finishes on the PGA and European Tours. But I’m of the belief that “clutchness” is mostly a myth. If you look at it on a career basis, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single current player other than Tiger Woods who converts chances into victories at a rate much above the norm. Victory droughts, I think, are usually the result of random factors over a fairly small sample size of times in contention.

But being able to sustain a high rate of play over the course of three years isn’t easy. Nor is getting in serious contention at major championship after major championship. Westwood might not have as many chances in 2011, but maybe he’ll have more luck at converting them. I, for one, would love to see him win a major after all the close calls.

One reason for Westwood’s rise has been his improved physical conditioning. He has reaped the benefits in yards off the tee: After an average ranking of 64th in driving distance on the European Tour from 2001-6, he has averaged 21st in the last four years. Work on his short game has also paid off. His average ranking in scrambling (percent of par saves) was 56th from 2003-9 but a career best 7th in 2010.

Martin Kaymer
He didn’t appear on the PGA Tour enough to accumulate meaningful stats in 2010 (he did win the PGA Championship), but his European Tour numbers in the conventional stats show that our impression of him is mostly correct: He doesn’t blow you away in any one area but he’s good at everything.

Kaymer is not a gorilla off the tee, but he’s plenty long, ranking 29th in Europe. And he hits the ball pretty straight, ranking 35th. That’s a great combination. If the European Tour kept a total driving stat for combined distance and accuracy, Kaymer would have ranked fourth behind Westwood, Steven O’Hara, and Danny Willett (and tied with Louis Oosthuizen). He was 31st in greens in regulation and also 14th in putting.

Kaymer’s best stat was scrambling, as he ranked 4th in getting up and down for pars at 63.5 percent. Not missing many greens and getting up and down when you do…that’s a great combination, too.

Graeme McDowell
McDowell is probably the best iron player in the game today. He ranked 3rd in Europe in greens in regulation and also 13th in putts per greens in regulation—an indication not only of a good putting stroke but that he was hitting the ball close enough to make birdie putts.

Another sign of his iron prowess is that, while not playing enough rounds to qualify for a ranking, he would have led the PGA Tour in proximity to the hole on approach shots. He would have ranked 1st from the fairway and 1st from the rough, too. This despite playing a schedule seriously skewed toward hard courses, which hurts his stats. (An indication of overall course strength is that he would have ranked 140th in scoring average, but 10th in scoring average adjusted for course difficulty.)

McDowell isn’t a powerful player off the tee, but he’s not a short hitter, either, ranking 76th in Europe in driving distance in 2010. And he hits the ball straight (16th in hitting fairways), so overall you would have to consider him a good driver. And he’s pretty much eliminated one side of trouble: In 2010, nobody on the PGA Tour missed the fairway to the right less often.

In short, McDowell is well equipped to continue his assault on the upper echelon of the game. The only caveat is the possibility of spreading himself too thin trying to compete on both sides of the Atlantic as he has joined the PGA Tour.

Jim Furyk
Furyk was the PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2010 despite ranking 179th in driving distance, so there is still a place for the short hitter in today’s game. It helped that he returned to his accustomed position in the top 10 in driving accuracy (10th) after two years where he ranked 25th and 28th.

The unrecognized strength of Furyk’s game is scrambling—he ranked 16th in 2010 and 8th in 2009 at getting up and down. He also ranked 2nd last year in scrambling for more than 30 yards and 5th in scrambling from the rough. Avoiding bogeys is important, because Furyk makes fewer birdies than other top players (76th in percentage of subpar holes) to a large degree because of his length disadvantage on par 5s (143rd in par-5 birdie percentage).

Other stats show that Furyk was good but not great at both putting and approach shots in 2010. He ranked 32nd in proximity to the hole on approach shots, but hitting the fairway is particularly important to him—he was 174th on approaches from the rough. He was 28th in total putting, which combines stats on putting from various distances.

Despite an otherwise excellent year, Furyk didn’t play well in the majors in 2010—missed cut, 16th, missed cut, 24th; and his scores in the Masters and British Open were 80-76 and 77-73. This was probably just an anomaly, as Furyk has played well on tough courses in the past.

Steve Stricker
Stricker’s rise to the top levels of the game can be attributed to getting his driving under control. During his 2003-5 slump, he was near the bottom in hitting fairways (average rank: 192nd), and even before that he had been mediocre. In 2010, Stricker ranked a career-best 30th in hitting fairways as he won twice and finished fifth on the money list. He’s gotten straighter while keeping his distance stable (short but not drastically short, ranking 134th in 2010), enabling him to move into the top 50 in total driving.

Stricker ranked only 60th in greens in regulation last year, but his iron game was better than that would indicate because he was 7th in proximity to the hole on approach shots. The missed greens didn’t hurt him much because he was 14th in scrambling. His putting from various distances showed he was a very good but not great putter in 2010, with his best showing coming from 3 to 5 feet, where he ranked 6th.

Stricker was the only player with a subpar scoring average on par 3s, par 4s, and par 5s. Even with his lack of distance, he was in the top 10 in scoring average on par 5s, helping him to his ranking of third in overall scoring average.

The main questions about Stricker in 2010 are whether he will start to drop off at age 44 and whether he will be able to win his first major. If he can keep it going, Stricker will have a career arc similar to Kenny Perry, who had three wins before turning 40 and 11 after. Stricker also had only three wins before turning 40, and so far he has six after.

Paul Casey
Casey has never had the reputation of being a good putter, nor have his statistics been good in the past, but we might have to change that perception. The Tour’s total putting stat, a better reflection of putting skill than putts per GIR or putts per round, revealed that Casey was the best putter on Tour in 2010. He ranked 1st on putts from 3 to 5 feet and was also in the top 10 from 5 to 10, 10 to 15, and 20 to 25 feet. Those same stats show that Casey was a terrible putter in 2008 and a pretty good one in 2009.

While Casey didn’t win in 2010, his new-found putting prowess enabled him to have six finishes in the top six, including a pair of seconds. His approach game fell off somewhat from 2009 to 2010 to 48th in greens in regulation and 81st in proximity to the hole. It’s doubtful that Casey can repeat his putting of 2010, but he can make up for that with improvement in ball-striking. He might also want to visit some practice bunkers: He ranked 186th in proximity to the hole on greenside bunker shots in 2010 at 11 feet, 10 inches.

Luke Donald
Donald is an interesting case. He’s a consistent player who doesn’t win very much, so naturally he is accused of lacking heart or guts or whatever internal organ you want to use to make that point. What he really lacks is a driving game. He’s the worst driver among top players, ranking 177th in distance and 120th in accuracy in 2010. So, he can’t overpower courses and he’s also playing from the rough too often. That puts him behind the eight-ball for posting really low scores.

At the Ryder Cup last year, Donald was hailed as one of the game’s best iron players. That’s not really borne out. He ranked 152nd in greens in regulation last year, and even worse the two years before that. A tougher-than-average schedule contributes to that, and his poor driving hurts his GIR percentage, but that’s still not good. But hold on. There is one sign that he is a good iron player, even if he’s not one of the best: He ranked 25th in proximity to the hole on approach shots in 2010 (though that is helped by not going for as many par 5s in two, therefore hitting more wedge approaches).

Donald’s saving grace is scrambling and putting, where he really can lay a claim to being among the best. He ranked fourth in scrambling, third in total putting, fifth in three-putt avoidance, and third in proximity from the sand from greenside bunkers. All of this helps him to overcome his lousy GIR percentage.

The funny thing is that Donald makes so few birdies, ranking 109th in percentage of subpar holes. This can be partly explained by missing so many greens and by not being long enough to reach as many par 5s in two as other players. But you would think that a guy who ranks 25th in proximity to the hole on approaches and is a great putter would do better than that. Could it be that he putts better on par putts than birdie putts? It’s impossible to say, but it can at least be speculated.

You also could make a case that he should go for par 5s in two more often. He ranked 182nd on Tour in percentage of going for par 5s in two or par 4s in one. For this stat, the Tour includes any hole where at least one player went for it on a given day. So, it’s natural that Donald would have a low go-for-it percentage because he’s a short hitter and isn’t even capable of reaching the green on many of those occasions. But when he does go for it, he gets better results than most players. On the 60 holes where he did go for it, he was 42-under, a much better subpar performance than average. So, it’s a legitimate point that in marginal situations he might be better off going for it more often.

As for his driving, the slight, 5-foot-9 Donald doesn’t have a chance to add much distance. There’s certainly room for improvement in accuracy, but after nine years on Tour you wonder if it’s ever going to come. His chances at winning majors or multiple tournaments per year hinge on it.

Rory McIlroy
We won’t see him on the PGA Tour as often this year since he has given up his membership. Nonetheless, the 21-year-old remains one of the most compelling figures in the game. Will he become a dominant player and win a major soon, or will he go the way of Sergio Garcia?

It’s tough to evaluate him on his stats from last year. First, they weren’t quite as good because he didn’t perform as well week to week as he did in 2009, when he was remarkably consistent. Second, his PGA Tour stats are dragged down by playing a tough schedule. He ranked 33rd in adjusted scoring average but 125th in actual scoring average. Since none of the other stats are adjusted for course difficulty, those stats would fall in line with him being the 125th best player on Tour instead of what he really was.

To many observers, putting is McIlroy’s biggest question mark, but he was a respectable 92nd in total putting in 2010. His ball-striking numbers were disappointing at 120th in greens in regulation and 129th in proximity to the hole. Those reflected the difficulty of the courses he played on, but were still a letdown from a talent who ranked 3rd on the European Tour in GIR in 2009. He’ll be looking for more consistency in 2011.

As a long-hitting young player, it is no surprise that McIlroy ranked 2nd in the percentage of times going for the green on a par 5 in two or par 4 in one. His par-5 scoring was nonetheless lackluster at 4.78, reflecting that he didn’t take full advantage when he went for it (-52 on 99 tries was nothing special). But he played the par 5s in 4.57 in 2009, so it may have been a one-year aberration.

Overall, McIlroy failed to take a step forward in 2010, though he did give us a stunning weekend performance in winning at Quail Hollow and tied for third at both the British Open and PGA Championship. We’ll see if he progresses in 2011.

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