Bubba Watson is Dangerous When He’s Finding Fairways

Bubba Watson is not only hitting it long in 2011, he's hitting it straight. Copyright Icon SMI.

Webb Simpson might have deserved to win the Zurich Classic of New Orleans (I’ll post more tomorrow on the harsh penalty that cost him the title), but it’s good for the PGA Tour that Bubba Watson won.

Watson is a player who resonates with fans because of his heart-on-his-sleeve personality and also because of his entertaining style of play, which includes long-ball bashing AND shot-making. The victory made him a multiple winner this year, and the Tour needs those to develop story lines and create interest.

It’s always interesting to see how Watson makes his way around the course. At New Orleans, it wasn’t just interesting, it was highly impressive. While leading the field in driving distance at 331.4 yards, he also managed to rank 13th in hitting fairways. When a long hitter is finding that many fairways, he’s almost certainly going to be a factor in the tournament.

Watson hit 58 out of 72 greens in regulation to tie for first in that category. Of course, when you drive it in the positions Watson did, you’re hitting wedges from the fairway into most greens, and that certainly helps.

Watson’s best work came on Thursday and Friday when he shot 66-68 at TPC Louisiana. He hit 11 of 14 fairways each day and 15 greens in the first round and 16 in the second. He was also putting from the fringe on two holes, which means there were only three holes where he didn’t have a putter in his hand for a birdie or eagle attempt.

He hit 11 fairways again on Saturday and found 14 greens, though he did make it a little bit harder on himself Sunday by hitting only seven fairways and 13 greens. In fact, he became shaky down the stretch as he hit only two of seven fairways on the back nine and was 0-for-2 in the playoff.

Still, his body of work for the week with the driver was excellent. But it wasn’t out of character for the way he has played in 2011. In fact, driving accuracy is where Watson has improved the most. While ranking 2nd in driving distance, he’s also well in the upper half of the Tour in driving accuracy, ranking 66th. That puts him 3rd in total driving, which combines the two categories. He leads the Tour in greens in regulation at 74.07 percent.

In 2010, Watson was 176th in driving accuracy, a more typical position for a long bomber. He ranked 55th in hitting greens in 2010.

The stats show that it’s ball-striking, and not putting, where Watson has stepped it up as he has soared to the top of the FedExCup standings so far. He ranks 115th in the Tour’s new strokes gained putting stat, a rigorous stat that analyzes how his putting compares to the Tour average based on the distance and result of his putts. That means he’s been a slightly below average putter overall, losing .073 strokes per round on the greens. Last year he ranked 103rd in total putting, a cruder measurement based on the same principle.

Yet putting played a key role in Watson’s New Orleans victory. The regular stats showed that he took a lot of putts, 117, to rank 57th for the week. But that was largely because he hit so many greens. My approximation of the Tour’s strokes gained analysis shows that he gained 4.1 strokes putting for the week—largely due to holing five putts of 20 feet or longer. Great ball-striking plus making a few long putts = victory.

Watson also took advantage of the par fives, as usual. He leads the PGA Tour in par-five scoring average at 4.44 and in eagles with nine. Three of those eagles came in New Orleans as he played the 16 par fives for the week in 11-under.

The par fives at TPC Louisiana measure 548, 561, 575, and 585 yards. When you hit it 330 off the tee and 250 or more with an iron, that’s no problem. Watson went for the green 14 times out of 16 on the par fives. The only times he laid up were when he found a fairway bunker on the second hole of the first round (he hit a third shot from 147 yards to within a foot of the hole and made a birdie) and when he was on the bank of a fairway bunker on the 11th hole of the fourth round (he missed the green but made a par).

Watson hit five of the par fives in two, converting three eagles. Strangely, he missed the green in regulation (i.e., with his third shot) five times on par fives due to some imprecise second shots and then missing the greens with pitch shots. He even made a bogey on the 18th in the second round when his 50-yard pitch from the rough found a bunker and his blast went over the green. Still, that’s an aberration. When you have a chance to go for the green in two, the percentage play is usually to go for it—that’s true even if there’s water close to the green if you have an iron in your hand. This is where Watson’s new-found accuracy off the tee pays off. With his length, the only thing that’s going to stop him from going for the green on most par fives is an inaccurate tee shot.

As for that distance, here’s one more fun stat from the Zurich—Watson hit 10 drives of 340 yards or longer. The longest: a 363-yarder on the seventh hole on Sunday.

Can Watson build on his two victories so far, win a major, and make a Player of the Year case? It will depend on his putting and whether he can avoid the occasional mis-hit or misjudged iron shot that has plagued him at crucial times—there was the approach from the rough that came up short and into the water in the 2010 PGA Championship playoff, a wayward iron on the par-three on the last hole of his semifinal loss at the WGC-Accenture Match Play this year, and his iron into the water on the par-three ninth at the Zurich that led to a double bogey that almost cost him the title.

There’s still a bit of a question how well his idiosyncratic swing holds up under pressure. He also sometimes appears to be guilty of over-thinking or of trying to curve the ball more than really necessary because he loves shot-making so much. And his judgment has been off at times. He thought the ball would fly out of his lie in the PGA playoff, didn’t hit enough club, and came up way short to lose the title. The same kind of thing happened in the first playoff hole in New Orleans on Sunday, where he changed to a shorter club and came up some 20 yards short of the green. Fortunately, the water on that hole wasn’t in front and he was able to birdie the par five to match Simpson’s birdie before winning on the second extra hole.

But if Watson can keep finding the short grass with his booming tee shots, he’s got a leg up.

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