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Three Key Stats For Handicapping The PGA

Three Golf Handicapping Stats - Colin Morikawa celebrating a victory

The PGA has been a truly underappreciated asset for the last nine weeks. Golf may not ignite the same excitement as, say, the NBA, but for weeks when there was nothing else to study and nothing else to root for, golf showed up. Week after week it’s been the one constant and there’s something calming about that, knowing that next week, golf will be back – and every week after.

I must let you know, I’ve only been betting on the PGA since the restart. I used the Charles Schwab event to see what it was about and went to work the following week for the RBC Heritage. So, I’m definitely no expert. However, I do feel comfortable with my decision-making because I have been playing golf most of my life. Having that familiarity, I feel, has been a contributing factor to my handicapping.

Through two months of betting, I have found that I tend to stick with the same set of data points each week along with some variables depending on the field and the golf course. However, these are the three I have used each week that I believe serve as a solid base for every PGA event.

Ball Striking

Ball striking in a general sense of the word refers to a golfer’s swing, whether it be a wood or iron shot. A good ball striker is one who has the ability to make the ball go where they want it to. In referring to it as a stat line in the PGA, it reflects a golfer’s abilities in both driving off the tee and hitting greens in regulation. Simply put, if they drive well (hit the fairway), then they are more inclined to get on the green easily.

Why does this matter? At courses where the fairways are narrow and the rough is thick, you want a golfer who can pinpoint to a spot 300 yards in front of him and hit to that spot. As you can gather, this also coincides with another stat line – driving accuracy, which ball striking is created from – a mix of total driving, distance plus accuracy.

Take the PGA Championship last week at TPC Harding Park and look at the winner, Collin Morikawa. He’s ranked 18th in ball striking, which is a derivative of his accuracy as he is 32nd overall in driving accuracy. At this event, however, he had a 69 percent driving accuracy, good for first in the field. This led to him shooting a bogey-free final round of 64 to win the PGA Championship by two strokes over Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey. In fact, he played bogey-free golf over his final 22 holes.

His ability to be so accurate off the tee also helped him lead the tournament in approach shot proximity to the hole and strokes gained putting. Though still a good reference point, this stat can hold less weight on a course that has wider fairways and less rough, where no matter where you hit off the tee, you’re still able to play well because it’s an “easier” bombs-away course.

However, the basic idea of golf holds true. If you can drive well, avoid the rough and avoid splashing the ball off the fairway, then you have set yourself up for a good approach shot, followed by the potential to make some birdies, which leads me to my next stat.

Birdie or Better Percentage

Can you make some birdies? That’s what I want to know about every player. Regardless of where you hit off the tee and your approach, can a player make some birdies? As you’ve seen, some of these tournaments are a bit of a birdie-fest. Take the RBC Heritage, for example – Webb Simpson won the event at 22 under. Fifty-two players shot at least 10 under or better. In winning that tournament, Simpson had 25 birdies and one eagle. It’s one thing if you can get on the green, but can you get close enough to the hole that you give yourself plenty of birdie opportunities? Then, can you capitalize on those opportunities by adding some birdies to your scorecard?

Putting is always going to be an important part of a player’s game to examine but it’s also the most variable. A guy who isn’t necessarily great at putting can have a hot putter one tournament and, vice versa, someone who typically putts well can be just off in one event.

The course also matters. There are some golf courses at which the greens are big with very little slope, like TPC Harding Park. Greens like that could make any player look like a good short gamer. Then, you’ve got courses like Muirfield Village where the Memorial Tournament was played. Granted, the weather was tough, but with the pin placements they had, it made this course a nightmare for a lot of golfers. If the greens are smaller and have slope and tough pin placements, then I’m going to be looking at the strongest putters in the field and weighing that more heavily.

Bogey Avoidance

I’ve already looked at whether a player can make birdies. Next, I ask, can a player avoid bogeys? Maybe a golfer hit a bad drive. Maybe he three-putted. Regardless of what happened, does a golfer recover from his bad shots and still make par or is he inclined to make a bogey or worse? This stat in a way coincides with scrambling. If a player puts himself in a bad situation, can he get himself out of it and leave with a good par save?

Jason Day, Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele, Jon Rahm, Daniel Berger, Brendon Todd and Harris English are all in the top 20 for bogey avoidance and all finished in the top 20 in the PGA Championship. Like anything else, though, this tells just one part of the story. Was their game sufficiently on point that they didn’t have to save themselves from a bogey or are they strong enough with their iron play that they were able to recover from a bad drive?

As mentioned off the top, there are a few stats I look at each week. Depending on the course, those data points may vary, but I refer to these three every time. Whether looking at top-20, top-10 or even head-to-head matchups, I look at these stats always. I feel it gives me a basic overall picture of a golfer: can you drive well, hit some greens and make some birdies instead of bogeys? Great, that’s a good starting point.

If you have been handicapping the PGA, let me know which stats you love to use week after week.