The fourth major of the year is upon us as of early Thursday morning, at the PGA Championship tees off at Whistling Straits, on the shores of Lake Michigan in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. It is the first time the tournament has been here since 2010, when Martin Kaymer took down Bubba Watson in a tiebreaker, and Dustin Johnson lost his chance to win with a grounded club in a bunker on 17.
A beautiful course, Whistling Straits offers plenty of challenges (scoring average was just about a stroke over par last time through), but hitting fairways wasn’t necessarily one of them. The issue here is nailing your approaches – from fairways onto relatively large greens. Sounds easy enough. But with intense elevation changes you need to navigate with an iron, well-protected greens and sometimes confounding angles at the greens, players will need to be good with every club in their bags.
You always need to hit putts, obviously, and length can help in spots here, but only insofar as it allows you set up some advantageous angles not available to other players who can’t muster up the same distance. There is no inherent advantage for the straight-forward shot-makers like Spieth and McIlroy on a course like this, because you can be successful in so many different ways if you approach each hole with a plan. In the end, what really matters here is hitting greens, and as such, two stats jump to mind for me: Greens in Regulation and Strokes Gained: Tee to Green.*
You’re obviously bound to see some overlap in these two stats, but there are two big benefits to looking at Strokes Gained: Tee to Green, with the first being that you are seeing not just a raw number but a built-in comparison to other players. When looking at GIR, you have to know what numbers represent a “good” percentage or bad. If, on the other hand, you see someone with a “good” rating in the more modern strokes gained stats, you know immediately he is a player consistently scoring better than the field, never a bad thing.
What does all that mean for this weekend? It means that you have a course that places an emphasis on the process of getting the ball to the green, with control off the tee and of your irons a must. One look at the top rated players in terms of Strokes Gained: Tee to Green tells you not only players who are consistently playing well, but who are playing well in large part because of the exact skills you’re looking for this weekend. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s worth thinking about.
Whether you use these stats as a starting point or a tiebreaker, they can help give you an idea of players with a chance to be successful this weekend – and their success is your million bucks. Good luck.
*A brief primer: for any given tournament, a player’s Strokes Gained: Total is simply his final score as compared to the average for the tournament, either positive or negative. Strokes Gained: Putting and Strokes Gained: Tee to Green are the two components of Strokes Gained: Total (2.5 Strokes Gained: Total might be 2.0 Strokes Gained: Putting and 0.5 Strokes Gained: Tee to Green, or vice versa, for example). The point being, you can see where a player is making his gains.