Prior to the second Major Championship of the season we’ve asked one of the leading figures in golf data analysis, Justin Ray, to give us his take ahead of the US PGA Championship – find out why he is backing Tiger Woods to contend again.
By 15th Club’s Head of Content, Justin Ray
Why iron play is key at Bethpage
The four players who have won major events at Bethpage Black Golf Club – host of this year’s US PGA Championship – all excelled with their irons when they triumphed.
Woods and Lucas Glover won the U.S. Open there in 2002 and 2009 respectively, while Nick Watney and Patrick Reed both triumphed at Bethpage on the PGA Tour in 2012 and 2016 respectively. When they won, all four thrived in their iron play, with Woods and Glover both leading the field in greens in regulation when sealing victory.
Watney led the field in strokes gained approach, was second in greens hit and third in approach shot proximity. Patrick Reed, who statistically is not usually an elite iron player, ranked sixth that week in strokes gained approach.
It will be interesting to see how penalising the rough will be: when Reed won in 2016, he hit less than 56 percent of his fairways for the week. But at the two Major Championship setups in 2002 and 2009, Woods and Glover both hit more than 70 percent of their fairways. I’d expect something in the middle – the last ten US PGA champions had a driving accuracy of about 65 percent.
Assessing Tiger’s chances
Twelve months ago, golf fans were just hoping Tiger would be able to finish 72 holes pain-free. It’s incredible how far the world has come in terms of expectations in that short time.
That being said, he’s a top-ten player in the world, with past success at this venue, and two wins in his last eight worldwide starts. And it’s not like his Masters victory popped up out of nowhere – Woods is 32-under-par in the last three Majors contested, the best of any player during that span.
Tiger led the PGA Tour in greens in regulation percentage at the beginning of May. The other two times he did that – in 2002 and 2008 – he won the second Major of the season. It’s also a statistic he led the field in when he won at Bethpage in 2002.
Not teeing it up since the Masters isn’t a concern of mine when it comes to Tiger. This will be the seventh time in his career he played a Major when his previous start was the last Major contested. He’s won twice doing that – the 1999 US PGA Championship, and the 2008 U.S. Open.
The oldest player to win multiple Major Championships in a season is Mark O’Meara, who was 41 when he won both the Masters and The Open Championship in 1998. But 43-year-old Tiger is no stranger to re-writing history books, as we all know.
I would be surprised if he wasn’t part of the picture this weekend.
Brooks’ remarkable Major run
Brooks Koepka should be on everyone’s short list entering Majors for the foreseeable future.
Since the beginning of 2017, Koepka has, on average, gained 2.87 strokes on the field per round in Majors, more than half-a-stroke better than any other player (Rickie Fowler is second in that span at 2.36).
Since the start of the 2016 US PGA Championship, Brooks is a combined 55-under-par in the Majors, 15 strokes better than anyone else.
In his last nine Majors played, Koepka has not missed a cut, won three times with a scoring average better than 69.5. He and Woods are the only players to have a nine-Major-run like that in the last sixty years.
Why the World Number One is underrated
It’s tough to be under the radar as the world’s number one player, but that’s seemingly what Dustin Johnson currently is.
DJ is currently in the top five on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting, something he’s never been remotely close to in his career.
That fact should be terrifying to the competition – an elite-putting Johnson can run away with any tournament on the planet.
Patrick Cantlay is another interesting player this week. He’s in the top ten this season in strokes gained total per round and has finished in the top-15 in eight of his last ten strokeplay starts. He also has a decent recent record in the Majors, finishing 12th, 27th and ninth in his last three.
It’s time a player outside the world’s top 50 won a Major
Men’s golf might be due for a champion we didn’t expect. There have been 29 consecutive Major Championships won by players ranked in the top 50, by far the longest such streak since the Official World Golf Ranking began in 1986. The last Major won by a player outside the top 50 was Keegan Bradley at the 2011 US PGA Championship.
That said, each of the last seven US PGA champions had achieved multiple triumphs on the major worldwide tours before lifting the Wanamaker Trophy.
In fact, six of the last nine US PGA Championships were won by current, past or future world number one players (Rory McIlroy twice, Koepka, Justin Thomas, Jason Day, and Martin Kaymer).
Don’t rule out the Europeans…
Jon Rahm has finished tied for fourth and tied for ninth in the last two Majors he has played in – perhaps a sign that more is to come this week. In that span, his score to par of 21-under-par is tied for third best – only Tiger and Koepka have better records during that stretch – and those men won both those two events.
Rahm is also one of the most underrated players in the world, according to our 15th Club Performance Index.
It’s not wise to write off Francesco Molinari, either.
Over the last three Majors, he’s averaged less than 1.5 bogeys or worse per round, the fewest of any player. Four top-five finishes in his last six Major starts is also an impossible run to ignore.