Are the Bombers Taking Over the LPGA?

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Luke Kerr-Dineen just made an interesting point about the players who went under par at Augusta last week:  Bubba Watson was the outlier rather than the norm among them when it came to driving distance.  Most of those who played well enough to win the Masters relied more on accuracy off the tee and into the greens; what set Bubba apart from that group may have been his length relative to them–or it may have been his ability to hit good recovery shots and make clutch putts.  Bottom line:  we shouldn’t assume just because a bomber won this year’s Masters that being a bomber is an advantage in general, at Augusta or anywhere.

This is a point I’ve been making for about the entire time I’ve been blogging on women’s golf at Mostly Harmless.  And it’s a point worth reiterating in the wake of Lexi Thompson’s victory over Michelle Wie and the rest of the field at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.  Tony Jesselli is one of many who have been suggesting the last few years that the LPGA is shifting to courses and course set-ups that benefit bombers like Thompson, Wie, and Ya Ni Tseng, who (in their view) are an ever-increasing segment of a tour that used to be dominated by precision players like Ji-Yai Shin, Ai Miyazato, and In-Kyung Kim and straight shooters like Karrie Webb, Cristie Kerr, and Angela Stanford.  If he and others who believe this are right, we should see the pathways to success on the LPGA narrowing for everyone but the bombers.

But look at who’s won in the world of women’s golf in 2014 and their key performance stats (length and accuracy off the tee, greens in regulation rate, putts per green in regulation, and birdies per round, with ranks for each):

Precision Players (0 wins)
Paula Creamer used to be in this category, but she’s actually gotten long enough–and inaccurate enough–off the tee, relative to her career averages, to be considered a straight shooter in 2014.

Straight Shooters (5 wins)

  • Karrie Webb (2):  258 yds. (#30), 76.5% fairways (#38), 72.2% greens (#38), 1.750 ppgir (#3), 4.04 bpr (#11)
  • Anna Nordqvist (2):  256 (#45), 74.4% (#69), 77.3% (#6), 1.769 (#10), 3.88 (#13)
  • Paula Creamer (1):  257 (#43), 76% (#51), 73.8% (#24), 1.753 (#5), 3.96 (#4)

Bombers (2 wins)

  • Jessica Korda (1):  262 yds. (#18), 64% fairways (#123), 69.7% greens (#69), 1.764 ppgir (#8), 3.79 bpr (#15)
  • Lexi Thompson (1):  275 (#1), 64% (#122), 76.9% (#8), 1.781 (#14), 4.15 (#5)

My takeaway from these few examples is that it doesn’t matter how you give yourself birdie opportunities on the LPGA; it matters how many you give yourself and how many you convert.

Consider Michelle Wie as another key example here.  Wie is averaging 256 yards off the tee this year and is ranked #46 in driving distance.  She’s hitting almost 70% of her fairways, a huge upgrade for her, but still only #93 on a tour known for its accuracy off the tee.  That improvement, however, helps explains why she leads the tour in greens in regulation at almost 81%.  If she can keep improving her putting, which is a respectable but not elite 1.799 putts per green in regulation (#41), she can make even more birdies than her current average per round (3.79, #15).  Basically, Wie has turned herself from a bomber into a straight shooter.  She’s sacrificed distance for accuracy and is starting to see results from that change.

Paula Creamer made the opposite decision:  she sacrificed accuracy for distance and is also starting to see results from that change.  I would put Morgan Pressel in that same category, by the way.  Although Pressel hasn’t gained enough distance to graduate from being a precision player to being a straight shooter, she has gained a lot (like on the order of 7 to 10 yards).  Yet Pressel, who’s usually among the most accurate off the tee on tour, is down at #95 in 2014.  Hitting fewer than 70% of your fairways is usually a kiss of death for someone who averages only 251 yards off the tee.  So what is an even bigger factor for Pressel’s success in 2014 than her increase in distance?  She’s getting the ball in the hole quickly when she hits greens (1.761, #7) and therefore making plenty of birdies (4.25, #2).

The common thread in all these examples is that putting for dough remains way more important than driving for show on the LPGA.  That’s true of everyone, but especially true of precision players.  Since Ai Miyazato is Tony’s key example of a struggling precision player, it’s worth pointing out that her ball-striking stats are pretty close to her career averages and that she’s actually hitting more greens in regulation than in recent years.  But she’s making only 2.58 birdies per round and a lot of that is attributable to poor putting:  she’s averaging a horrific (by her standards) 1.885 putts per green in regulation, which puts a player who’s accustomed to being ranked among the very best on tour in that category at #119 thus far this season.  It’s pretty clear that the problem lies not with the longest club in Ai-sama’s bag but in the shortest.

I would suggest the same problem with the flat stick is afflicting other top precision players in my career ranking of LPGA rookies since 2005:  it’s certainly the case for In-Kyung Kim (1.873 ppgir [#109], 2.92 bpr [#91]).  In fact, I’d be willing to bet that the fact that Inbee Park and Lizette Salas (now both precision players, a bit of a surprise since Park gained length off the tee in the run-up to and during her stretch of dominating the tour) are not putting as amazingly well as they did last year, and that the prototypical straight shooter Cristie Kerr’s putting stats are way off from her career averages, helps explain why they haven’t quite gotten it together yet in 2014 far far better than any other stat.

Hence, while you might be able to make the case that more LPGAers are doing what it takes to become straight shooters, the key to success remains hitting greens and especially making putts.  Given how long it’s taken Wie, Creamer, and Pressel to groove swing changes designed to turn them into straight shooters, I still believe that the short hitters on tour are better off working on their short games than trying to gain a few yards off the tee.  And I definitely disagree with the proposition that the bombers are taking over the LPGA.

Now, if Lexi improves her accuracy off the tee, giving herself better looks at pins, I’d expect to see her ppgir go down and her birdie rate go up.  If that happens, I’d also expect to see her in the winner’s circle a lot more often.  But if that happens, Lexi would transcend the “bomber” category and become someone you rarely see on the LPGA:  a straight-up bomber in the mold of Annika, Lorena, and, for shorter periods of time thus far in their careers, Ya Ni Tseng and Suzann Pettersen.  This is probably the best modern path to becoming an LPGA legend.  Nevertheless, it’s not the only one, as Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak can testify.

As the LPGA returns to Hawaii, the key for players is what it’s always been:  giving yourself a lot of good looks at birdie or better and making more of them than everyone else.

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