PGA DFS Course Breakdown: Whistling Straits

This week the PGA Tour stops in Wisconsin, where Whistling Straits will host the PGA Championship, the last major of the year. All the big names are in play – and a million dollars is on the line at DraftKings!

Editor’s Note: Starting next week, the PGA DFS Course Breakdown will only be available for DraftKings PGA Incentives members. Enjoy this week’s free feature!

There are plenty of storylines that will be covered throughout the week, and we’ll see all of the prognosticators come out of the woodwork with picks, and a lot of new or infrequent PGA DFS players will be trying their hand this week, hopefully watering down the competition slightly, but significantly.

PGA Championship – Whistling Straits Overview

Whistling Straits last hosted a PGA tour event in 2010 – once again for the PGA Championship. The results from that tournament in 2010, and past finishes at PGA Championships, will factor into many projections this weekend, but I like to take a more data-driven approach. Many things have changed since 2010, and while it’s safe to say that looking at past PGA Championship contenders will produce a fine list of golfers, I don’t think either one is particularly relevant to who is going to win in 2015.

What we do have is the data from 2010, and we can make some reasonably good assumptions about it. The data represents each hole being played over 450 times, by a field that was also for a PGA Championship, so it will be of similar strength. The event in 2010 featured numerous fog delays, but in my experience, this would not be a reason to distrust the data, like unusual winds or heavy rain would.

The course was set up in 2010 as a 7,507-yard par-72, and while some of the tees have been lengthened for strategy reasons after too many players were able to sky the doglegs in 2010. If anyone is aware of a significant change that isn’t covered in this article, let me know, and I’ll incorporate it as best I can! I calculate the scoring average from 2010 to be 72.94, nearly a full stroke above par. This course, naturally for an open championship, is going to play difficult. Cut lines depend on a lot of things, but if you get to the clubhouse at even par after 36 holes, you have a reasonable expectation of being there for the weekend.

So what makes this course so challenging? The PGA Championship will bring a lot of challenges regarding pin placement and other course conditions that will be a test throughout. But on every course there are holes that seem to decide tournaments – and, by looking at the data, we can see that not all birdies and bogeys are created equal.

This course features six holes that clearly stand out in regards to standard deviation – all six holes will most likely result in more than 40% of the field making a score other than par. The front 9 features an absolutely crucial stretch early on during holes #4, #5, and #6. On the back 9, hole #11 presents another key opportunity, and like we see with many championship-caliber courses, there will be a lot of drama down the stretch with multi-stroke leaderboard changes possible on #16, and the hardest hole on the course in terms of scoring average, #18.

Key Stat Legend: Whistling Straits

Statistic Description
Driving Accuracy Measures average number of fairways hit off tee shots
Driving Distance Measures average total yardage of drives
Approaches from * yards Measures average to-hole accuracy from fairways or tee shots on par-3s, from varying distances
Total Putting A comprehensive number using six different putting stats (Putting from 5-10’, Three Putt Avoidance, etc.)

Let’s begin our hole-by-hole breakdown, looking at the key stats for each, starting at the first tee.

Hole #1: Driving Accuracy, Approaches from >200

Hole #2: Driving Distance, Approaches from >200

Hole #3: Total Putting

Hole #4 starts the fun after a fairly normal first three holes. Hole 4 is a 489-yard par-4 that plays a half stroke over its par. This hole features the most bogeys, and the second most double bogeys (to #18) on the course. Par here is actually a ‘win’, as 44% of the field recorded a bogey-or-worse here in 2010, and only one out of every 25 tries resulted in a birdie (which is more akin to an eagle percentage for an easy hole). The hole is long, but long drivers seem to be forced to choose between a blind second shot and flirting with a series of bunkers, or even worse, Lake Michigan on the left. Similar challenges face the approach shot, with Lake Michigan once again in play if the ball skips past the green. The best way to survive this hole will be through either elite Driving Accuracy or a top-notch Approach from >200 yards.

Hole #5 presents an immediate opportunity to get back anything that Pete Dye may have taketh away from your scorecard on #4. The 598-yard Par-5 featured the most birdies in 2010 (39%) and had the lowest vs. Par scoring average, as the field took 4.69 strokes to finish this par-5 in 2010. This is one hole that features a notable adjustment since 2010. The hole is a double-dogleg that was intended to play as a true three-shot par-5. Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, and a few others, were successful last year in skirting the entire thing, which snakes (the actual name of the hole, by the way, is “Snake”) through hazards on both sides. So the course designer and the club extended the tee box 10-15 yards for this go-round, which now makes the shortcut illogical for even the longest drivers, except perhaps with significant wind at their backs. So, if the shortcut from 2010 is not in play, the scoring won’t be quite as soft, but this will still be a key par-5 and the key to navigating both doglegs hazard-free and securing one of your better chances at birdie for the day will be Driving Accuracy.

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Hole #6 is listed as a 355-yard par-4 and represents the third easiest hole on the course in 2010, and with the next three holes featuring only about a one in 10 chance of birdie each, nearly ⅓ of the field will be able to separate themselves with a birdie-or-better here if it plays similarly to 2010. This short par-4 can range in configurations between a very-driveable 340 yard hole and a little over 400 yards. Either setup will have virtually any PGA Tour pro well within striking range after their tee shot. The key to securing birdie here is pinpoint placement from a very short approach shot. The green is split in two, and a ridiculously steep bunker lies on the divide. That is the main concern, but there will be ample opportunity to stick it close here and walk away with a leg up on 68% of the field for the players most skilled in Approaches from 50-125 yards.

Hole #7: Approaches >200, total putting
Hole #8: Driving Distance, Approaches >200
Hole #9: Driving Distance, Driving Accuracy
Hole #10: Driving Distance, Approaches 50-125 yards

The first make-or-break hole on the back 9, hole #11 played as a 618-yard par-5 that played to a 4.94 strokes scoring average in 2010. However, it was virtually tied with #5 for the highest standard deviation in scoring in 2010. You were twice as likely to make birdie than bogey here in 2010, but that was balanced out by the third most double bogeys of any hole. The main hazard here is a bunker that is about an acre in total size. It is important to note that what was already an opportunity-hole has been shortened by about 50 yards this year to accommodate added facilities for the event, and the fact that it will be reachable in two for a lot more players will surely make it a hotbed for scoring, and the typical bump for players with elite Driving Distance on a par-5 is necessary here.

Hole #12: Total Putting
Hole #13: Driving Accuracy, Approaches from 50-125 yards
Hole #14: Driving Accuracy, Approaches from 50-125 yards
Hole #15: Driving Distance

Coming down the stretch, we get our final par-5 on #16. The 568-yard hole featured 34% of the field making a birdie in 2010, and only one in 10 tries resulting in a bogey to go along with seven eagles, for a cumulative .24 strokes below par. While I expect #11 to give it a run for its money this year, this hole played as the second easiest hole on the course in 2010. A birdie here will be almost necessary to get and/or maintain separation on the field, especially with #18 looming in the near future. Driving Distance and a solid Approach from >200 yards will go a long way towards securing birdie to try to get some breathing room for 17 and 18.

Hole #17: Approaches > 200, Total Putting

Hole #18 is one of the hardest you’ll see on any course. The hole played as a 500-yard par-4 in 2010, and chewed up the field for a 4.52 scoring average, over 40 bogeys per day, and nine double bogeys per day on average. The hole is wrought with hazards … players can choose between a safe tee shot, or if they can hit it 275+ in the air they can try to get closer, but both the drive and the approach shot will flirt with bunkers and a creek guards the green. Once again, even though this is a par-4, Driving Distance and Approaches from >200 yards will play a key role in trying to earn a par here, with earn being the operative word.

Narrowing It Down

So, what can this tell us about who might be best suited to separate from the field and contend for a major championship this week? I like to compile weighted rankings for these metrics, as well as identify players who excel in all key stats, and all but 1 of the key stats. I will say upfront that these stats are fairly accurate estimations, and while obviously some players will be hitting their approach shots from just inside 200 yards after a strong drive on the holes I’ve indicated, the vast majority of the field will fall into the key yardage categories I’ve selected.

In addition, I believe that sand saves and total putting will be relevant on many holes for many golfers. They might not be key stats on some of the holes, but their effects will come in to play throughout, so they have been factored into the ratings as kind of a “blanket advantage” for the entire course. The key stats on the key holes are counted double when deriving the weights. These numbers are arbitrary, except when compared to one another:

Driving Distance: 11
Approaches from >200: 11
Driving Accuracy: 8
Approaches from 50-125: 5
Total Putting: 4

The statistical analysis that follows only pertains to golfers who have enough rounds this season to qualify for the PGA Tour top 200. I prefer not to speculate on short samples, or more so, I like to leave it up to those who are better at speculating than I am! These lists represent the golfers who we have a very firm understanding of how they have played in 2015 during PGA Tour events. The excluded golfers will be listed at the end.

This analysis applies to the 90 golfers that appear both in the DraftKings player pool and PGA Tour top 200, and hopefully it will serve as a shortcut in your research more so than a “one-stop answer to the absolute best plays”. This is intended to help identify which players might be best suited to the key holes on this course, and not a total substitute for overall golfer skill ratings.

Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Keegan Bradley, Rickie Fowler, and Jason Day come out as the top five stats-based course-fit golfers this week!

The only player to rank in the top 30 for at least five of the six key statistics is Brendon Todd. So, there’s a sleeper for you! Driving Distance is his weakness out of the six, and it is a significant one on this course, so, do with this information what you will!

The following golfers rank in the top 30 in at least four of the six categories: Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Webb Simpson, Jimmy Walker, Joost Luiten, Jason Bohn, Brendon Todd, Danny Lee, and David Toms.

For those interested, here is a spreadsheet that shows the ranks for all of the golfers analyzed in each stat.

Just a note: a lot of golfers were excluded due to lack of rounds to qualify for PGA Top 200. There are some notable europeans (Kaymer, Willett, Sullivan, etc.) missing, but I do not wish to speculate on how their European Tour statistics will translate against our PGA Tour data. In addition, Rory McIlroy is no longer listed in the top 200, but I think handicapping him will come down largely to whether or not you think he’ll be affected by his injury. If he isn’t, he’s obviously a great play. If you think he is, then fade away!

There you have it! Good luck this week guys!

About the Author

  • Sean O'Donnell (hokie2009)

  • Sean O’Donnell is a proud Hokie (Virginia Tech class of 2009, electrical engineering) as well as a Grateful Dead enthusiast. A fantasy baseball player since age 12, he has flirted with DFS in the past, but only this season stumbled onto the dearth of information that exists pertaining to daily fantasy golf and made a commitment to analyzing PGA tournament data on a weekly basis. When he’s not scouring the web for obscure PGA data, he works as a consultant for small businesses involved in research grants with the federal government.


  • tdkenny

    Awesome article. Great information that I will use.

  • kiteman

    This is really awesome, thanks for putting this together.

  • km19shel

    2 weeks in a row, this guy crushed it.

  • ishvt35

    • Blogger of the Month

    Crazy in depth article. Well done. And that’s from a former Hokie (2006) as well. Ever been to the Hokie House? That’s my bar!

  • hokie2009

    I’m more of a Mike’s / Souvlaki kind of guy myself! But many good times playing pool upstairs and eating HeartStoppers before basketball games!

  • acesedy

    I may actually try dfs golf for the first time because of this article. I really respect the work you did here.

  • hokie2009

    I tried DFS golf for the first time after watching another bad baseball beat roll in late on a Wednesday night. I did about 15 minutes of research, submitted some lineups, got my ass kicked, and the rest is history! I saw enough to know that golf was beatable. You have to be as driven to learn, and thick-skinned enough to survive the inevitable heartbreaks … but I think golf is one of the softer games we have available to us. There is a large information gap that we don’t see in other sports. Baseball – there are probably a dozen websites out there that are veritable goldmines for research (fangraphs comes to mind) … and NFL … everybody knows EVERYTHING about EVERY NFL player.

    But golf, a lot of people get haphazard with their picks, for whatever reason. In, say, baseball, you can win a GPP and have one of your hitters get a 0. It happens. Other players can make up for it. With DraftKings golf, if you make one mistake or get unlucky on one player not making the cut – you are eliminated from contention for first prize in any GPP of any real size, for all intents and purposes. Mathematically it is possible, I guess, but for all intents and purposes – on your average week, halfway through the event, 90% of the field on average is eliminated from contention. So if you can get six guys through the cut (no small task obviously) – all of a sudden you’re in a 2-day competition with 20k people instead of 200k people, and the prize is $100k or $1mil every week! And that is an extremely +EV place to be!

    Thanks for all the kind words guys! Hopefully it will only improve with time.

  • phinnatic

    Awesome article, thank you for your efforts, love the spread sheet.

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