Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone South - Course Data
This week brings the PGA Tour to Akron, Ohio for the Bridgestone Invitational. The Firestone Country Club was originally founded as a perk to company employees but the vaunted South course, built in 1929, was always intended to be a championship-caliber venue. Jack Nicklaus himself apparently dubbed the course a “Monster” after registering a triple-bogey on the 16th hole during the PGA Championship, and the nickname stuck.
I love hearing about this kind of lore, because it means we’re going to have a very large sample of relevant data to analyze. In every year from 2010-2014, the course has been set up with the exact same par and distance configurations from year-to-year, so we have a strong dataset consisting of each hole being played over 1500 times by PGA Tour professionals. This sample set is large enough that there are unlikely to be anomalies due to unusual weather, and the field is generally of a similar strength every year, so we can have a lot of confidence in this data. Fantastic! What can we learn?
The Firestone CC South course is a 7,400 yard par-70. I calculate the 5-year historical scoring average to be 70.50 strokes per round, on the money. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but it means that it’s very likely that more of the field will be shooting over par every day than under it. Not by a landslide … but if course conditions are similar to years past, birdies will come at a premium, especially compared to some other recent events.
So where will our fantasy teams face the most challenges? Are there any spots where they can get a break and have a good chance at scoring? What holes will decide who makes moves on Saturday and Sunday and who is left just trying to keep pace with the field?
On the front 9, we will find out early how our day is going to look, because holes 2, 3, and 4 present a lot of opportunity – both good and bad. Later on, hole 9 is an especially difficult hole even amongst a course filled with difficult holes, and like any good championship course, we will have a lot of drama down the stretch with holes 16 and 18 offering some key make-or-break opportunities. I’ll be paying close attention to performances on these holes all weekend, and will try to fill my lineups with golfers who are well-suited to separate themselves from the field during these key stretches.
Hole #2 is a 526 yard par 5, and it is the easiest hole on the course, and it’s not even a remotely close race. For reference, a generic PGA Tour field will birdie roughly 20% of the time over a large sample. The next two easiest holes at Firestone South have a birdie percentage of 23% and 21%, and 9 of the 18 holes are 15% birdies or less. Hole #2 has had a rate of 46% birdies over the past 5 years of play. That is a staggering number, and this hole presents the one true chance to score, as it is extremely rare to see birdie percentages higher than that. Make a par on this hole, and half of the field just got a leg up on you. Guys who can’t hit it high over the trees near the tee box or accurately past them and reach the green in 2 shots here will have to make up for it on the other 17 holes, and that is going to be an uphill battle that I don’t want guys on my fantasy team to be in.
Also worth noting is that in 1500+ tries in the past 5 years, 53 golfers have dropped an eagle on #2. This might sound like a long shot, but if you’re hoping to get somebody on your fantasy team to make up some ground with an eagle, don’t hold your breath after #2, because there have only been 10 eagles out of over 25,000+ attempts on the other 17 holes over the past 5 years.
Hole #3 is a 442 yard par-4. That sounds pretty vanilla. The average score on this hole is 4.06 strokes. Even more vanilla. So what makes it so interesting? This hole has the highest standard deviation in scores of any hole on the course. Even though the scoring average is dead-on with the par, there are only two holes on the course where you’re less likely to get a par. It seems that the driving force behind this is a water hazard in front of the green. According to the hole description from the PGA, shooting from the rough on your approach shot leads to the most trouble in getting past the water. So, the data and the anecdotal evidence suggest that a missed fairway on this hole is going to be a lot harder to recover from than your average hole. This isn’t the hole that gave Mr. Nicklaus trouble and earned the course its nickname, but is has resulted in more double bogeys over the past 5 years than any other hole on the course.
Hole #4 is a 471-yard par-4. So if you made it through #2 and #3 ahead of the game, you get rewarded with the hardest hole on the course and a chance to give it all back. If you didn’t do well on #2 and #3 … you’ve got to pray to not be one of the 30% of golfers who will end up with a bogey or double bogey on this hole because there won’t be many chances to save your round later on. I don’t see any particular quirks about this hole, except that it’s very hard to get on the fairway and stay there off the tee, and it’s very hard to get on the green and stay there from your approach. So again driving accuracy will be key here, but that alone won’t get you out of the woods like it should on #3. A high ball flight off the tee and on the approach shot will be key to staying on the fairway and staying on the green if you want to avoid a bogey here. If one of your golfers nails the approach shot as well and gets a birdie here, they just saved a stroke that 92% of the field will not get.
Hole #9 is a 494-yard par-4. The scoring splits on this hole very closely resemble the scoring on hole #4. I’ve read a few reports that claim this is the hardest hole on the course. The 5-year history actually says #4 is more difficult, on average, by a hair. This is a straight-away par 4 and a long one. Aside from that, the main defense is a small and sloped green. Leaving yourself a long downhill putt after your approach shot here makes you a prime candidate to wind up joining the 26% that have registered a bogey on this hole over the past 5 years.
Hole #16 is a 667 yard par-5. Yes, you read that right, six-hundred … and sixty seven (for good measure, I suppose?). This actually pleases the math nerd in me, but I digress … this is basically the longest hole you will ever see. The 2012 US Open had a 670-yard hole, but that’s it, as far as I can see. I’m sure there are some examples I might be overlooking – but this is a doozy. So I’m sure you’re expecting this to be another in a long line of difficult holes, but in this day and age of equipment and training, it might sound laughable but a 667 yard hole offers the best chance to score that these guys will have seen in awhile when they tee it up on #16. I’d guess that by this point in the round there will be more than a few players who are anxious to take out their frustrations. The 23% birdies here makes it the 2nd easiest hole on the course, but that’s kind of akin to being the 2nd tallest midget. It represents another make-or-break opportunity, as this hole has the 2nd highest standard deviation in scores (40% of the field will get something other than a par here), and the 2nd highest double bogey percentage to go along with the 23% chance at a birdie. Besides the length, this hole features strategically placed bunkers 280-290 yards from the tee. Even if you clear the bunkers with a fantastic tee shot, the long downhill approach shot means there will still be work to be done to score on this hole. I suspect we’ll see some early success here, but on Sunday when the pin is right next to the pond, we might see those same successful golfers get into some big trouble when it really matters if they play it the same way they did when the pin was in a much safer location earlier in the week.
Hole #18 is a 464-yard par-4. To close it off, we have the 3rd hardest hole on the course. 25% of the field have made a bogey or worse here each round in the past. Despite that fact, it’s still about middle-of-the-pack for this course at about 15% birdies. So we have another high standard deviation here, which is perfect for an 18th hole. The trick here again seems to be accuracy – wrong side of the fairway, and a tree blocks a clean shot at the green. Losing a 2-stroke lead on this hole not out of the question given the variation in scores, which should lead to some nerve-wracking final moments if nobody runs away with it!
The rest of the course is not easy, but to me, these holes are clearly the highlights. Firestone CC South provides a long, steady challenge for any golfer, and it will be interesting to see who can squeak birdies out of those holes still, and who can avoid disaster in the middle of the course, but the six holes highlighted above are where we will see the most opportunities to separate the contenders from the pretenders.
I’d like to point out that I always hesitate to eliminate golfers based on a single criteria. That is a dangerous thing to do, as anyone who told you that Zach Johnson couldn’t win at St. Andrews because he didn’t drive the ball far enough can attest to (and that would include Zach Johnson himself, I believe). So there’s something to be said for the fact that really good golfers can make up for their disadvantages if they get a chance to.
However, if we can get the guys who are at an advantage, we’ll take them every time. So on that note, let’s look and see who might be best suited to separate themselves from the field this week!
As we’ve seen, our key holes lend themselves to some easily accessible statistics that we can use to see who might be at an advantage against the field on this course. Several holes are hard-to-reach, and even harder-to-reach from the rough, so we’ll look at driving distance and driving accuracy. In addition, #9 and #16 are key holes where a few feet off on your approach shot could mean the difference between birdie and bogey, so we’ll look at proximity to the hole from the fairway. Getting it over the trees off the tee will be a crucial advantage on #2, and hitting it high will also help with some of the sloped fairways from other challenging key holes. The PGA Tour’s Apex Height statistic will hopefully help us glean some insight into who we can rely on to get the full benefit of their one true birdie opportunity penciled in early.
This field features 48 of the top 50 golfers in the world rankings. That’s impressive, but if anyone has ever looked at the world golf rankings, I’m sure they’ve found a few spots where they disagree strongly with the placement of certain golfers vs. others. There are more guys with a history of winning tournaments in this competition than almost any non-major. So let’s try to narrow the field down a little bit based on what we learned about our make-or-break holes.
For this analysis, the PGA Tour provides a generous helping of stats for everyone who has enough rounds to qualify for the top 200, and not much else. So in this field, there are 23 golfers in the field who don’t have enough rounds to qualify. They will be excluded from the analysis. I will list them at the end, and you can decide if any of them are worth digging a little deeper into. At a glance the vast majority should not be contenders, and I’ll leave it to other prognosticators to speculate on a hidden gem or two.
There are only four golfers who rank in the top half of the remaining field in all four stats: Keegan Bradley, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, and Hideki Matsuyama. If we change the filter to any golfers who are in the top third of the field in at least 3 of the 4 stats, the list is Keegan Bradley, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Ryan Palmer, and Justin Rose.
Distance, a high ball flight, and accuracy both from the tee and from the fairway are all stats that have generally been correlated with success on the PGA Tour for any course, so we see some strong golfers at the top of our list. Keegan Bradley and Dustin Johnson rate the highest. One stat you will hear repeated this week is, I believe, that 19 of the past 20 winners here had won a major championship before they won here. I’m not going to eliminate anyone based on that criterion, but if you did, I believe you’d be left with Justin Rose as your best-suited contender.
There’s plenty of more angles to take, but hopefully this will give you some ideas of things to look for, and allow us all to enjoy watching the tournament a little more!
Good luck! Feel free to leave any comments or feedback, because as the data available changes from week-to-week, this format will be flexible going forward.
Excluded golfers due to insufficient pga tour data this season:
(There are some strong international golfers here, but in general this group is decidedly the weaker portion of the field.)