Spanish Lessons

Q. Would you use a local caddie at Medinah?

SERGIO GARCIA: No. I’ll see who I use.
Sergio Garcia at the Barclays, 25 August 2012


Sergio Garcia, whose earliest professional memories of major championship golf are bound up with Medinah Country Club and the 1999 PGA (he shot a course-record on Saturday, hit a shot that people still talk about on Sunday, and battled Tiger all the way to the last hole), took a local caddie at the Wyndham two weeks ago—and won. This week, at the Barclays at Bethpage, he took his friend Wayne Richardson, who usually works for CBS Sports—and finished third after leading through 54 holes. Naturally, the press corps asked him about his future looper plans, including whether he would use a local caddie for the Ryder Cup at Medinah. Sergio demurred, but the fact that he was asked the question at all simply astonished me—and inspired a bit of fancy. So, let’s say some kind of miracle happened (which it won’t, for innumerable reasons) …

The first thing that a caddie needs to know about his player is how far the player hits the ball with all of his clubs, and as it happens Golf magazine has a feature called “What’s In My Bag?” that not only tells you what clubs are in a player’s bag, but also how far he hits each one. Unfortunately, Sergio does not seem to have a relationship with Golf, or at least he hasn’t been a subject for that column before so far as I can tell. What my research found is that Sergio’s distances have been a matter of debate on, a website for jesus-these-people-are-nerdy-even-for-me golf wonks, for years. Even back in 2008, as it happens also at the Barclays, the golfwrx people were talking about how the television announcers were saying Garcia didn’t carry a three-iron, as he hit his four-iron 250 yards. (See this page: Which is, obviously, absurd.

On first hearing such a thing, I’d say that the amateur’s reaction is “What?” But there are reasons Sergio might actually hit a four-iron that far, including the fact that a lot of people wouldn’t recognize what he’s hitting as a four-iron. Most tour players’ clubs are bent a few degrees flatter, meaning that a tour pro’s seven-iron likely has a loft closer to the amateur’s six-iron—and since most amateur clubs these days have less loft than clubs did even ten years ago, Sergio’s four-iron might be pushing the loft of, say, Tom Watson’s two-iron in 1977.

The other reason is that Sergio’s swing involves what’s called “de-lofting” the clubface at impact. In other words, his hands are so far in front of the ball when the club makes contact (with said ball) that the effective loft of the club might be as much as a club more. When Sergio hits his ball, that is, a seven-iron has effectively become a six-iron, and so on. It’s possible to watch videos of Sergio’s swings on YouTube and other places, so if you feel the need to check this out, go ahead and I’ll wait.

If you’re back (or never left—I usually just keep reading when websites encourage those kinds of jumps), maybe we can proceed. What I resolved to do, in the absence of any better information, is find out where Sergio ranks in driver distance, find a comparable player whose iron distances are known, and kind of work from there. Clearly, there’s a lot of give in that sort of exercise, but this is all fantastical anyway so what the hell.

Sergio is, as of this writing, tied for 74th on the PGATour’s official stats for driving distances, which as it happens is not that far from Ricky Barnes, who’s tied for 78th. Barnes, as it also happens, has been featured in Golf’s “What’s In My Bag?” column, so for the purposes of what follows I’ll be roughly using Barnes’ distances to stand in for Sergio’s. All caveats apply, and all mistakes are, obviously, mine. In a sense I’ll be caddieing for a kind of Barney Garcia monster, but it’s also true that I’ve seen both Barnes and Garcia play in person, and while nobody’d ever mistake one for the other, I’ll try to have an idea where I’m starting to go seriously adrift—and remember, the Ryder Cup is match play, which means that complete precision isn’t quite necessary.

To begin then—and only to begin, because I’m not so silly as to try to cover the whole course here since reading anything that long would lead to my readers to start demanding caddie fees themselves—with Course Three’s first hole. The first is the one that, in the old joke we like to tell guests—after they’ve hit their fourth shot into some kind of proximity to the green, then chipped up and three-putted—is the easiest one on the course. According to Sergio’s driving distance stats, he averages about 290 yards off the tee. (This is surely nonsense, because even in 1999 I saw him hit a drive that went at least 360 yards on Course Three’s twelfth hole, and during that tournament he averaged about 315 yards off the tee in the first round.) But let’s say Sergio is conservative.

The first hole is only 435 yards or so from the very back, so that Serge—we’re already on a nickname basis—only needs 280 or so off the tee to get it to the 150 yard marker: Ricky Barnes hits his nine-iron about that far, as do most tour pros these days, so that’s about all any of them need to go these days. Past the 150 marker is a downslope, so a good drive that’s further than that will probably end up inside a hundred yards—with the caveat that it’s on a downslope, and it’s harder to hit the ball square on a downslope. The choice Serge will face here then is: try to intimidate his opponent by bombing one down the hill (and risk getting a weird lie), or laying up to a reasonable distance, then sticking the second shot close. What choice he makes on the very first tee, in other words, will say a lot about what Sergio thinks of his opponent’s abilities.

The second hole at Medinah is one Sergio’s had some history on: he holed out a chip there in 1999 for a seemingly-impossible birdie during his opening 66, which set the course record (until Skip Kendall fired a 65 the next day). The second will measure around 190 yards from the back tees during the Ryder Cup, so Serge will probably want to hit a seven-iron (Ricky Barnes hits his seven 180, but Phil Mickelson hits his 190; Serge is probably closer to Phil than to Ricky). But although September is usually fairly mild when it comes to wind speed in the Windy City, that average is weighted.

According to, in Chicago “the highest average wind speed … occurs around September 29, at which time the average daily maximum wind speed is 16 mph.” That’s a pretty considerable number, at least for golf; it would mean that Serge would have to hit at least another club to be sure of carrying the water that fronts the hole. Most likely, that wind would be out of the south or west (each has a 17 percent chance, according to Weatherspark), which on the second hole means it would be coming from the player’s right; that would mean that Serge would probably want to hit a left-to-right cut shot, which would also have the benefit of holding the somewhat-shallow green better. The downside is that cut shots usually don’t go as far, meaning that Garce (we are now being slightly creative with the nicknames) might have to club up even more, possibly to as much as a five-iron.

Still, Sergio’s length would probably be to his advantage over nearly anyone on the U.S. squad, which would mean that he’d have the chance to send a really dominating message to his opponent on the first two holes: a huge drive on the first hole, followed by a soaring iron shot to the second green, might be enough to win him the first two holes by themselves. Which would certainly help the Spaniard out, since Sergio isn’t known for his putting prowess—though he’s apparently putting better: he’s ranked 20th this year in the new putting stat, “Strokes Gained,” which measures how many shots a golfer has gained (or lost) against the field each week on the greens.

That brings us to where I might really be able to help Sergio, which is on Medinah’s greens. I don’t mean to boast, but there isn’t anyone on the planet who can read those greens better than I can, and there are a few spots on the first two greens where experience might actually matter even against guys who read greens every week with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line. Both of the first two of Course Three’s greens have hidden breaks: the first has a mound towards its front that can make putts go the opposite way to where they might appear to want to go, while the second, notoriously, usually breaks away from the water to the green’s front. With good reads, Sergio could easily go birdie-birdie to open his match—and leave the second green with a two-up lead.

I am sure that all of the caddies for the Ryder Cup will see these breaks early in the practice round, but sometimes it’s possible to miss something in the heat of competition, and maybe it’s worth something to have somebody who can say—with authority—precisely the way the greens will behave. If I really did have anything to offer Sergio, or anybody else on the Ryder Cup team, it would be that I suppose. There are some places on those greens that I’ve seen even professionals misread badly; it’s possible, I suppose, that I might be able to help out in that dimension at least. And it might help Sergio—who ended up losing the Barclays to Nick Watney this afternoon—even more. When it was all over, Watney said this: “I made more putts than I made all year.”


The Mark of Z

“One way to characterize professional golf,” wrote John Cassidy earlier this summer in The New Yorker, “is to say that it has reached parity—there are so many good players, and they all have a roughly equal chance of winning.” Cassidy called it the “random golfer theory,” and has trotted it out after Webb Simpson’s win at Olympic and Ernie Els’ win at Lytham. The idea is that anybody within the top 100 has a shot of winning any major: an idea that is, more or less, borne out by the fact that of the past 17 majors, there has been 17 winners. Until now, which is to say that Rory’s win at the PGA has blown that idea up just as surely as the events of the past five years has blown up both the Black-Scholes formula and the hype of this year’s Ryder Cup at Medinah to what will, especially in the Fleet Street press, be absurd levels.

The cry will be, as it’s been since McIlroy won the U.S. Open at Congressional a year ago, for a Tiger vs. Mac showdown during Sunday’s singles matches, only with an even heightened pitch now that Rory’s won his first two majors at a more rapid clip than Tiger won his first two. And as it happens, Tiger’s second major was also a PGA, and, also, it was at Medinah. Which, as it further happens, was also the first time Tiger faced a competitor who seemed to have all the tools he did, but was from Europe—and younger to boot. And after that PGA, in 1999, Sergio Garcia, like Rory’s fans today, demanded to play Tiger in that year’s Ryder Cup.

Obviously, European fans are hoping for a different outcome this time around: that Ryder Cup was at the Country Club in Brookline, and the Euros got smoked in singles; that was the year that the American captain, Ben Crenshaw, said the night before the finale, “I got a good feeling about this.” It was also the year of the “excessive celebration” after Justin Leonard made his putt on the 17th hole of regulation—which came before Jose Olazabal had a chance to make his putt, which would have at least continued the match, a point that, if you believe the London papers, all of Europe has been brooding about for the past nearly-decade-and-a-half. Not that Europeans are well-known to carry around centuries-long grudges or anything.

In any case, this year’s Ryder Cup is shaping up, at least from the wrong end of the Atlantic, to be a kind of revanchist’s dream, only without soaking the fields of Flanders in blood. In place of Sergio, they have Rory, who actually wins tournaments, and even majors, without regripping his club twenty-five times or casually insulting entire states. And most alarmingly, at least from this side of the Atlantic, our main guy not only has never made a big deal out of these kinds of team events—Tiger is on record as saying he doesn’t regard the Ryder Cup as being the same as one of the four majors—but he hasn’t won a major in four years. Or, in other words, since their kid starting winning them. Which is where the Black-Scholes point comes in.

“If Capital One was trading at $30 a share,” says Michael Lewis in The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the Black-Scholes model for pricing options—those obscure financial instruments that have had so much say in our lives recently— “assumed that, over the next two years, the stock was more likely to get to $35 a share than to $40, and more likely to get to $40 than to $45, and so on.” This makes sense to us, intuitively: we like to think that “slow and steady wins the race,” for instance. But the real world does not always behave in that slow and incremental way: everyone would have bet that dinosaurs would be the dominant species on the planet for eons, until a meteorite crashed in southern Mexico. Sometimes things can change quite suddenly—and not reach any intermediate stops. Once, there were billions of dinosaurs. Then, there weren’t.

Once, there was a Tiger, and now there’s a Rory. In between there’s been a collection of Keegan Bradleys and Webb Simpsons, a collection that has largely made the golf press uneasy at best and, at worst, spooked. Golf is, after all, one of the few sports—the other that I can think of at the moment being horse racing—where nobody likes an underdog, at least until the point where it seems like the underdog can actually win; or, in short, become the overdog. Rory, with his eight-shot win at the PGA, might just have reached that point: a point that, as it happens, the wonks over at Grantland have quantified using a measure they call “Z-Score,” which is apparently a standard part of the average mathematician’s toolbag.

“Z-Score” is calculated by taking the winner’s score and subtracting the average score of all the players who finished the tournament, then dividing that against “the variance between the scores and the average performance,” as Grantland’s resident golf stat-head, Bill Barnwell, says. In other words, a tournament where the winner shot “20-under-par and the last-place finisher shot 20-over-par” would have a higher value than a tournament “in which the winner shot 3-under-par and the duffer in last shot 4-over.” Of the top ten scores ever figured, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus have three apiece, with Tiger Woods’ performance at the 2000 U.S. Open, where he blew away the field by fifteen shots, achieving the highest “Z-Score” ever recorded at -4.12 (meaning that he was more than four standard deviations better than the average performance in the tournament.

It’s a good methodology in that it factors out things like weather (everyone plays in similar conditions, within reason) and so on, and to a degree allows us to compare performances across the generations. For instance, it’s now arguable that Jack Nicklaus’ performance at the 1965 Masters might be better than Woods’ win in 1997, even though Woods broke Nicklaus’ scoring record (271, or -11 to par, versus 270, or -12 to par), because while Woods’ “Z-Score” in 1997 was -3.24 Nicklaus’ “Z-Score” was -3.48. Or in other words, Woods was only a bit more than three times better than his competitors in 1997, while Nicklaus was nearly three-and-a-half times better. Obviously, this doesn’t really matter much (though Davis Love’s win at the 1997 PGA, which he took by five shots and produced a Z-Score of 3.54, looks a lot better after running it through this formula), but it’s fun to compare scores across eras.

Like, for instance, the scores Tiger Woods produced in his prime versus the scores Rory McIlroy has produced in his two major wins: last year’s U.S. Open at Congressional and this year’s PGA. McIlroy won both tournaments by eight shots, which is the kind of performance necessary to place on the Z-Score leaderboard, but Z-Score isn’t factored by how much the second-place guy shot, but rather by how much the field as a whole shot. Rory’s Z-Score for the tournaments places him comfortably within the top twenty Z-Scores ever recorded, but his -3.07 score for Congressional, together with his -3.15 score for Kiawah, aren’t enough to place him very close to Tiger’s epic win in 2000. The Congressional score, in fact, doesn’t even place Rory close to Jack Nicklaus’ -3.22 at Turnberry in 1977—you know, the “Duel In The Sun” Jack lost to Tom Watson.

Rory’s wins, that is, have been big—but they haven’t been that big, at least by comparison to Jack and Tiger. The win at Congressional, at least as measured by Z-Score, isn’t even as good as Padraig Harrington’s British Open win in 2008, which the Irishman won at 3-OVER par, only four shots better than his nearest competitor—Harrington rang up a -3.09 Z-Score during what was a famously-windblown tournament. Still, Rory’s fans might cite Barnwell’s observation that through “his first nine majors, McIlroy has put up an average Z-Score 0.97 standard deviations below the mean,” an average only exceeded by Seve Ballesteros (-1.04) and Ernie Els (-1.25) in anyone’s first nine majors. Rory is, obviously, still very young; it’s quite possible we still haven’t seen his best stuff.

Still, what the Z-Score tale tells us is that while Rory is a very, very good golfer, he doesn’t go to the same dimension-bending, dinosaur-slaying, places Tiger Woods could go in his prime. But if we haven’t yet seen Rory’s best, there are few places Rory could demonstrate that to better effect than Medinah, the course Tiger has tamed twice for two of his fourteen major titles and a membership in the club itself. It’s no honorary membership, either: Tiger has the same rights as any other full member, an honor the club presented him with after his second win in 2006, which is to say that, in a sense perhaps more real than any other course, Medinah really is Tiger’s home turf. For Rory to beat Tiger there would be, one suspects, a grievous blow to the competitive Tiger—all the implacable laws of sport, which are even more inflexible than any mathematical model, thus demand that there is only one possible final match for the Ryder Cup’s finale at the end of September: Woods v. McIlroy, for all the stakes that there are. May the best Z-Score win—and to hell with the “random golfer theory.”