Pros vs. Joes

PGA Championship 2020: Data confirms the way tour pros play TPC Harding Park will look nothing like how average golfers struggle there daily

July 31, 2020
Harding Park GC

Dom Furore

TPC Harding Park’s debut as a major-championship venue may do more than showcase a venerable public track to the world and its greatest golfers. Instead, thanks to the current technology of statistics tracking, it may provide a telling—maybe even chilling—demonstration of just how wide the gap now exists between average golfers and the game’s elite.

Using data from Arccos, the GPS-sensor-based performance-tracking system, which has tracked more than 1,500 rounds played at TPC Harding Park, the evidence suggests that the average golfer, let’s say a 15-handicap, would have a best possible score at Harding Park that’s likely 23 shots worse than a tour pro’s average score. Stated another way, the best a 15-handicap might do playing from the 7,234-yard back tees at Harding Park would likely be 94. The last time elite professional golfers played rattle-bottom at TPC Harding Park, the average score was a shade less than 71.

Of course, given the current state of the choking rough surrounding TPC Harding Park’s narrow fairways and raised greens for the upcoming PGA Championship, that difference in practical terms likely would be even greater. Still, the data from Arccos suggests that how TPC Harding Park plays for regular Joes will not be how it’s navigated by touring pros. That’s not to say the world’s best players will find it a pushover. In fact, the last time it hosted an elite pro stroke-play event, the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship, only 24 players finished the week under par. And that was when it was 150 yards shorter than it was for Tiger Woods’ playoff victory over John Daly.

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Here’s how our numbers were developed: Arccos uses the data from every shot that every player using the company’s sensors hit during a round at TPC Harding Park. Through the company’s Arccos Caddie feature, strategies are developed by an artificial intelligence platform to recommend the best way for a particular player to attack a hole in order to shoot his or her lowest score. Through Arccos Caddie’s A.I. and machine learning, it might suggest an average hack would score lower on a long par 5 (for instance, Harding Park’s 607-yard fourth hole) by teeing off with a 3- or 5-wood because of a greater likelihood of playing the rest of the hole from the short grass.

Again, these 15-handicapper’s scores are likely the best of best-case scenarios (because the Arccos Caddie A.I. metric is calculating the way to play the hole that statistically leads to the lowest score, not the most likely way the hole would be played). In reality, especially with the PGA Championship penal setup, it gets uglier than a bar fight at 2 a.m. For example, on a hole like the 494-yard 12th, Arccos estimates that our average golfer would miss the fairway 53 percent of the time, not only bringing in to play the rough but out of bounds to the left that would see even a tiny pull bouncing down Lake Merced Boulevard. That quickly brings triple-bogey 7 into play. Even the recommended strategy of laying up with a 5-wood is going to miss the short grass a third of the time. The numbers also predict that Mr. Average’s 58-degree pitch from 72 yards falls short as often as it hits the green, landing in a greenside bunker that statistically he’s more likely to take four shots to get in the hole than he is to take two. So that best-case scenario of a 6 might become a worst-case scenario of a 10 without all that much going wrong.

Of course, even getting on the short grass at Harding Park doesn’t make it necessarily easy. Playing the same tees as the pros, there are par 4s that will require three shots for the average golfer to reach the green, and again, that’s in the best of circumstances where all three of the amateur’s shots find closely mown areas. That’s not counting the ninth and 12th holes, the two par 4s that are converted from their usual par 5 for the paying customers during the PGA Championship. In all, a typical 15-handicapper might find eight holes playing as three-shotters, where a tour player might take three to reach the green only once in his round, at that beastly fourth hole. Maybe.

The Arccos data shows a course that exacts a brutish toll from tee through the green on average players. Using Arccos’ proprietary strokes-gained metric, average golfers (compared to scratch players) were -4.2 strokes gained/driving, -5.4 strokes gained/approaching the green, -3.2 strokes gained/short game and -2.3 strokes gained/putting. The average score of all players (scratch, single-digits and 100-shooters) using Arccos at Harding Park was 89.3. (The average handicap across the 1,509 rounds recorded by Arccos was 12.3.)

The numbers suggest that under normal conditions TPC Harding Park’s challenge might be slightly greater on the approach shots than it is off the tee, but the rough might change that scenario. But buried in the numbers are some other oddities that show there is no letup at any point. According to the Arccos data, the average golfer is losing more than two strokes to a scratch player on short-game shots of less than 25 yards, and even losing almost a full stroke on putts from 10 feet or less.

Applying the strokes gained metric to individual holes reveals another stark separation point between average golfers and elite tour players. Based on the data, the three hardest holes for a typical golfer would be, in order of difficulty, the long par-5 fourth hole, the elevated green, par-3 third hole, and the 10th hole, which is a par 5 where a score of 5 would be a celebration for the average golfer and a consternation for the elite pro. Statistics from the 2005 WGC event showed the field averaged 4.7 shots on the 10th hole. Currently, however, the Arccos Caddie best-case scenario gives the average 15-handicapper a potential score of 5.8—if he or she hits the fairway. However, Arccos Caddie predicts that happens less than half the time, which naturally brings double bogey or worse into play.

But while the fourth, third and 10th holes were among the hardest for average golfers at TPC Harding Park, for elite pros those three holes likely will play much easier. In 2005, the 10th was the easiest, the fourth, even at 600-plus yards, was 16th hardest, and the third was the easiest of the four par 3s.

Looking at representative holes shows how elite power changes everything. For instance, on the par-3 17th, an average golfer might hit 5-iron, while a tour player would likely hit 8-iron. On the 12th hole, converted par 4 mentioned earlier with out of bounds down the left, the average golfer following the lead of Arccos Caddie’s artificial intelligence, plays a driver off the tee, a 5-wood layup and a 58-degree wedge third shot. By contrast, an elite professional would likely hit driver and then maybe as little as a 6- or 7-iron on to the green.

The 10th hole might provide the clearest illustration of how the tour game has lapped the average golfer’s game. From the same tee, the average golfer’s 233-yard drive would likely be nearly a football field short of a tour player’s bomb. And while the average golfer’s best strategy would be a 200-yard 5-wood to set up a 118-yard pitching wedge to the green, a tour player would reach the green in two not with a wood, but likely with a 4-iron or less. Arccos estimates the absolute best an average golfer could expect is a bogey while tour data from 2005 shows a scoring average of 4.7 with four times as many birdies and eagles as bogeys and doubles.

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By contrast, what the PGA Tour statistics from 2005 also suggest is that the hardest holes for the pros will be those converted par 4s, the ninth and the 12th, each playing around 500 yards. Both were in the top five toughest holes back then and figure to be again for the PGA Championship.

Going through the entire round reveals even greater disparities. Based on Arccos Caddie’s recommended best-case strategy, our prototypical 15-handicap hits his approach shot with nothing shorter than a 7-iron on 15 of the 16 par 4s and par 3s and only hits wedges as approach shots when they’re the third shot on six of the par 4s. For a tour player, other than the two par 5s, the two converted par 4s and the 251-yard par-3 eighth hole, 13 approach shots might very well be 7-irons or less.

Of course, this entire assessment is theoretical. Things change with damp conditions where the rough eats golf balls and stifles aggressive play even before it starts. And when the chill wind creeps in over Lake Merced making 10 miles per hour feel like 30, trees change from scenery to sorcery, literally swallowing balls out of the sky. So, the actual scoring reality at TPC Harding Park will go beyond what any computer simulation can estimate. At that point, golf at a beefed up major championship venue like what awaits us this week isn’t a numbers game, it’s bloodsport.

“It’s a big boy golf course,” defending champion Brooks Koepka understated. “You look at the back nine there, starting on about 13, 14, it gets really interesting. I think those holes set up for quite a few disasters and some good golf.”

Maybe. But nowhere near as many disasters as the average golfer is likely to find.

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