PGA Tour: Flying High Under the Radar

Greg RowleyContributor IMarch 18, 2009

I know it's March Madness week, and like most of the sports world, my attention is primarily focused on filling out the perfect bracket.  I’m particularly stuck on Clemson vs. Michigan.  You?

I do, however, have a couple thoughts on an interesting trend I’ve uncovered that leaves me puzzled as to why a few lesser-known players are realizing some significant success on the PGA Tour thus far this year.

The truth is I’m not a stats junkie.  But a random rifling through the customary stats columns the other day revealed to me that for a few players, all conventional wisdom is out the window, and they’re making a killing so far by wildly killing it off the tee.

The fact that hitting it a long ways helps is not new news.  In fact, killing it off the tee is something that John Daly figured out a long time ago.  It’s just easier to hit a wedge out of the rough than it is to hit a four iron from the fairway.

That being said, there’s always been some degree of control required to take full advantage of extraordinary length.  Especially when the PGA Tour approaches the heart of its season, and the rough gets more ragged and the greens become roller coasters. 

But for now anyway, there are a few guys who are raking it in despite the fact that they’re collectively only hitting a logic-defying 50 percent of the fairways.  As a group, they’re steadily ascending to the top of the tour money list by missing fairways and making buckets-full of birdies nonetheless.

Nick Watney

Currently, he’s made six of six cuts.  He won the Buick and finished runner-up last week at Doral, all to the tune of just under $2 million in earnings so far.  That's good enough to put him third on the money list.  Not bad for six-week’s work.

His stats are what I find particularly interesting.  He’s seventh in driving distance, averaging 303.4 yards, a dismal 142nd in driving accuracy, only hitting 57.4 percent of the fairways, and 10th in birdies per round with 4.54 per round.

He’s barely hitting half of the fairways but still making birdie on nearly every third hole.  You’ll see this pattern continue…

Of this group, he’s probably received the most airtime so far.  So his face might be sort-of recognizable.  A couple more months at this clip and it will be time to add his name to the ever increasing list of ‘young guns’—McIlroy, Villegas, Garcia, Kim, etc.

Dustin Johnson

Who?  Yeah, I’d never heard of him either.  Even after his win at Pebble Beach earlier this year.  Honestly, after the final round was rained out, I had to double check the article I read the following morning to confirm that he hadn’t won a Nationwide event.

Thus far, he’s made seven of eight cuts, and sits fifth on the money list with $1.6 million.

His stats are similar to Watney’s.  He’s ninth in driving distance, averaging 301.3 yards, 170th in driving accuracy, hitting the fairway only 53.7 percent of the time, and, unbelievably, first in birdies per round with 4.75.

If he had only made one cut or two, I could see how this is possible.  But he’s now played in eight full-field events. 

It’s almost like Davidson in the NCAA tourney last year.  He’s off to an exceptionally hot start, shooting threes and making birdies, but I have a feeling that as we get closer to the majors, he’ll fall off the pace.  The competition and courses get tougher, just like the teams from the power conferences get better the deeper you advance in the bracket.  Will this Cinderella keep his slipper?  I say no chance.

Charley Hoffman 

If nothing else, at least he’s recognizable.  And, according to him anyway, it’s not a mullet.  Charley, really?

So far, he’s made six of six cuts, has two top-10s, and has earned $1.1 million.  All good enough for 11th place on the money list.

He’s 13th in driving distance at 298.3 yards, 118th in driving accuracy, hitting the group-best mark of 59.2 percent of the fairways, and tied for fourth on tour in birdies per round with 4.70.

Hoffman’s name occasionally surfaces under the heading of "players to watch." Then, almost as quickly as it comes up, it disappears again.  Perhaps this is the year that he’ll sustain a hot start and keep his name in the President’s Cup conversation.  We’ll see…

Scott Piercy

Although he’s only 34th on the money list with nearly $600,000 in earnings so far, I’m including Piercy in this group.  Through the first eight weeks of this tour season, he’s made five of six cuts, has two top-10s, and has seemingly cemented his place on the big tour.

Check out his stats.  He’s fifth in driving distance, bombing it an average of 305.9 yards per swipe, a wretched 187th in driving accuracy, finding the fairway only 50.3 percent of the time, and tied with Hoffman for fourth in birdies per round, with 4.70.

How’s that possible?  He literally finds the fairway half of the time, yet he’s still carding nearly five birdies a round.  Again, if he’s only played in one or two events, I could see how this can happen.  But he’s made five cuts already.  I just don’t believe that this will sustain.

Piercy is a name that many insiders have known for quite some time.  He’s a very talented player and Las Vegas cash-game legend who kicked around the mini-tours for years.  It seems that he’s put his demons to rest and has his game in check. 

I’m definitely interested to see how he plays in the coming weeks.  He could win one of these days, or we might never hear from him again.  Guys like him are on a razor’s edge.  My only hope is that if/when he falls, it’s one way or the other—not straight down, straddle-style.

All four of these guys are defying logic.  Never before has driving the ball accurately seemed to be less important.  It will be interesting to see if they stay under the radar and slowly get swallowed by the oncoming pack, or if they’ll have what it takes to keep making birdies and stay ahead of the game.

Either way, I’m really curious to see how they each do at Bethpage in June.  My prediction—not well.  The stats don’t lie.


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