In praise of Harry Higgs, the new Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green recordholder and a most memorable day

It slipped by without much fanfare – other than a few tweets – but Harry Higgs set a PGA Tour single-round record on Thursday.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – On this rare day of rest on the PGA Tour, let’s take a moment to revisit a record that was set during Thursday’s first round of the Northern Trust at Liberty National.

It slipped by without much fanfare – other than a few tweets – but since the tournament’s final round was postponed until Monday, let’s reflect on the Strokes Gain: Around the Green record set by the one, the only Harry Higgs.

It was Paul Tesori, caddie for Webb Simpson, who brought attention to Higgs’ heroics from off the green. He tweeted to stats guru Justin Ray asking if gaining 5.92 strokes on the field Around the Green was a record and Ray responded in the affirmative.

So, what got into Harry on Thursday? “I don’t know but I’m going to try to figure it out so he can do it more often,” his brother Alex said.

Adam Scott played in the same threesome with Higgs and a day later still marveled at the black magic act he had witnessed. “He had one of those days where they all go in,” Scott said. “The world is revolving perfectly for you when things like that happen.”

Indeed, they were. Higgs holed three putts from off the green and chipped in for par on another occasion. The fun started happening for Higgs at the 13th, his fourth hole of the day, after he missed the par-5 with his second shot. Using a putter from 50 feet, he holed out for eagle.

“The first one that he putted in from way off the green hit Wyndham’s (Clark’s) coin like 30 feet from the hole, hopped up and still went in,” said Scott.

Of having Clark’s coin on his line, Higgs said, “It was in a perfect spot. Figured I didn’t need him to move it since I was off the green.”

From there, Higgs made run-of-the mills birdies at Nos. 16 and 6 that was offset by a string of three bogeys beginning at 17.

After hitting his tee shot in the water at the fifth, Higgs chipped in with his 60-degree wedge to save par from 34 feet left of the green. Then his TaylorMade Spider putter, which he’s used since playing the 2018 Korn Ferry Tour, took over. First, he made a bomb at the seventh for birdie.

Harry Higgs
The weapons Harry Higgs used to set the Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green record. (Adam Schupak/Golfweek)

“To call a 79-footer easy is a little aggressive but it broke right and went back to the left and so if you hit it the right speed it’ll just auto correct,” he said.

It may go down as an obscure record but Higgs wiped Patrick Reed’s name from the ShotLink record books (+5.84 in the third round of the 2017 U.S. Open) and etched his own in its place in memorable fashion. Higgs came up 80 feet short of the green at the ninth, his last hole of the day, with his approach to the par 4. No problem: by this point, Higgs was feeling it.

“If that’s as close as you’re going to get to the hole, you might as well try to hole them,” he said.

And so he drained another bomb.

“That was a bonus,” he said of his uphill, walk-off putt to close out a wild way to 2-shoot 2-under 69. “I told myself I have to think like I’m going to hit it off the green to get it all the way there.”

Here’s the thing: Scott said it’s “scary” to think what his strokes gained would’ve been if Higgs hadn’t half-chunked a chip at 17 and failed to chip on to the green from the tall stuff on 18.

“It should’ve, could’ve been even better,” Higgs conceded. “But that’s the story of this lovely game we play.”

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Stats say don’t expect more success from Hideki Matsuyama in 2021

Does winning the Masters typically lead to more success for the golfer who puts on the green jacket? The answer is surprising.

There are four stages to an angler’s career, with the first being that you just want to catch a fish. After that, you want to catch a lot of fish, and then you want to catch a big fish. The last stage is when you want to catch a lot of big fish.

Professional golfers go through similar stages of development, from wanting to win a tournament, to wanting to win lots of tournaments, winning a major and finally winning several majors. By capturing the title at Augusta National two weeks ago, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama has achieved the third stage. At 29, he now has six PGA Tour wins and eight international wins. Those titles now include the WGC-Bridgestone Championship, the WGC-HSBC Champions and the Masters.

Matsuyama’s breakout season on the PGA Tour came in 2017 when he won three times and rose as high as No. 2 in the world. He finished that year ranked fifth.

Winning a major championship is great, but winning the Masters is unique because it is the first of the four, so players who win at Augusta still have a significant portion of the season in front of them. If they were good enough to win at Augusta National, conventional wisdom would think they should be able to win more in the months that follow.

But does winning the Masters typically lead to more success for the golfer who slips into the green jacket? Is a win at Augusta National predictive of more success later in that season? Based on the numbers in the table below, the answer is clear: Winning the Masters does not typically lead to more wins later in the season.

The 2020 Masters was postponed until November, so Dustin Johnson’s Masters is not included here, but as you can see, six of the 11 players listed in the table above failed to win another tournament after they won their Masters. As a group, they won just nine tournaments in the seasons after their Masters victories and averaged just over four more top-10 finishes.

Adam Scott, in 2013, was the only player to make the cut in all of his remaining tournaments after winning his Masters. Scott, who won in 2013, and Jordan Spieth, the winner in 2015, are also the only players to win multiple times since 2009 during the same season after they won the Masters.

As he does in most statistical matters, Tiger Woods dominates in post-Masters performances. He has won five times at Augusta, and while he typically played fewer total events than most players, he won at least one tournament every year after winning a Masters. He also averaged four more top-10 finishes.

After taking two more weeks off, Matsuyama is expected to play the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Golf Club in Charlotte, North Carolina. His best performance there is a T-11, although he did tie for fifth when it hosted the 2017 PGA Championship. He has stated that his next goal is to win a gold medal at the 2021 Olympics, which will be hosted by Japan in August.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, only people living in Japan will be spectators at the Olympics this summer, so Matsuyama should get most of the cheers at the Kasumigaseki Country Club in Saitama, where the Olympic golf events will be played.

Local support and experience on the course could help to propel Matsuyama to Olympic golf, but if history is a guide, we will not see much more success from Matsuyama in 2021.

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Masters: Jordan Spieth’s comeback has a ways to go according to the stats

The 2015 Masters champ has turned things around, but is he close to the level of play that helped him win at Augusta National?

Golfers who are in a slump rarely find lightning in a bottle, suddenly contending after missing cuts, but Jordan Spieth found something on the way to Arizona this winter. After missing the cut in three of his previous six tournaments before the Waste Management Phoenix Open in early February, he was in the mix on Sunday and tied for fourth.

Spieth backed up that performance at TPC Scottsdale with T-3 at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, a T-15 at the Genesis Invitational and a T-4 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Suddenly, after a three-year slump, it felt like the old Jordan was back.

Then, on Sunday, he won the Valero Texas Open, notching his first title since the 2017 British Open at Royal Birkdale.

Now, heading to the Masters fresh off his first win in more than three years, how close is today’s Jordan Spieth to being the player who won at Augusta National, then won the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay two months later?

Spieth’s performance in San Antonio last week, from a statistical standpoint, was certainly reminiscent of his level of play from 2015 and 2016. He finished third in strokes gained tee-to-green and sixth in strokes gained putting, a lethal combination for his competition.

However, as you can see in the chart below, which shows Spieth’s season-ending strokes gained total averages since 2013, heading into last week’s Valero Texas Open there was still a big difference between today’s Jordan Spieth and peak Jordan Spieth.

Strokes gained total is the average of how much better (or worse) a player performed than the field average over 18 holes, measured in strokes. So, for example, if a player has a strokes gained total average of 0.5, he would typically shoot a half-shot better than the field average over an 18-hole round. That may not seem like much, but over 72 holes, that’s two shots, and that can make a big difference.

In 2015, Spieth ranked second in strokes gained total with an average of 2.154, a massive number that means he was more than two shots better than the average player over 18 holes that season. He ranked in the top five in the stats the next two seasons, but his average dropped in 2018 and again in 2019. Last season Spieth ranked 99th in strokes gained total and was barely above the Tour average.

Through the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Spieth’s strokes gained total average for 2021 was up to 0.768 (45th on the PGA Tour). Obviously, he’s playing at a higher level than last season, but he is still almost one-and-a-half-shots worse than he was at the end of his Masters-wining 2015 season.

So where is Spieth losing those shots? As you can see in the chart below, Jordan’s putting struggled in 2019 and 2020, and his ballstriking numbers, reflected in strokes gained approach the green, also dipped significantly after 2017. This season, those numbers are both improving.

Winning on the PGA Tour is hard, especially against power players like Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm. But Spieth is certainly trending in the right direction and starting to blend improved ballstriking and better putting. Now, after a win, he should have extra confidence.

“This sport can take you a lot of different directions,” Spieth said on Sunday evening after being asked about the climb back from his slump. “So I think it’s just most important to embrace when I have moments like this and just really appreciate them. (I need to)  keep my head down, keep the process that I’m doing. Obviously, things are starting to work without feeling like I quite have it all, so that’s a really good sign. (I’ll) take some confidence into next week as well.”

The stats say Spieth’s comeback has a ways to go, but that doesn’t mean he can’t contend this week at Augusta National.

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