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Putt for dough at the Tour Championship

Jamie Kennedy
September 18, 2013
Tiger Woods and putting mentor Steve Stricker know the value of mastering the greens © PA Photos
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Drive for show, putt for dough. That's how the golf maxim goes, and never could it be truer than when the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup comes to its $10 million conclusion in the Tour Championship.

That $10 million cheque for the FedEx Cup winner will dominate thoughts this weekend at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, but it is not the only number people should be paying attention to. Some careful statistical analysis of trends, strengths and weaknesses identifies the players who are most likely to be troubling their bank manager come Monday morning.

East Lake has hosted the Tour Championship for the past nine years. Home to Bobby Jones - one the game's most consistent players - the 7,300-yard, par-70 layout demands consistency and nerves of steel to succeed.

Whilst the winners themselves - Tiger Woods, Brandt Snedeker, Phil Mickelson, Camillo Villegas, Bill Haas, Bart Bryant, Jim Furyk, Retief Goosen and Adam Scott - encompass the full range of playing styles, their performances at East Lake suggest you need to do two things well to win.

You need to hit greens and gain shots whilst you're on them.

Seems obvious, right? Stay out of trouble and putt well and you'll fare well in most tournaments.

Inside the numbers

Jim Furyk's fine putting helped him to a 59 last week © Getty Images
  • 4 - Four of the nine Tour Championship winners at East Lake led the field in GIR (2010 Jim Furyk, 2007 Tiger Woods, 2005 Bart Bryant, 2004 Retief Goosen)
  • 8 - There are eight Tour Championship rookies in the field this week: Billy Horschel, Graham DeLaet, Charl Schwartzel, Brendon De Jonge, Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson, Roberto Castro and D.A. Points
  • 8.2 - Bill Haas gained 8.2 strokes putting when he won the 2011 Tour Championship, the most since the event moved to East Lake
  • 25 - Haas was also the lowest ranked player at the Tour Championship to win the FedEx Cup, entering the 2011 Championship ranked 25th
  • 27 - Hunter Mahan is the only player to play all 27 FedEx Cup events
  • 49.88 - Last year's Tour Championship field hit less than half of the fairways, finding the short grass just 49.88% of the time
  • 60 - Last week's BMW Championship winner, Zach Johnson, holds the course record at East Lake with a third round 60 in 2007
  • 67.55 - Tiger Woods' scoring average at East Lake, the lowest by any player. He has finished first or second in four of his five Tour Championship appearances at the course
  • 123 - Despite leading the Tour in GIR, Henrik Stenson ranks 123rd in SGP

However, there are two key statistical categories that are vital to success at East Lake. The first, Greens in Regulation (GIR), is relatively familiar in golfing lexicon, being simply the percentage of greens you reach in the expected number of shots (one for a par 3, two for a par 4, three for a par 5). But the second stat, Strokes Gained Putting (SGP), is lesser known and just as revealing.

SGP is the new benchmark of putting, developed by a professor at Columbia University and adopted by the PGA Tour only since 2011. It takes into account the distance of each putt and ranks a player's performance against the PGA Tour average.

The nine Tour Championship winners at East Lake have gained an average of more than five strokes on the greens en route to their respective victories. Even more importantly, of all the core stats that the PGA Tour collate at each event (driving accuracy, driving distance, proximity to the hole, putts per round etc.), GIR and SGP are the only two in which the Tour Championship winner, on average, finishes inside the top five.

Only once has a player not finished inside the top 10 in both of these and gone on to win, and even then Bill Haas was 11th in GIR when winning in 2011.

So how does this relate to this year's event?

Of the 30 players who have qualified for this year's Tour Championship, Steve Stricker is the only one who ranks inside the top 20 for both GIR and SGP this season. He ranks second in GIR and third in SGP.

Stricker has always been regarded as a top-class putter, and has even been offering putting advice to Woods in recent months. He has also worked to improve his iron-play over recent seasons, leaping from 78th on Tour in 2011, to 18th last season and now second.

Stricker's new "light-semi-retirement-schedule" has allowed him to focus his attention on fewer events. Having taken a month off prior to the US Open in June, the 46-year old has no lower than 13th in every event he has played.

He sat out the FedEx Cup opener, but finished second at the Deutsche Bank Championship and tied for fourth at the BMW Championship most recently, giving him 12 career top-10s in the FedEx Cup playoffs. That is tied with Jim Furyk for the most top-10s since the playoff format started in 2007.

Whilst Stricker's stats say he has the tools to win, his previous record at East Lake is less encouraging. Of the 15 players in the field that have played the Tour Championship at East Lake at least three times, Stricker has the fourth worst scoring average, at 70.46. His lone top-10 finish came in 2009, when he tied for sixth.

Currently sixth in the FedEx standings, Stricker doesn't control his own destiny, but a win for him and a tied-second finish or worse for Tiger would be enough for the 46-year-old to become the oldest FedEx Champion. Remember, two of the last three FedEx Cup winners have be ranked outside the top 10 entering the Tour Championship (Bill Haas was 25th in 2011 and Jim Furyk 11th in 2010).

As recently as last week Stricker had reportedly been considering skipping East Lake, opting instead to go elk hunting. He has since changed his mind and numbers suggest he may be in the hunt for a Tour Championship, and a $10m cheque, come Sunday.

Jamie Kennedy is a golf writer and stats nerd. Follow him @jamieonsport

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