Match Play insights at Austin Country Club
5 Min Read
A dramatic Sunday at Austin Country Club capped off another memorable week at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play. Four of the top 15 seeds made it to the final day, giving fans the lowest combined seeding of the semifinalists in 22 years. Then, fittingly, for the first time in the 25-year history of the event, both semifinal matches needed extra holes to determine a winner.
The heated match play on the course proved to be the perfect catalyst for a new in-broadcast feature produced by Aon, in partnership with NBC Sports and the PGA TOUR. While the professional services firm runs a weekly vignette in support of the Aon Risk Reward Challenge, the team behind the scenes took a different approach this week in order to give viewers deeper insight. As part of the Friday broadcast on Golf Channel, Aon’s in-broadcast feature highlighted the key insights from the first two days of matches to predict which holes were most important to winning the match. View the innovative segment here. Data analysis over the first two days identified the 12th hole, along with the 13th and 16th holes, as the most impactful holes on match outcome during Wednesday and Thursday.
But as contenders got deeper into the week, the significance of getting off to a fast start continued to build. Over the course of the tournament, more than 80% of players who led their match after six holes went on to win, an 11% increase over the previous six editions of this championship. Players who trailed after nine holes only went on to win the match 19.8% of the time, and no player came from more than 2-down at the turn to win a single match all week long.
As a continuation of the Aon Insights highlighted in Friday’s broadcast, the “mission critical” holes shifted during Friday’s matches, as three holes on the front nine proved most critical to securing the match win. Through additional analysis performed to account for the Friday matches and knockout rounds, the following three holes netted out of the most impactful in ultimately deciding the championship.
Win probability impact: 19.4%
No hole held a larger collective impact on the direction of a match this week than the third. While Deer Creek Canyon runs along the left side of this hole, players were rewarded throughout the week for tee shots closer to that danger area. In pool play, a drive into the left fairway or rough gained 0.15 strokes on the field. The cart path bisecting the fairway served as a good visual barometer for the value of power here: only 23% of players who hit their drive past the path lost the hole.
Cameron Young birdied the third hole four times for the week, with three of those birdie putts set up by drives of 300-plus yards. Three times, Young’s performance on this hole pushed his advantage in his match to 2-up or greater, a sampling of his front-nine dominance for much of the week. Entering the Sunday semifinal, 20 of the 26 holes Young had won came on the front side.
Win probability impact: 19.2%
Close behind the third hole was the fifth, with a win probability impact of 19.2%. This short par-4 was another hole where strategy could be impacted by field scoring, as it played more than four-tenths of a stroke under par for the championship. In pool play, those who went for the green with their drive were rewarded, gaining more than three-tenths of a stroke over the players who laid up.
The fifth played a crucial role in one of the largest upsets of pool play. Despite being a past champion of this event, Billy Horschel’s pre-round numbers gave him only a 27% chance of knocking off Jon Rahm Friday in a pool-play match that would determine who moved on to the Round of 16. After a Rahm double-bogey at the second gave Horschel an early advantage, Horschel drained an 11-foot birdie putt at the fifth to take a 2-up lead. He would hold on to beat the FedExCup leader and advance to Saturday’s first knockout round.
Win probability impact: 18.8%
The first par-5 on the course – the sixth hole – had a win probability impact of 18.8% for the championship. For players who could avoid the fairway bunker on that side, the right half of the hole was the preferred target for the tee shot. A drive into the right fairway or rough gained about one-quarter of a stroke over those in the left fairway or rough.
But from either half of this fairway, a straight tee shot gave players the green light to go for the green: in pool play, more than 95% of players who found the fairway with their drive went for this green in two. Those who did go for the green gained more than four-tenths of a stroke over players who chose to lay up.
For players who couldn’t reach the green in two, however, a layup into the fairway short of the green was ideal. In pool play, 74% of players who put their second shot in that position would go on to make birdie or better.
The sixth proved to be a critical turning point in the championship match. Both players hit their drives left, greatly lessening the chance of reaching the green in two. Young left his second shot short into a bunker, leaving a difficult third. But Burns was able to lay up successfully in the fairway, less than 50 yards from the pin. Burns hit his third shot to inside 2 feet, carding birdie and taking his first lead of the match. It moved Burns’ match win probability from 26% to 43% and was the third of eight birdies he would make in his last 10 holes to clinch the victory.
Sam Burns’ better decision at the sixth hole gave him a lead he would never relinquish Sunday in Texas.