The First Tee – Northern Trust Open

Adam Daly
By Adam Daly August 5, 2019 13:15

The First Tee – Northern Trust Open

This Week

This is the first leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs – which has been reduced to three legs instead of four – and sees only the top-125 golfers on the FedEx money list playing. Any WDs won’t be replaced (there are three already in Casey, Stenson and Burns), but it is a regular 36-hole cut of top-70 and ties. The event takes place at Liberty National GC in Jersey City, NJ which hosted the Barclays in 2009 and 2013, and the President’s Cup in 2017.

Winning scores here have been -9 (Slocum) and -11 (Scott), so there’s no question about how hard this course will play this week; the cut was +6 when Slocum won, and +1 when Scott won.

The Course

Liberty is a tough par-71 that plays long at 7350 yards, with only four of the 11 par-4s playing below 440 yards, and three of the par-3s playing outside 193 yards including the 250-yard 11th. Looking at 2013, there were 36 combined eagles on the three par-5s, but the 8th hole is a whopping 611 yards and only had one of those eagles, averaging just 0.174 below par which is comparable to some of the par-4s here. Par-4 Efficiency 450-500 would be something to look at this week, as that will take up the greatest percentage of holes played (7/18 if you count over 440).

This is a course where even though it’s long, golfers can’t hit it too far as the average fairway width narrows considerably the farther out it goes; although the average width is 30 yards across at the 300-yard marker, there are holes where that mark is 16, 21, 22 and 27 (twice) which is tight to say the least. This has led to golfers not fooling around with driver off the tee, averaging 279.5 (2013) and 269.7 (2009) on all par-4s and -5s as they club down to stay in the fairway which happened at a 68% and 67% clip those two years.

Off the tee play isn’t that impactful here when compared to approach and putting; there are practically no trees so the course is wide open to the elements (check the weather!!), but in terms of defense it’s really just the narrow width of the fairways. The course does have a lot of water, but it should rarely come into play off the tee for professionals, especially ones who are clubbing down to driving irons or woods. Accuracy is always good to look at as positioning for the approach shot is important, as is avoiding the thick rough here – although the rough was cut from the 4” it played at in 2009 after complaints, it’ll still be long and thick.

Because of the short distance off the tee, look for golfers that can hit their mid-and-long irons well, as the typical approach distance will be in the 200+ yard range. Approach is so crucial this week, as greens here are very tough to hit – 60% in 2013 which ranked eighth that year, and 55.3% in 2009 which was the second-toughest on tour. Golfers will be hitting into fairly large bentgrass greens that should play firm and fast which will be tough to hold, and the greens themselves feature a ton of contouring and undulation although they’re usually pretty easy from looking at putting average in 2009 and 2013: the course had the seventh- and 10th-easiest putting average those years respectively.

Comparable courses/events:

Riviera (Genesis Open) – Par-71 with a similar length (~7300 yards) and narrow fairways, long hitters are key to victory at Riv and both courses feature very hard-to-hit greens. The putting is very different here (poa annua) as are the fairway grasses (kikuyu), but players like Bubba Watson, Tiger Woods and Adam Scott have had success at both tracks (small sample obviously).

Copperhead (Valspar) – Another par-71 in the 7300-yard range , the fairways at Copperhead are much tighter but both courses are less-than-driver that play very tough. Long approaches are key. Bermuda grass vs. bent is the big difference here, but big numbers at both courses are from poor ball-striking and not what happens on the greens.

Harbour Town GL (RBC Heritage) – It’s shorter than Liberty by a couple hundred yards, but the fairways at Harbour Town still demand less-than-driver off the tee and there are enough long holes that iron shots outside of 200 yards are still key, just like here. The Bermuda greens are very different, but like Liberty are very tough to hit.

Pebble Beach (U.S. Open) – Less than driver, wide open to the elements with narrow fairways and thick rough. A much shorter course than Liberty so approaches are shorter and Pebble will probably be the easier course, but there should be some overlap between the two this year.


The Strokes Gained stats to focus on in order (not including Tee to Green):

  • Approach
  • Putting
  • Off-the-Tee
  • Around the Green

Counting stats to focus on in order:

  • Approach Shots: 200+ Yards
  • Par-4 Efficiency: 450-500 Yards
  • Distance from the Center of the Fairway / Driving Accuracy %
  • Bogey Avoidance
  • Scrambling

Top-Tier Golfers

Dustin Johnson ($10700): Something has seemed off with DJ for most of the season which is why he’s priced a full $700 below Rory and $1300(!) below Brooks, but he’s still a tremendous golfer and has the skillset to run over the field this week:

  • 1st in Par-4 Efficiency 450-500 / 15th in overall Par-4 Scoring
  • 9th in Birdie or Better % / 23rd in Bogey Avoidance
  • 4th SG: Tee to Green
  • 2% of Greens in Regulation / 21st in SG: Approach

His play has been up and down this year but a “bad” year for DJ has only one missed cut in 17 events (at the Rocket Mortgage) and 11 top-25s; a large part of this has been his putting, as he ranks 37th in SG: Putting but a horrendous 187th on putts inside 10’, and 43rd in putts/round. Compare that to last year when he finished 25th in SG: P, and it’s clear something is off.

DJ has had great success at all the comp. courses: Riviera (four top-3 finishes in 12 events), Copperhead (MC in 2008 and 2010 but T6 this year), Pebble Beach (five top-3 finishes in 12 events) and Harbour Town (MC in 2008 and 2009 but T16 and T28 the past two years). He went 4-0-1 to lead the US team at the President’s Cup, and he’s finished T15/MC at the two Barclays events.

Adam Scott ($8800): Beyond winning in 2013 and finishing T58 in 2009, Scott also beat Brooks Koepka 3&2 in the President’s Cup in 2017 – although his overall record there was 1-3-0, his playing partners included Adam Hadwin and Jhonattan Vegas, so don’t hold the overall record against him. On the comparable courses, Scott’s had a mixed bag at Copperhead although he finished T16 there last year, but he’s been dominant at Riviera with a win and two seconds to only one missed cut; his recent form has seen him miss the cut at the Open but had strong showings at Pebble Beach (T7), Memorial (2) and the PGA Championship (T8), and on the season overall he’s got five top-10s in 13 events with only four missed cuts.

The danger with Scott is always the putter – he seems to change from the short putter to the long putter every week, with no info ahead of time which he’ll be using – and his ranking of 45th in SG: Putting doesn’t accurately reflect just how inconsistent he actually is. Scott ranks 125th and 176th in one-putt and three-putt percentage respectively and sits 183rd on putts inside 10’, although he does convert 33.22% of birdie putts.

Beyond the poor putter, there’s every reason to love Scott beyond his history: he sits seventh from tee to green, has the best score relative to par outside of 200 yards (-39 on 103 attempts), ranks 15th in P4 450-500, and has the 14th-best BoB% overall.

Others: Webb Simpson ($9400), Rory McIlroy ($11400)


Value Golfer (below $8000)

Sepp Straka ($6600): Although he can’t putt, Straka should have a great week here. He’s a long hitter off the tee which means he can club down without losing too much distance which should improve on his poor driving accuracy (63.4%, 78th), and he’s a fantastic iron player as he’s 42nd in SG: Approach and 20th in GIR% (69.68%). Although his proximity outside 200 yards isn’t strong, he’s -47 to par on 197 attempts which puts him 32nd on tour.

Straka’s combination of length and good irons sets him up for a ton of birdies, and that’s borne out as he ranks 11th with a huge 24.05%, and even better is that he ranks 10th on just par-4s (19.84%). He ranks 26th in Par-4 Efficiency 450-500, has a scoring average of 3.99, averages 4.24 birdies/round and really just needs the putter to cooperate; he has a dismal ranking in putting average (176th), one-putt percentage (150th) and three-putt percentage (167th), although he’s 73rd and 20th in SG: Putting and birdie conversion percentage respectively.

The rookie hasn’t seen this course before but he hasn’t seen most courses before given his young age, and he’s still managed to pick up five top-25s in 22 events this year including a run of 3-12-T39 over the past three weeks. He managed a T28 at the U.S. Open (his first major!) and a T46 at Valspar, so he’s demonstrated he navigate some of the tighter courses, and his price is very inviting even if he can’t putt.

Gary Woodland ($7800): With his wife delivering twins, Gary Woodland has the Baby Swag this week, but more importantly it’s Woodland on a less-than-driver track, which is his bread and butter thanks to his natural length. He is severely under-priced.

On the season, Woodland has made the cut 14 times to just three misses, has seven top-25s and a win at the less-than-driver U.S. Open; he finished T2 here in 2013 but has no other history as he missed the President’s Cup roster by a few spots, and he’s also won at the comparable Copperhead course (although he’s also missed the cut there 4/9 times).

Statistically, he looks like a fantastic fit from a ball-striking and scoring perspective:

  • 12th SG: Tee to Green
  • 23rd SG: Approach / 26th Greens in Regulation % (69.21%)
  • 2nd Birdie or Better Percentage / 11th Par-4 Birdie or Better Percentage
  • 3rd in Proximity from Outside 200 Yards / -46 on 168 attempts (12th)

The area of concern with Woodland as always will be his putting, as he loses 0.119 strokes/round on average (133rd) – although when he has a birdie putt, he converts at the second-highest rate (35.79%).

Others: Lucas Glover ($7300), Joaquin Niemann ($7500)

You can follow me on Twitter @adalyfrey and good luck this week!


Adam Daly
By Adam Daly August 5, 2019 13:15

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