Don't expect Innisbrook to yield many birdies

March, 17, 2009
03/17/09
9:59
AM ET

The PGA Tour stops in Palm Harbor, Fla., this week for the Transitions Championship at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club.

The good news for the portion of the field that played at the WGC-CA Championship last week is that Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and most of the world's top 10 players are taking the week off. The bad news: Innisbrook was the eighth most difficult course on tour last year (out of 54) and the field still features 15 of the top 52 players in the world including Kenny Perry, Jim Furyk, Adam Scott and K.J. Choi.

Golf Stats: The Numbers That Matter

Every golfer and golf fan knows the sport is a game of numbers. One of the most distinct characteristics of golf is that any player's efforts are summarized by an absolute and final statistic: the score. However, as any visitor to the 19th hole knows, the story of the game cannot be told in full by the tally at the end of the round.

"Golf Stats: The Numbers That Matter" is your weekly source of insight into the numbers that make a difference in golf, focusing on the PGA Tour. Whether you're looking to wow your buddies in your Saturday foursome or get a little extra help for your fantasy team or are just a stats junkie, this blog is for you.

Every week, this sliver of the Internet will be your one-stop shop for the unique and significant golf stats that best tell the stories beyond the scores.

This week the stats blog examines why Innisbrook was such a difficult track last year, and what skill set will be needed to rise to the top of this weekend's leaderboard.

When Sean O'Hair notched his second PGA Tour victory last year at Innisbrook with a 4-under, it was the highest score to win on tour since Angel Cabrera held off Woods and Furyk to win the 2007 U.S. Open. So why is this course so difficult?

Innisbrook, which is a 7,340-yard par-71 layout, gave players some of their shortest drives of the season and left long approaches to the greens. It also ranked the sixth-most difficult in putting average, the seventh-most difficult in scrambling and the eighth-most difficult in approach shot proximity to the hole.

Fans this week won't be seeing the birdie barrage like last weekend at Doral. Here are some of the 2008 stats from Innisbrook, which put its difficulty into context. Note that Innisbrook is right next to or ahead of the 2008 U.S. Open host course, Torrey Pines South, in most of these rankings.

2008 shortest driving distances

Rank Course All Drives
1 Pebble Beach 264.9
2 Harbour Town 265.9
3 Innisbrook 266.4
4 PGA National 266.6
5 Atunyote Golf Club 271.2
• More PGA Tour statistics

2008 longest avgerage distance to hole after tee shot

Rank Course All Drives
1 Conservatory Course 207.6
2 Torrey Pines (South) 206.4
3 Innisbrook 204.7
4 Atunyote Golf Club 198.3
5 Muirfield Village 188.8

2008 lowest birdie or better percentage from the fairway

Rank Course Birdie %
1 Innisbrook 14.19
2 TPC Four Seasons 14.92
3 PGA National 16.02
4 Torrey Pines (South) 16.84
5 Atunyote Golf Club 17.12

2008 lowest percentage of putts made over 10 feet

Rank Course % Made
1 Plantation Course 11.36
2 Innisbrook 12.59
3 Torrey Pines (South) 12.79
4 Quail Hollow Club 13.68
5 TPC Four Season Resort 13.77

Short drives, long approaches, difficult scrambling and few long putts falling is quite a nasty combination. Other adverse conditions include the seasonal Florida winds, difficult pin placements and slick greens with some Bermuda grain. Is there any way to get it done at Innisbrook?

The Recipe for Success
Looking at the above numbers, this is no doubt a respected and sometimes feared track. But looking at the historical data: There are strong trends in succeeding at Innisbrook over the past two years.

PGA Tour players consider the venue a shotmaker's course, where you need to both draw and fade the ball and be wise with tee-shot club selection.

Player perception also holds statistically as a strong green in regulation percentage is correlated with success at Innisbrook. This is the case for nearly any tournament, since GIR percentage is one the best predictors of tournament placing. But surprisingly, when examining the players who finished in the top 10 the last two years, scrambling percentage has a slightly higher correlation with success than GIR.

The players to watch this week are those who have both their iron game and up-and-down game going in 2009.

Fantasy Foursomes
To make this year's picks, let's use the analysis above, along with history at Innisbrook and the hot players on tour.

• Furyk is the arguably the class of the field. He comes off a strong showing at Doral, where he played all four rounds in the 60s and finished third. He closed out the event Sunday with a back nine of 31, and nobody went lower than Furyk on the weekend.

Furyk also finished inside the top 10 at the WGC Match Play. He fits into the Innisbrook recipe as well, leading the tour in scrambling at 79.41 percent.

• One of the players who could take issue with Furyk's "class of the field" status is the No. 8-ranked player in the world, Kenny Perry. Perry has four top-10s in seven starts, including a win at the FBR Open. He ranks 11th in ball-striking this year, and he hasn't slowed down after his miraculous push to make last year's Ryder Cup team. Perry's short game is also improved and ranks 37th in scrambling.

• It could be that Tim Clark's WGC-Match Play victory over Tiger was just the momentum boost he needed to pick up his first PGA Tour win. Clark's early-season play has been incredibly solid, making the cut in all six of his starts, finishing in the top 25 five times and in the top 10 twice. He ranks seventh on tour in GIR at 70.5 percent and second in scrambling at 73.6 percent. This is a fantastic combo for this course.

• Steve Stricker is a top-10-in-the-world caliber player. He is beginning to regain that form; he already has five top-25 finishes this year, including a runner up at Riviera and a third-place finish at the Hope. Stricker is second in scrambling at 77.5 percent, and he is hitting 70.2 percent of his greens so far in 2009.

• O'Hair is the defending champ and has had a rock-solid start in 2009. O'Hair has six top-25 finishes in as many starts, including three top-10s. He is hitting greens at a 71.6 percent rate. He ranks sixth on tour in birdie average at 4.63 per round and leads in bounce-back percentage at 38.1 percent. Bounce back is responding with a birdie after a bogey or worse, and O'Hair has nearly doubled the tour average with 19.7 percent.

• Brian Gay is quietly making a huge comeback. He already has five top-25's in seven starts, including two top-10s. Gay ranks ninth in GIR at 70.1 percent and eighth in scrambling at 71.7 percent.

• Matt Kuchar is one of the few "C" players hitting more than 70 percent of his greens. He is currently third on the PGA Tour at 71.92 percent. Kuchar has made five of six cuts so far with three top 25 finishes, one being a top-10.

• Ben Crane is also close to that magic number of 70 percent in GIR and he is coming off back-to-back top 10 finishes.

The Starters: Furyk, Clark, Stricker, Kuchar

Next in Line: Perry, Gay, O'Hair, Crane

Notables
• Japanese teen sensation Ryo Ishikawa makes his second PGA Tour start this week. He failed to make the cut at the Northern Trust Open at Riveria last month. His teen counterparts faired well last week as Rory McIlroy finished T-20 at the WGC-CA Championship and Tadd Fujikawa finished T-31 at the Puerto Rico Open.

• 2005 U.S. Open Champ Michael Campbell will make his first PGA Tour start since the 2008 PGA Championship.

• This week's field has 26 players who have won in 2008 or 2009. One of those is Choi, who is a two-time champion of the Transitions Championship.

• O'Hair had quite the start at Doral last week. He opened the tournament eagle-eagle for the first time on the PGA Tour since Chris Tidalnd did it in 2007 at the Ginn sur Mer Classic. The last person to start eagle-eagle at Doral was David Toms in 1999.

Send comments, suggestions and corrections to Nathan.J.Easler@espn.com.

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