Gay nearly flawless in claiming Verizon Heritage

April, 19, 2009
04/19/09
3:11
PM ET

What a week for Brian Gay.

In posting a 7-under 64 for the low round Sunday to finish at 20-under 264, Gay cruised to the 2009 Verizon Heritage title by 10 strokes over Luke Donald and Briny Baird. The victory is the second of Gay's career -- the opposite-field event Mayakoba Golf Classic in 2008 was his other -- and came in his 330th career start on the PGA Tour.

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Heading into last week, our predictions were that the GIR percentage would be quite low because of Harbour Town's small greens. We also surmised that scrambling would be a key stat for the tournament leaders. Harbour Town Golf Links played true to form, with players hitting just 57.1 percent of the greens. The course ranks as the second-most difficult (out of 20) so far this year. Bay Hill was the most difficult (55.0 percent) and the tour average for 2009 is 63.7 percent.

Scrambling was another key statistic last week. In fact, of the primary categories (driving distance, driving accuracy, greens in regulation, proximity, scrambling and putting average), scrambling had the highest correlation with success at Harbour Town; this is unusual, as GIR usually dominates here. Five of the top-10 finishers ranked among the top 10 in scrambling, led by Gay with an amazing up-and-down rate of 91.7 percent. He beat the field's scrambling average of 62.1 percent by nearly one-third.

Another expectation at Harbour Town was a high rate of chip-ins. This also held true -- to the tune of 73 total hole-outs, the most on tour (by nine) this year.

Gay was dominant all four days, playing the best golf of his career. To reiterate the importance of accuracy, shot-making and short-game savvy over raw power at Harbour Town, let's take a look at Gay's stats for the week compared to those of Tim Wilkinson, who finished T-6.

Quite the show

Player Driving Distance Driving Accuracy GIR Proximity Scrambling Putting Average
Brian Gay 260.1 (72) 83.9% (2) 66.7% (T3) 27' 6" (1) 91.7% (1) 1.604 (3)
Tim Wilkinson 256.9 (74) 89.3% (1) 50.0% (T72) 37' 6" (65) 80.6% (4) 1.611 (T5)

Not surprisingly, Gay dominated nearly across the board this week, ranking in the top three in all major stats except driving distance, where he was 72nd among 78 players who made the weekend cut.

Other than Gay's 10-shot victory margin, his most impressive number was limiting himself to just two bogeys on the week -- the fewest at the Verizon Heritage since scoring records have been kept, starting in 1983. Gay's ratio of birdies or better to bogeys or worse was 10.5 to 1. When you compare to the numbers put up by runners-up Donald (2.1 to 1) and Baird (2.3 to 1), you get an idea of how flawlessly Gay played.

Donald had 20 birdies and an eagle on the week, identical to Gay's par-breakers, but Donald also carded eight bogeys and two doubles. For further context of how well Gay played, the field averaged more bogeys or worse than it did birdies or better for the week -- one birdie or better for every 1.02 bogey or worse.

Wilkinson had a successful week in his own right, recording his fourth career top-10 finish. His stats were comparable to Gay's, with the exception of his iron play (he ranked T-72 in GIR and 65th in proximity). The fact that the proximity differential between Gay and Wilkinson was only 10 feet but the players still finished on opposite ends of the ranking in this category is another testament to the small greens at Harbour Town.

Wilkinson led the field in fairways hit in regulation (50 out of 56), an outstanding 89.3 percent rate. He also led the field with 97 putts, the fewest in a tournament so far this season. The all-time tour record is held by David Frost, with 92 putts at the 2005 Verizon Heritage.

Analyzing Gay and Wilkinson, you get a strong sense of the finesse-type play suited for this course. Wilkinson ranked even lower than Gay in driving distance (74 out of 78), but the players ranked top two in driving accuracy and top four in scrambling. It was a victory for the little guys -- Gay at 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds, and Wilkinson at 5-7, 160.

The event leader in distance off the tee was 19-year-old Rory McIlroy at nearly 290 yards. And although McIlroy (5-9, 160) is the same build as Wilkinson and Gay, he's a completely different type of player.

The Northern Ireland teen sensation possesses great ball-striking ability and power, but these skills didn't translate to success at Harbour Town. McIlroy (T-58) failed to record a top-20 finish for the first time in six starts on the PGA Tour this season. His previous five outings included the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship (T-5), Honda Classic (T-13), WGC-CA Championship (T-20), Shell Houston Open (T-19) and the Masters (T-20).

Notables
• Gay's winning score (264) breaks the previous scoring record at the Verizon Heritage, set by Loren Roberts in 1996 (19-under 265). The 10-stroke winning margin also is a tournament record, besting Davis Love III's 7-stroke triumph in 1998.

• Gay's victory margin also marks the largest on the PGA Tour since Phil Mickelson won the 2006 BellSouth Classic by 13 shots. Gay's is the ninth double-digit winning margin in tour history, dating back to 1970 when the organization began record-keeping.

• With the victory, Gay earned his first invitation to the Masters in 2010. He is a former resident of Louisville, Ga., located approximately 50 miles from the Augusta National Golf Club. Gay has made 10 of 11 cuts this year, including six top-25 finishes and three top-10s.

• Eight of the nine past champions of the Verizon Heritage made the cut this week. The list includes: Boo Weekley, Aaron Baddeley (T-21), Peter Lonard (T-48), Stewart Cink (T-62), Love (T-21), Justin Leonard (T-48), Jose Coceres (T-48) and Glen Day (76). The only one to miss the cut was Bob Tway.

• Though he finished a respectable T-13, Weekley saw his two-year reign at the Verizon Heritage ended this week. The tournament has not had a defending champion miss the cut since Love in 1993.

• Love fell short in his bid for a sixth Verizon Heritage title. He has now made 24 consecutive starts (with 13 top-25 finishes) at the annual Hilton Head event. In addition to his wins in 1987, 1991, 1992, 1998 and 2003, he has six additional top-10 finishes. Those 11 top-10s are a tournament record.

• Wilkinson's T-6 finish is the best by a left-hander at the Verizon Heritage since Mickelson finished third in 2002.

• After missing the cut in his inaugural Verizon Heritage appearance in 2001, Aaron Baddeley -- the 2006 champion -- has reeled off four consecutive top-25 finishes at the tournament (1st in '06, T-10 in 2007, T-2 in 2008, T-21 in 2009.)

• The third-round leader/co-leader has won 13 of 16 tour events (81.3 percent) so far this season, including Pat Perez at the 90-hole Bob Hope Classic. By comparison, only 22 of 46 (48.0 percent) third-round leaders/co-leaders went on to victory in 2008, including Weekley at the Verizon Heritage

Send comments, suggestions and corrections to Nathan.J.Easler@espn.com. Information from the PGA Tour was used in this report.

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