Why Pebble Beach plays so weird

Feb 4, 2022; Pebble Beach, California, USA; Sean OÕHair plays his shot from the 17th tee during the second round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am golf tournament at Monterey Peninsula Country Club - Shore Course. Mandatory Credit: Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 4, 2022; Pebble Beach, California, USA; Sean OÕHair plays his shot from the 17th tee during the second round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am golf tournament at Monterey Peninsula Country Club - Shore Course. Mandatory Credit: Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports /

The AT&T Pro-Am is one of the most interesting stops on the annual PGA Tour, and not merely because it’s held at and around Pebble Beach.

It’s also interesting because of the unique tests that Pebble presents to the garden variety pro player.

Consider Pebble Beach itself. On Sunday, it played to a cozy 6,752 yards, making it easily the shortest course the pros will see this season.

Then factor in the intimate size of Pebble’s greens. They average just 3,500 square feet, making them just 70 percent the target size of an average green on the PGA Tour.

Granted, on the three-course stop that is the AT&T Pro-Am, the two rounds played on Pebble Beach comprise just 50 percent of the week’s full circuit. Still, when half the holes fit the profile of shorter with smaller targets, that has to play a role in the outcome.

But how? Does Pebble’s smaller scale make it more or less vulnerable to a deadeye putter, a target shooter, or a bomber?

There are a couple of tests we can apply to determine – at least generally – whether Pebble’s unique conditions impacted field performance.  One is simple: we can look at whether those players who did well at the AT&T Pro-Am had a demonstrated ability to excel at any one skill set.

If so, it’s possible that Pebble Beach favors that skill set.

Our focus is on the 32 players who finished in a tie for 32nd or better, that standing requiring a finish of 9-under or better for the week. The table below shows both the average and median placement of those 32 in the four major Strokes Gained categories. A relatively low average or median figure could be significant.

                               Off Tee         Approach         Around     Putting

Average               112.63             85.12               86.92       71.21

Median                 118.00          106.50               85.00       73.00

Based on that table, the clear perception is that Pebble Beach’s small scope and small greens favor putters and decidedly dis-favor bombers. Look at who stood out this week.

Tom Hoge, who entered the week ranking 133rd on Tour in Strokes Gained Off The Tee, won. Beau Hossler, the Tour’s 196th ranked player off the tee, finished third. A dozen players who entered the event ranking outside the PGA Tour’s top 100 in Strokes Gained Off the Tee finished among the top 32 at Pebble; five were among the top 10.

Statistically, at least, putters tended to do well on the confined surfaces. The average of a placing of 71.21 for the top 32 was 11 positions better than for any other skill set, and 41 positions better than for drivers.

But don’t lean too heavily on that average number; there be dragons in it. The winner, Hoge, entered the event ranked 157th in Strokes Gained Putting. The runner-up, Jordan Spieth, was 107th, and Troy Merritt, who tied for fourth, was 124th.

One of the ongoing curiosities of the Tour is that while — in an individual week — putting is a determinative skill,  it has little bearing on full-season performance. Hoge, for example, may rank 157th on the season in putting, but at Pebble Beach he ranked third on the greens. Go figure.

It would also be interesting to know the strength of the relationship at the AT&T Pro-Am between a top player’s performance in various skill categories and his score. The usual test of relationships between sets of numbers is called regression analysis.

In golf, where a low score is better, a score of -1.0 indicates an ironclad correlation between number sets and a score of 0.0 indicates no correlation at all. Any positive number indicates an inverse relationship

For the AT&T Pro-Am, here are the group correlations for the top 32 players in the four major Strokes Gained categories. Also included for comparison are the final 2021 season correlations between stroke average and each skill. The results are interesting.

                                 Tee      Approach     Around      Putting

2022 Pebble         -39            -32              +19           -22

2021 Season         -57           -45              -43            -42

Plainly, rather than favoring any particular skill set, Pebble moderated every Strokes Gained characteristic across the field. Although still the strongest, the correlation between driving ability and score declined by 18 points, basically losing one-third of its importance. The value of the approach game fell nearly 30 percent, the putting relationship was halved, and the relationship between the chipping game and score went haywire.

There can be several possible explanations for these dramatic moderations. Maybe Pebble performed oddly this year. Maybe our data would have been different if, rather than focus on the top 32 performers, we had run data for all 63 players who completed four rounds. Maybe the presence of amateurs ruined players’ usual concentration levels.

Or maybe Pebble Beach is just that much different of a test for the pros.

Based on a limited sample of just one season’s worth of data, we can’t really be definitive about why Pebble performed so unusually compared with the typical PGA Tour course. The one thing we can be sure of is that it did.

Next. The big bombers have taken over on the PGA Tour. dark