On the straight and narrow at Hilton Head

April, 19, 2011

Last week, Brendan Steele became the third PGA Tour rookie to win this year when he sunk a 6-foot, 7-inch par putt to seal a 1-shot victory. Steele turned 28 this month, and he played in a final group full of 20-somethings: the trio of Steele, Cameron Tringale and Kevin Chappell have an average age of 25.

Trivia question

Jim Furyk is looking to defend his title this week in South Carolina. Who are the three men to win this tournament in back-to-back years? (Answer below.)

This youth movement paled in comparison to the goings on at the European Tour's Malaysian Open, though. There, 17-year old Matteo Manassero (who turns 18 this Tuesday) held off 21-year-old Rory McIlroy to become the first player in European Tour history to win twice before turning 18. Manassero already held the European Tour record for youngest to win an event, doing so at last October's Castello Masters.

Now that everyone feels like their lives have completely passed them by, let's dive into the most pertinent numbers regarding this weekend's PGA Tour event, The Heritage:

56.77: If your favorite player is having to scramble for a lot of pars this week, try not to fret -- the rest of the field should be doing the same. Last year at Harbour Town, the field hit just 56.77 percent of greens in regulation. That number was the second-lowest on the PGA Tour in 2010; only Pebble Beach the week of the U.S. Open (51.78 percent) was more difficult.

To offer even further context, this year 15 of the 20 events on tour so far have had the field hit 60 percent or more of greens in regulation. Last year's winner, Jim Furyk, hit 61.1 percent of his greens in regulation en route to victory -- his lowest percentage in any of his 16 PGA Tour wins, by far.

However, the numbers say that if you miss the green (and you're going to a lot, the average green size of 3,700 square feet makes them some of the smallest on PGA Tour), players still have a great shot at making par. Harbour Town was 48th out of 50 (so, third-easiest) in putting average in 2010, 44th in scrambling and dead last in one-putt percentage difficulty.

Those numbers speak largely to a consequence of small greens being missed by players and some relatively easy clean-up shots around the green, which in turn result in shorter putts, many for par. The key phrase for this week: up-and-down.

3: There might not be a more obvious pick to succeed this weekend than current world No. 3 Luke Donald. Donald has finished T-3 and T-2 here the last two years, is 22 under par in his last seven rounds at Harbour Town and is coming off one of his best career finishes in a major -- a tie for fourth at Augusta National.

If you want an early front-runner for PGA Tour player of the year, Donald is probably it. He has a win in what many think is the toughest non-major to win on tour (WGC-Accenture Match Play), four top-10 finishes in five starts, had the previously mentioned tie for fourth at the Masters and is fifth on the money list. The only two-time winner on tour this year, Mark Wilson, would beg to differ with that assessment, but when evaluating a body of work, it's tough to pick against Donald.

1982: To have the Heritage two weeks removed from the season's first major championship is a bit jarring to those who follow the PGA Tour week in and week out. Traditionally, a closing-hole backdrop of shoreline and that red and white lighthouse have always followed Georgia pines on the schedule. The last time this favorite tour stop was not played the week after the Masters was in 1982. That was the year before Steele -- last week's Valero Texas Open winner -- was born.

Bonus trivia: Before the Valero Texas Open last week, what was the last non-Heritage tournament to be held the week after the Masters? In 1982, two tournaments were held -- the Tallahassee Open (won by Bob Shearer) and the MONY Tournament of Champions (won by Lanny Wadkins). The latter of the two was the earlier incarnation of the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions, with a field open only to winners from the previous year.

"Three on the Tee" presents three players in this week's field to keep an eye on for myriad reasons. And with that, the starter calls the names of:

Lucas Glover: The 2009 U.S. Open champion returns to his home state in search of his first PGA Tour victory since the win two summers ago at Bethpage Black. The voracious reader of books has also been quite the green-reader this year; Lucas ranks fourth on tour in one-putt percentage (43.9), eighth in birdie or better conversion percentage (35.3) and T-9 in overall putting average (1.724).

Those good numbers on the greens haven't converted to many high finishes, though. His performance on the weekend has been especially shaky this year -- his scoring averages of 70.75 in the third round and 71.50 in the fourth round rank T-100 and T-105 on the circuit in 2011. Glover has just one top-10 finish (seventh place at the Wyndham Championship) since grabbing solo-third at last May's Players Championship.

Glover has one top-10 finish in eight career starts at Hilton Head, having made the cut five times. He had a streak of four sub-par rounds in the event before last year's second-round 77 moved him outside the cut line.

Jim Furyk: This year's defender of the plaid jacket is 2010 FedEx Cup winner Jim Furyk, currently ranked 13th in the Official World Golf Ranking. Furyk has finished in the top 10 here five of the last seven years and carries a sparkling 69.95 career scoring average in The Heritage.

Two weeks ago at Augusta, a second-round 68 had Furyk in position for moving day, six back of then-leader McIlroy. Furyk failed to make a surge on the weekend, but no one would be surprised to see him in the mix this weekend; he has three straight top-25 finishes and 10 of his last 12 competitive rounds have been to par or better.

Trivia answer

Question: Jim Furyk is looking to defend his title this week in South Carolina. Who are the three men to win this tournament in back-to-back years?

Answer: Payne Stewart (1989-90), Davis Love III (1991-92) and Boo Weekley (2007-08).

Harbour Town is a notoriously narrow golf course, something else that bodes well for Furyk this week. Furyk is 11th on tour in driving accuracy (he was 10th last year). The 2009 winner, Brian Gay, led the PGA Tour in driving accuracy that year. As one of the shortest courses on the circuit, accuracy off the tee has proved to be more paramount than distance at this event.

Graeme McDowell: The defending U.S. Open champion makes his seventh PGA Tour start of the year this week at Hilton Head. McDowell has cooled off after a blazing start to 2011 that included a 62 in the final round at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and a 64 to close at the Honda Classic. McDowell missed the cut at both Bay Hill and Augusta National and has just one sub-par round in his last seven played.

It's G-Mac's putting that has gone awry recently: He's averaged 33.75 putts per round over his last two starts and has a putting average over 2.0 in that span. Compare that to his finest hour -- his U.S. Open win last year at Pebble Beach -- when he had a putting average of 1.690 and averaged 27.50 putts per round. That week, he was T-3 in the field in total putting and second in putts per GIR.

None of this trends in the direction of the world No. 5 recovering this weekend in South Carolina. In Furyk's win here last year, he averaged 25.5 putts per round.

Numbers Game is a weekly statistical look at the world of golf.

Justin Ray has been a studio researcher for ESPN since June 2008 and is the lead researcher for "The Scott Van Pelt Show." Send comments and suggestions to Justin.Ray@espn.com.





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