Bay Hill Club & Lodge was an absolute bully at last year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard.
Facing fierce winds on the weekend, the field averaged more than 2.1 strokes over par for the tournament, making it the most difficult course on the PGA TOUR for the 2019-2020 season. It was the first time Bay Hill had yielded a scoring average over 74 since 1983, and the highest winning score in relation to par (-4, Tyrrell Hatton) at the event since ’83, as well.
Approach play was especially perilous, with the field recording an average proximity to the hole of 54’4”, the largest number all season on TOUR. They hit only 50.5% of greens in regulation for the week, the lowest number in any non-major since the 2005 RBC Canadian Open at Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club (49.8%).
While last year’s conditions made for a tougher test than players normally face in Orlando, there is one statistic about Bay Hill that reveals itself every year, regardless of the weather.
Bay Hill annually ranks among the courses with the most approach shots by the field from outside 200 yards. Last season, there were more than 1,800 approaches from that range – most of any course all season. Since 2016, there have been 9,926 approach shots hit from 200 yards out or farther – nearly 3,000 more than the next-closest course in that span (TPC River Highlands at 7,007).
Part of the source of this are the long par 3s at Arnie’s place: the quartet of holes have an average length of 216.5 yards on the scorecard. That was the longest average length for par 3s on TOUR last season, and ranked second-longest each of the previous two years – the par-3 holes at Corales Golf Club, host of the Corales Puntacana Championship, averaged 230.5 yards on the card in 2018 and 2019.
So how have recent winners at Bay Hill fared on these long approaches? Since 2012, they are a combined 44 under par when hitting approach shots (on all holes, regardless of par) from outside 200 yards. In that span, the winner at Bay Hill has a proximity to the hole 4’9” better than the field average that particular week. Three tournament winners in that span beat the field average by 6 feet or more – Tiger Woods in 2013 (6’1”), Matt Every in 2015 (9’9”), and Rory McIlroy in 2018 (16’9”).
McIlroy’s performance on these particular shots was especially remarkable. In his 2018 win at Bay Hill, McIlroy led the field in approach shot proximity from outside 200 yards. When McIlroy is at his best, this is a pervasive theme. Only eight times in the ShotLink era (a collection of more than 600 tournaments) has a winner averaged less than 35 feet away on approach shots outside 200 yards (minimum 15 attempts). McIlroy has four of those wins.
So which of the players in this week’s field show promise in this particular statistic? There are more than 180 with 100 or more approach shots from outside 200 yards on TOUR the last 2 seasons. Of that group, you don’t have to look far to find a familiar name: this week’s defending champion, Tyrrell Hatton, ranks second in average proximity to the hole (44’2”) when facing that length of an approach shot. Bryson DeChambeau, who has finished in the top five twice in the last three years at this event, ranks third (44’10”). The leader in this statistic is Will Gordon (43’2”), who makes his Bay Hill debut this week.
How about scoring from that distance? Gordon ranks fourth in score to par per attempt (-0.29), best in the field in Orlando. Talor Gooch is another under-the-radar name who performs well in these situations: his score to par per attempt (-0.27) ranks eighth since the start of the 2019-20 season. Sungjae Im is a remarkable 106 under par when faced with these approach shots the last two seasons, 12 shots better than any other player. In a statistical testament to how often he plays, though, he’s also had 38 more attempts than anyone else in that span (Im ranks 24th of 185 players in score to par per attempt, at -0.25).
Almost every course in professional golf has its own defining characteristics, whether visually, architecturally, or when diving into the numbers. Longer approach shots into greens are a trend to keep an eye on this week at Bay Hill.