By the numbers: Justin Rose seeks to hone iron game, driving in advance of Masters

Mar 17, 2018; Orlando, FL, USA; Justin Rose hits his tee shot on the third hole during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament at Bay Hill Club & Lodge . Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

By the numbers: Justin Rose seeks to hone iron game, driving in advance of Masters

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By the numbers: Justin Rose seeks to hone iron game, driving in advance of Masters

Justin Rose is having one of his most consistent seasons ever. After winning the WGC-HSBC Champions and the European Tour’s Turkish Airlines Open last fall, he tied for 10th at the UBS Hong Kong Open, tied for fifth at the Valspar Championship and finished third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Rose, who is ranked No. 5 in the Official World Golf Ranking, has been one of the PGA Tour’s most consistent ballstrikers for several seasons, which is why the key to his recent success might surprise many golf fans.

After four of the past five PGA Tour seasons, the Englishman has finished with a negative strokes gained: putting average, meaning he gave up strokes to the field on the greens. But heading into last week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, he ranked fifth on Tour in that statistical category with a 1.022 average. That means Rose, historically an average putter at best and below average during several seasons, is more than four shots better than the average PGA Tour player over 72 holes.

Ordinarily, putting like that would make Rose nearly unbeatable, as he is typically an excellent driver and iron player. But as shown by the chart below of total strokes gained, this has not been a typical season for the winner of the 2013 U.S. Open.

While Rose has been putting better than ever and his driving has remained solid, his averages in strokes gained: approach-the-green and around-the-green are significantly down from previous seasons.

Heading into this past week’s event in Austin, Texas, Rose had 15 measured rounds on the PGA Tour, a relatively small sample size. But he has been underachieving from the fairway and around the green compared to previous seasons, then overcoming those shortcomings by putting better than ever.

“We had to make some changes to our approach midway through the year last year because his back was flaring up,” said Sean Foley, Rose’s swing coach. “We had to change his posture, and then how his pelvis moved in the transition, so even though he has all these top-10s over the last few months, we’re still trying to find our playing field. In practice and on the range, he’s been very, very good. But we’re still looking for that feel on the course. But I think he’s finding it.”

With just a week to go before the season’s first major, the question for Rose’s fans and people who think he is a contender to win at Augusta National comes down this: Will Rose keep up this level of putting while he tries to hone his iron game and wedge play?

At this point, it is important to remember an economics term called recency bias. It is the phenomenon of overemphasizing things that have just taken place because they are fresh in your mind instead of considering those things to be simply a few occurrences in a longer-term trend. In economics, recency bias explains why some people buy a stock after watching its price rise for a few days or weeks. In sports, fans and gamblers can fall prey to recency bias when they think a basketball player is going to keep making 3-point shots because he has made two in a row while neglecting to consider that his season-long average from behind the 3-point line is 25 percent.

Jason Day is the only player to have finished a PGA Tour season with a strokes gained: putting average greater than 1.0. So based on Rose’s history, we should assume it will be almost impossible to maintain this level. His putting is likely to cool off.

Foley noted that back injuries hampered Rose over the last few seasons, which would explain the declining performance in his iron game. Rose herniated a disc in his back at the 2016 Players Championship and had to take a month off to recover, then took eight weeks off at the end of 2016 to rest his back and recover from the season. He also reported tweaking his back on Sunday during the 2017 Masters.

Rose’s 2018 strokes gained: approach-the-green average was hurt by a terrible week at the WGC-Mexico Championship, an event played at an altitude of over 7,000 feet. His average that week was -3.202, and he finished tied for 37th. But he rebounded to a 0.115 average at the Valspar Championship and had a monster week from the fairway at Bay Hill, earning a 1.271 average. If Foley is right and Rose is starting to find his swing again – and his back is healthy – he does not need to putt as well as he has recently to contend. His traditional strengths – his iron game and his driving – can carry him.

Rose was a runner-up at last season’s Masters, losing in a playoff to Sergio Garcia. If he can improve his game from the fairway and maintain the putting touch he’s shown this season just a little longer, he might be able to improve on last year’s finish and win his second career major. Gwk

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