By: Edward Egros

championship

Previewing the 100th PGA Championship

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(Courtesy: Gary Kellner Getty Images)

In some ways, the PGA Championship is the toughest to predict of all four majors. Previous performance is an enormous factor for the Masters, past results at links style courses help with the (British) Open (and when applicable the U.S. Open) and long hitters often perform well at the second major. But with golf's final major, the skill set required to win can vary significantly. One trend worth noting is those who win the Wanamaker Trophy do well at the other majors. It has the second-fewest number of winners whose only major victory was that major (the Masters has the fewest single-major champions). However, the last three winners of golf's final major are first-time major champions (Jason Day, Jimmy Walker and Justin Thomas).

To make matters even trickier, it's been 10 years since Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis has hosted a PGA Tour event,
and the leaderboard does not exactly uncover a trend for success. However, because rainy weather seems to have softened the course, putting may not be as big of a factor as driving and the short game. The usual suspects appear atop the Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green leaderboard: Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Francesco Molinari and Henrik Stenson. The PGA Championship has also been known to produce some low scores. In fact, five of the last six winners posted double digits under par. After adjusting for the field's average score of tournaments played by each individual golfer, the lowest scores this season come from Johnson, Justin Rose, Jason Day and Thomas.

Including these statistics, the number-one Official World Golf Ranking and his considerable driving distance, Dustin Johnson is my pick to win the 100th PGA Championship. As for my Daily Fantasy lineups:

Dustin Johnson
Jason Day
Tony Finau
Luke List
Webb Simpson
Hao-Tong Li

Paul Casey
Bryson DeChambeau
Tommy Fleetwood
Ryan Moore
Louis Oosthuizen
Justin Thomas

A Lesson in Mexico

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Even though golf did not give me anything in return after not cashing with either of my fantasy teams last week, golf gave a lot to Phil Mickelson. He won at the WGC: Mexico Championship, in a playoff, against arguably the hottest golfer at that moment, Justin Thomas.

What's more important is Lefty had not won an event in almost five years (his last victory was the 2013 Open Championship). Because of that drought, it might make sense for several daily fantasy players not to pick Mickelson. This game is more than just picking successful players and stellar lineups, it is about picking golfers who others do not think will play well. Sometimes prices will reflect these trends, but many times they will not, and those are the moments DFS players should try and seize when putting together lineups. It is something I hope I can refine as I move forward.

This week is the Valspar Championship. It is more of a shotmaker's course, so heavy-hitters may not be favored. However, looking at top performers over the last ten years, there did not seem to be discernible trends when it came to the perfect Strokes Gained statistic, though Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green and Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green did seem to have some predictive value. More specifically, a player largely could not rank poorly in either metric.

These teams are designed to have a mix of those who perform at least adequately well in the aforementioned statistics, those who have performed well at the Valspar Championship before and who may not be chosen frequently by others:

Jordan Spieth
Chez Reavie
Keegan Bradley
Adam Hadwin
Chesson Hadley
Chris Kirk

Sergio Garcia
Nick Watney
Adam Scott
Charles Howell III
Kevin Streelman
Webb Simpson

Entering the Daily Fantasy Zone

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This adventurous soul of a webmaster is embarking on a new quest: Daily Fantasy Golf. Over at least the next few weeks, I will submit two teams of six players to a Daily Fantasy Golf website in the hopes of determining if my models have enough predictive power to finish "in the money" with enough frequency to make a profit. Though I am not spending any money of significance, I am keeping track of where each team finishes and what prizes come about.

If you are not familiar with Daily Fantasy Golf, each user has $50,000 to spend on six golfers competing in that week's tournament. Each golfer has a price and it is up to the user to find the best combination of golfers with the best finishing order at the end of the final round, all while not exceeding that $50,000 limit.

I began with the Genesis Open, and though one of my teams had all six players make the cut, no money was earned. Then I assembled teams for the Honda Classic, focusing primarily on Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee and Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green. One team of Justin Thomas, Alex Noren and others did finish "in the green". Winners of this event in the past have excelled in those statistics.

This week, the scene is the WGC-Mexico Championship. This tournament proves to be particularly tricky to predict if only because this is just the second time the World Golf Championships have been to Club de Golf Chapultepec. The elevation is high, the air is thin, the length is only 7,330 yards but heavy hitters like Dustin Johnson were successful last year. With a combination of players with high finishes the last few weeks, those excelling with their iron shots (proximity to the hole) and those who are dominant in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, here are my teams:

Justin Thomas
Kevin Chappell
Francesco Molinari
Brendan Steele
Xander Schauffele
Webb Simpson

Tommy Fleetwood
Chez Reavie
Paul Casey
Alex Noren
Patton Kizzire
Charley Hoffman

Georgia or Alabama?

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The field is set inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for college football's national championship game. Aside from the playoff logo in the center, it looks a lot like what the SEC Championship will probably look like for years to come. Alabama has shown few signs of slowing down from its dynastic pace, while Georgia's achievements on the field and in recruiting suggest they may be that next major program to become a staple of the playoff.

Those games in the future will never have the stakes of tonight. So who will win?

As previously mentioned, Charles South and I put together a prediction model using advanced analytical techniques (you can see our
poster presentation here). Quick warning: you are about to see a long list. The significant variables—pertinent to tonight—that determine the outcome of a football game are:

- Yards per Pass Attempt
- Yards per Rush Attempt
- Rush Attempts
- Total Yards
- Yards per Play
- Turnovers
- Opponent Points Scored
- Opponent Yards per Rush Attempt
- Opponent Total Yards
- Opponent Turnovers
- Opponent Penalty Yards
- Average Point Differential
- Opponent Offense Passing Yds
- Opponent Offense Yards per Rush Att
- Opponent Offense Total Yards
- Opponent Offense YPP
- Opponent Def Total Rush Yds
- Opponent Defense YPRA
- Opponent Defense Total Yards
- Opponent Def Yards Per Play
- Opponent Defense TO
- Opponent Avg Points Differential
- Difference in Win %
- Recruiting Rankings

If you survived reading that long, congratulations! What's important to learn is the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide excel in just about every category. The difference in yards, points and statistical increments are razor thin, no matter your perspective. Without going into every variable, we can summarize several of them into overall offense, defense, schedule and recruiting.

Georgia's rushing attack with Sony Michel and Nick Chubb comprise most of its offense. They overcame the massive deficit in the Rose Bowl, they make the game manageable for a freshman quarterback and, as part of the backfield, they average more yards per carry and rushing attempts than Alabama. Neither team throws it much, though Georgia is more efficient through the air, by roughly one-third of a yard per attempt. Though Alabama is less efficient overall, some of that fact can be attributed to having big leads early in games, then cruising the rest of the way; it is why the Tide have more total yards than the Dawgs and Bama quarterback Jalen Hurts is the second-leading rusher on his own team, to preserve those leads.

Defensively, there seems to be few weaknesses with Alabama, though outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings will not play because of a knee injury. Near the end of the regular-season the injury problems mounted, but were under control in the Sugar Bowl, limiting the number-one ranked team to just six points and 188 total yards. Its rushing defense is best in America, allowing 2.7 yards per carry. The team passing efficiency defense also gives Bama the edge. Led by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, they've allowed just seven passing touchdowns and has an efficiency mark a full 17 points better than Georgia (1st in college football vs 13th nationally).

These statistics can be misleading given the small sample sizes in college football. Georgia did play an additional game, and often another contest can help a team historically. Alabama has only a slightly better point differential this season than Georgia. The Bulldogs faced the best offense when it comes to passing efficiency (Oklahoma). The best Alabama went up against was Auburn at 13th; a game they lost (Georgia split the two meetings). The Bulldogs got to face a Top 10 rushing attack in Notre Dame, while the Tide never faced anyone in the Top 25. The best passing efficiency defense Alabama faced was in the Sugar Bowl (5th) while the best Georgia saw was 19th (Auburn). The schedule favors Alabama but only slightly.

Finally, our study used
247Sports Composite Class Rankings to determine who has the best talent. Our study highlights the second-year and third-year classes, but also analyzes the average ranking of the first three classes. In this case, Alabama had the top class the past three years, though Georgia consistency fielded a Top 10 group.

Again, it is clear how evenly matched these teams are and how similar they are in terms of their approaches and philosophies. It promises to be an exciting game, and while the unpredictable like turnovers or missed field goal attempts prove all of the difference, if what's controllable decides this game, Alabama should have a narrow victory.

...One More Thing About the PGA Championship

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(Courtesy: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

At one point, there was a five-way tie atop the leaderboard during the back nine of the final round of the 99th PGA Championship. Then, Justin Thomas cards a birdie on the 13th hole, enters the Green Mile with a par on 16, a birdie on 17 and an insignificant bogey on 18. While the rest of the field struggled to finish, Thomas blazed through the toughest closing stretch at a major this year, to capture his first Wanamaker Trophy.

My pick to win, Hideki Matsuyama, fared more than respectably, finishing tied for 5th. But as I watched the television coverage of the moments he struggled, one of the commentators pointed out his performance mirrored that of last year's PGA Championship, where he was the best hitter of the golf ball, but could not make any putts. At that point, he finished tied for 4th.

This year, Matsuyama missed a few critical putts, but he was 12th in Strokes Gained: Putting. However, SG: Approach the Green and SG: Around the Green were 20th and 27th, respectively. As for the champion, Thomas was tied for 15th in SG: Approach the Green, 22nd in SG: Around the Green and 4th in SG: Putting. Overall, these numbers are slightly better and equaled a commanding win.

I am reminded of a paper by Dr. George Kondraske of UT Arlington titled: "
General Systems Performance Theory and its Application to Understanding Complex System Performance". In it, Kondraske attempts to explain human systems through complex machines. Regressions have a number components that are often considered additive (which is why we have a lot of "+" signs in our equations). But if one explanatory variable is largely deficient, it is not satisfactory to say the dependent variable decreases by the same amount. The output depends upon everything working together; components are so interconnected that any one piece that does not work or is largely deficient means the entire system might fail to perform.

What does this have to do with golf? If someone cannot putt at all, they will post a high score and have no chance of winning a tournament; they cannot simply overcompensate with a longer drive or a more accurate iron shot. Granted, professional golfers are at least competent in every component of a golf game, but any significant deficiency makes for a bigger setback than simply subtracting odds to win based upon a negative strokes gained metric.

This approach is intuitive to golf enthusiasts. It is why golfers work on everything, not just emphasizing the skills with which they excel. What matters here is when data scientists are putting together models for forecasting winners, perhaps it is important to think less linearly. Maybe it has less to do with the sum of skills coming together and how they fit with a particular course, and more about if every skill is adequate for the demands of a specific tournament. Justin Thomas' skills certainly were.

Who Will Win the 2017 PGA Championship?

Pasted GraphicThis year, the Wanamaker Trophy will be claimed at Quail Hollow Club, the same course that hosts the Wells Fargo Championship (previously the Wachovia Championship). No analysis of this year's PGA Championship would be robust without discussing Rory McIlroy's domination there.

A favorite to win the last major of the season, McIlroy has two victories and once lost in a playoff, in seven appearances there. He also made the cut six of seven times and owns the course record, shooting a 61 in 2015. Also, as I mentioned in a previous article, McIlroy is not only successful in PGA Championships, he is one of the more dominant golfers of any specific event on Tour (even if that major is a hodgepodge of characteristics where no particular abilities stand out). You add to his resume that he has a pair of Top 5 finishes his last two tournaments, and McIlroy seems poised to win for the third time at the PGA Championship.

However, as we have learned with other tournaments,
Strokes Gained statistics have incredible predictive power. When it comes to who has won in North Carolina before, sometimes an already dominant golfer came in and continued his momentum to victory. More recently, Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green has become more crucial to success:

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There are two periods when a player needed to rank in the Top 40 in SG: Around-the-Green: 2005-2007 and 2014-2016. This season, the Wells Fargo Championship was played elsewhere so Quail Hollow could be redone for a major. The two important changes here are the removal of trees and the adjusting of the front nine to where the final yardage is shorter but likely more challenging. It's possible these two details make SG: Around-the-Green all the more important.

At this point, the players leading in this statistic are: Ian Poulter, Jason Day, Bill Haas, Pat Perez and Cameron Smith. McIlroy barely cracks the Top 80. Jordan Spieth, another favorite who could complete the career Grand Slam at age 24, is 18th. As for Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, another stat with some predictive power, the current leaders are Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia. In terms of skills shown this season, there are several players who are perhaps more suited to win a revamped Quail Hollow than the favorites.

Perhaps the one player that seems to have put it all together, at this point, is Hideki Matsuyama. Fresh off a win at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, he is one of only four players with three wins on Tour this season. He also ranks 11th in Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green and 11th in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee. Lastly, he finished fourth in last year's PGA Championship and has two Top 20 finishes in the last four seasons. In other words, he overcomes the slightly lower statistical rankings than the aforementioned players with overwhelming momentum and overall success with this specific event. While I expect solid games from the favorites, I am picking Hideki Matsuyama to capture his first major.