By: Edward Egros

Major

...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.

Will Jordan Spieth Win a Major in 2017?

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Leave it up to the U.S. Open’s official twitter handle to place tongue firmly in cheek when it comes Jordan Spieth’s victory at the Australian Open being a sign of things to come: “We all know what came after @JordanSpieth’s first #AusOpenGolf win...” followed by a photo of him holding the major’s championship trophy. In other words, only in the years he won the Australian Open did he win majors.


At the time of publication, no major tournament participants have withdrawn based upon this logic.

There are sounder ways to predict if Jordan Spieth will earn his 3
rd career major this year like momentum. Perhaps surprisingly, in a few ways, Spieth performed better in 2016 than he did in 2015, despite not winning any majors last year. We can illustrate this idea using “Strokes Gained” statistics:

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For those new to “Strokes Gained”, it simply means how many strokes a player gained or lost, compared with the rest of the field, based upon how they played in the four areas: off the tee, approaching the green, around the green and putting. Spieth was actually a better putter in 2016, it was primarily his iron and hybrid clubs letting him down. Fortunately for Spieth, putting is a better predictor for overall success than other phases of the game, so as long as he can continue improving in close range, he has opportunities.

Next, let’s look at each individual major, beginning with the Masters. When looking at a host of variables, there is no better predictor for future performance than past success. It is why I publicly predicted Spieth to win the green jacket last year, and I would have gotten away with it had it not been for that pesky Amen Corner. Still, nobody has played better at Augusta National the last three years than Spieth, so he is in the best position to win there again.

This year’s U.S. Open will be at Erin Hills. It is listed as 7,823 yards, which would be longer than any PGA Tour event played last season. Though Spieth is not one of the longer drivers on Tour, his U.S. Open win was at Chambers Bay, almost as long as this year’s event. Spieth’s advantage was he knew how to putt on the unique fescue greens better than most everyone else. This setup might pose problems.

Royal Birkdale will host The Open, a shorter links course. Perhaps one of the more underrated qualities of Spieth’s is his ability to play links courses well, compared with other Americans. As long as the momentum is there over the summer, Spieth can also contend there.

Finally, the site of the PGA Championship is Quail Hollow Club. It has hosted the Wells Fargo Championship since 2003. Predictably, familiarity with a course has helped Spieth over the years, but he has only played that tournament once, in 2013 when he finished tied for 32
nd. There may simply be too many other golfers with more knowledge of the course for Spieth to have a realistic chance.

Spieth already has a few Top 10 finishes in 2017, including a victory at Pebble Beach. In the last few months, he helped the Americans claim Ryder Cup win, earned an Australian Open victory and is 2nd on the Tour in greens in regulation percentage (one of the areas that was in need of improvement). His Strokes Gained: Putting has not been as strong this year, ranking 37
th, but a few golfers ahead of him have played more tournaments, so it remains too early in the season to suggest there might be a problem.

Because of the deep fields of majors, the odds are better “not” to predict any one golfer to win one of the big four. But for Jordan Spieth, there are enough reasons to believe he can capture another green jacket, win his first Claret Jug, or both.

Subscribers of the Aussie Open theory would agree.

Predicting the Masters

IMG_3374Jordan Spieth is and should be one of the favorites to win the Masters. He's had two starts at Augusta National, finished tied for second in 2014 and won it in 2015. He also has a PGA Tour victory in 2016, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

But, the PGA Tour's website is predicting someone different. Using an analytic formula, the site says
Phil Mickelson will win the green jacket. There are three variables used: the overall rankings for driving distance, putting and scrambling. Mickelson has the best ranking when combining all three variables, and by a lot. The second-place golfer, Jason Day, is 38 "points" lower than Mickelson but only ten points better than third and fourth place (Marc Leishman and Rickie Fowler, respectively). If this formula is completely accurate, Spieth will finish 7th.

Though the simplicity of the formula can be appreciated, any Masters prediction should include past performances. This variable is highly predictive. It explains why Fred Couples finished in the Top 20 in five of the last six years, even though he has played on the Champions Tour since 2010. It might also explain why the Masters remains the only major championship Rory McIlroy has yet to win (he has finished 8th or better the last two times at Augusta National).

Even when adding this variable, it does not take away from the argument for Mickelson. After all, he has won a pair of green jackets and finished tied 2nd in 2015, four strokes behind Spieth. It is also worth noting, of the 48 different golfers who have won the Masters, 17 won it multiple times (35.4%). Look for Mickelson, Spieth or Adam Scott to finish atop Sunday's leaderboard.