By: Edward Egros

PGA

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

Need Reasons Not to Pick Spieth at the Byron Nelson?

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Even the youngest of golf fans know how big of a favorite Jordan Spieth is at the Byron Nelson. Vegas odds have the Dallas native as a heavy favorite, he's the only golfer in the Top 20 in every Strokes Gained category except for putting (and putting is a volatile statistic), he's played at the tournament's new home at Trinity Forest a lot and the field is one of the weaker ones on the PGA Tour. In fact, only five of the Top 50 in the world will compete this weekend. Spieth is 3rd in the Official World Golf Rankings, by far the best in the field.

Then again, Spieth was also familiar with the tournament's old home at TPC Four Seasons and he failed to notch a Top 10 finish there. What makes Trinity Forest different is it's a links style, with wind playing a significant factor, no trees on the inside of the course—only outlining the exterior—and unusually large and detailed greens (this course even features one green with two holes). Because no PGA Tour event has been held here until now, there is no historical data to help determine who is likeliest to win. For my analysis, I am replacing course history with other links style courses, and wouldn't you know it? Jordan Spieth shines in this model too, the defending Open Champion with a 4th place finish in 2015 and a U.S. Open championship at Chambers Bay.

Here's one more perspective: as golf analyst
Mark Broadie points out, winners average about 35% of their total strokes gained from their approach shots. At a links style, it is possible that statistic inflates, what with handling the unique greens and unusual winds. Those playing this week who have better Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green numbers than Spieth are Scott Piercy and Sergio Garcia, who has handled other Texas tournaments well. There are a few players who could spoil Spieth's first win at this tournament, but it's hard to find them.

Here are my daily fantasy teams:

Jordan Spieth
Sergio Garcia
Robert Streb
J.J. Spaun
Hunter Mahan
Robert Garrigus

Adam Scott
Marc Leishman
Rory Sabbatini
Kevin Na
Scott Piercy
Bill Haas

Prelude to the Masters

Pasted Graphic 1The uniqueness of the Shell Houston Open is not so much the course itself, but its timing. Some of the top players skip the event altogether so they can focus solely on next week's Masters, some may very well use the event as a tune-up, vying less for the win and more for retooling and some are playing this event to win. There are some players with a lot of success at this event, notably Phil Mickelson, Russell Henley and Henrik Stenson. Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, Tee-to-Green and Approach-the-Green all have predictive value; in fact, when looking at the last 50 Top 5 finishers, the majority were all in the Top 50 in the second pair of statistics. Given this information, here are my Daily Fantasy Lineups:

Keegan Bradley
Tony Finau
Luke List
Ryan Palmer
Kevin Streelman
Jhonattan Vegas

Chesson Hadley
Phil Mickelson
Henrik Stenson
Scott Piercy
Chez Reavie
Nick Watney

Tiger's Best Chance

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With the Arnold Palmer Invitational on the horizon, it is easy to forget: it is still golf.

At the Valspar Championship, Tiger Woods had his best finish in five years and was one stroke away from forcing a playoff. Clearly, he is on an uptick, and seemingly it's only a matter of time before he ends his five-year drought and captures a victory. His last win was the WGC: Bridgestone Invitational.

Two victories before that? The Arnold Palmer Invitational.

One of the more significant factors for winning at Bay Hill is past success. When charting Top 5 finishes the last several years, names like Henrik Stenson and Zach Johnson come up multiple times. But as for Tiger, he has won there eight times in his career, including four times in the past decade. Even years when Tiger was slumping by his abnormal standards, he could often count on a win during the Florida portion of the schedule.

These reasons are enough for me to include him in my Daily Fantasy Lineups for this week. When including the significance of Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green and Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green:

Tiger Woods
Henrik Stenson
Adam Scott
Scott Piercy
Kevin Chappell
Kevin Streelman

Tommy Fleetwood
Alex Noren
Keegan Bradley
Charles Howell III
Luke List
Jason Kokrak

P.S.: A reality check.

As I posited
in an earlier post, the field is tougher now than it was when Tiger was dominating. In fact, last week's Valspar Championship could be proof of this idea: Paul Casey shot a final-round 65 to win by one stroke. As explained in that post, if you assume a stellar golfer gives up a full stroke when Tiger is in the field, Casey would have found himself in a playoff with Tiger, and the probability there gives a massive edge to Woods. Casey had not captured a victory in nine years, so to surge to the top of the leaderboard with one round suggests the sizable number of golfers capable of winning any given weekend.

Just because Tiger is on an uptick does not necessarily mean it is a straight line and he is guaranteed to win at Bay Hill. A lot is working in his favor, but every elite golfer stumbles at some point. It is still golf.

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

One Major Challenge for Tiger

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(Courtesy: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Call it a comeback. At last weekend's Honda Classic, Tiger Woods finished 12th at even par and seven strokes off the pace. In his last five events on Tour, he has three Top-25 finishes, coming within eight shots of the lead at tournament's end each time. More specifically, last weekend his proximity to the hole
led the field at 29 feet, 3 inches (with greens hit in regulation), and while it is not Tiger of old, there is an upward trajectory where it is safe to conclude he can be competitive again.

But with Tiger Woods, it is not about being competitive, it's about winning. At 42 years old with
a number of injuries throughout his career, will Tiger ever win another PGA Tour event? A major? Multiple majors? The aforementioned uptick suggests he's given himself an opportunity, but there's one factor that's perhaps more important than Tiger's performance:

The rest of the field has improved.

Let's say the Tiger era lasted from 1997-2009 and the post-dominant-Tiger era is from 2010 to now. This divide makes the most sense based upon his career. In the modern era of golf, Tiger owns the four lowest average scores per season; and, if you adjust for stroke average by tournaments,
Tiger owns the six lowest. Those seasons happened between 1999 and 2009. Since then, though no one has posted any one season of that caliber, from an article I wrote last year, the median golf score has gone down since 2006. And if you update 2017's median average score from the time that article was published, it's 70.94, a low score compared with the Tiger era.

Also, Tiger owns the largest margin of victory at an event during the modern era:
15 strokes at the 2000 U.S. Open. Since 2010, the largest margin of victory at a major is eight strokes, happening twice (2011 U.S. Open by Rory McIlroy and 2012 PGA Championship, also by McIlroy). Yes, Tiger's run is superior than what any golfer has mustered since, but the smaller margins of victory and greater dispersement of tournaments wins is because of more golfers able to challenge for golf's top prizes.

There's something else explaining stiffer competition. In 2007, Jennifer Brown of the University of California, Berkeley released a paper explaining how, on average,
highly skilled golfers' scores are 0.8 strokes worse when Tiger Woods is playing in the same tournament, compared with if he is not there. This disparity does not exist now for a few reasons. First, Tiger has not won a tournament since 2013 and hasn't won a major since 2008. Second, health continues to be a talking point about Tiger, given he has three withdrawals since 2013, played in far fewer tournaments and missed the cut with greater frequency. Finally, if opponents know Tiger will play well, they are likelier to play riskier golf because otherwise they know they will lose if they play their usual game. This idea is part of a paper I have frequently cited from Brian Skinner about knowing competition and recognizing when having a riskier gameplay is the only way to win.

The field knows Tiger is not what he was and the field itself has improved. Jordan Spieth, for instance,
tied Tiger's course record at the Masters. Dustin Johnson is consistently at the top of the leaderboard in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee. And Justin Thomas just earned his 8th victory before the age of 25, just the third golfer ever to accomplish that feat. An improved field is just one of many challenges for Tiger Woods, but if he does return to winning, it would make the comeback all the more impressive.

...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.