By: Edward Egros

thomas

...One More Thing About the PGA Championship

Pasted Graphic
(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.

Are We Witnessing the Best Golf Ever?

Last January, Adam Hadwin shot a 13-under 59 at the CareerBuilder Challenge in California. Though it’s a dream scorecard, sub-60 is no longer a rarity. Just in the week prior, Justin Thomas posted a 59 at the Sony Open. Last August, Jim Furyk carded 58 at the Travelers Championship. Of the nine sub-60 round in PGA Tour history, three of them have happened in the span of roughly six months, out of 87 years of pro golf (in more than 1.5 million rounds of play, last I counted).

Because the odds are infinitesimally small these low rounds are by chance, it is safe to say golfers are improving. Equipment, athletic ability and coaching all play a part. But with several months left in the season, can we predict, right now, we are about to witness the best golf ever played?

Let’s first consider scoring average over the last 20 years, specifically, the median scoring on Tour:

Pasted Graphic 1

We had been seeing a significant decline in scoring beginning in 2007—with some fluctuation—but overall lower figures as recently as last year; however, so far this season, an uptick. What makes the higher median score so interesting is how much easier the early tournaments are, compared with the rest of the schedule.

Even for individual seasons, it will be difficult for anyone to match what Tiger Woods accomplished in 2000 and 2007. In both years, he finished with the lowest scoring and adjusted scoring average, ever, with a 67.79. This year, after the CareerBuilder Challenge and all of those historically low scores, even with the 59’s, the lowest scoring average was 68.715, roughly one stroke worse than Tiger’s.

Of course, devious course designers can always stay one step ahead and adjust conditions to keep scores from approaching zero (e.g. Tiger-proofing). Other statistics could better highlight if today’s golfers are indeed the best ever. However, metrics off the tee like driving distance has remained relatively steady over the last several years, though some tournaments show professional golfers are becoming more aggressive than ever before.

Where there might be significant improvement involves the less glamorous approaches and short game. Though the top Greens in Regulation percentages have hovered around 72% each season, this year the best is 75.69%, held by Jordan Spieth. More golfers can finish a hole with one putt. The best could have roughly 44% one putts for a season. In 2017, seven golfers have more than 44% success rate with one putts. But again, it is worth noting how much easier the start to a season is; these golfers have not faced the toughest challenges like The Players, the Barclays and any major championship.

What seems to be happening is not the next coming of 2000 Tiger, but rather, more golfers improving at roughly the same time at roughly the same rate. There are still milestones yet to be reached, like someone shooting a 62 for one round at a major, or less notably, a golfer carding 254 for a 72-hole tournament. There have been more golfers flirting with breaking these records in recent years, but no one has broken through. Sub-60 rounds are happening at easier courses where scores are lower and competition is not as fierce. But because fields are becoming saturated with similarly talented players, some of the better golfers still have to find other events to play. When they do, the occasional golfer could be poised to achieve that coveted 59.

If you believe talented playing partners and deeper tournament fields naturally make an individual golfer better, then the play we will witness this season could very well be the best we have ever seen. There may not be the lone star of golf, but a hodgepodge of pros who will make 2017 something to behold.