Does winning a golf tournament come down to skill or luck?

Ancient game, new science.
Aug. 12 2010 10:53 AM

Dead Solid Lucky

Does winning a golf tournament come down to skill or chance?

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Rory McIlroy. Click image to expand.
Rory McIlroy 

There's a longstanding faction in golf that thinks putting has too much influence on a golfer's scorecard. Here's Ben Hogan: "Hitting a golf ball and putting have nothing in common. They're two different games. You work all your life to perfect a repeating swing that will get you to the greens, and then you have to try to do something that is totally unrelated." Hogan is joined by Gary Player, Chi Chi Rodriguez, and Johnny Miller, who have all declared at one time that putting is unmanly, unfair, and "not golf."

Even the gracious golf writer Herbert Warren Wind brooded over the dominance of putting. Here he is writing in Golf Digest in 1972: "Over 18 holes, even the best player in the world can lose to a man with a hot putter, and it is rough for a star's self-esteem to be beaten in a head-to-head encounter by his peers, let alone by some upstart bumpkin."

It's easy to understand the chokehold that putting has on the golfing mind. If you flub a drive or fly the green with a 9-iron, there's still hope that you can make up for it with a miraculous recovery shot. In contrast, putting delivers a brutal, obvious, and seemingly final judgment. You miss the eight-footer, you drop a stroke. It's no wonder that Ryan Moore and many of his peers see putting as the skill from which all good things in golf flow.

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But does putting really have an outsize impact on the game of golf? After the MIT team established its putting rankings, it calculated which golfers pick up the most strokes off the green. The top five names may be familiar to you: Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Phil Mickelson, and Ernie Els. No "upstart bumpkins" to be found.

The authors underline the starkness of these results: "All the top 20 golfers are better than average off-green performers, while roughly a third are worse than average putters." Three-time major champion Singh, for example, drops one-third of a stroke per round with his putting but gains 2.3 strokes with his other shots. While it certainly wouldn't hurt Singh to perform better on the greens, his superior shot-making more than makes up for any weakness with the putter. The opposite scenario doesn't hold: Great putting will never make up for not being able to consistently crush the ball into the horizon. A golfer's power also gives his long-iron shots a higher trajectory, allowing him to land the ball more softly on the greens, which in turn allows for greater accuracy.

It's not that putting doesn't count. It does. But a golfer without a world-class long game simply can't be world class. The importance of power is confirmed by Mark Broadie in a forthcoming paper. Thanks to his shot-value analysis, Broadie is able to isolate particular skills. The areas that have the most influence on a golfer's score, Broadie found, are long-distance tee shots, shots from 200-250 yards, and shots from 150-200 yards. It's these locations on the course—not the greens—where golfers are most able to distinguish themselves from the pack.

Pro golfers who lack adequate power are like runners competing with pebbles in their shoes. They lose fractions of a stroke on most long shots, meaning that over 18 holes they are slowly ground down by the course. Golfers overemphasize putting because they can't mentally tally these fractional losses. Instead, they carry around those pesky missed eight-footers. But the truth is that once a pro golfer is crouched down to examine the break of a green, there's not as much room for him to excel. That's partly because golfers are very close in skill on the greens, and it's also because nothing that disastrous can happen, such as putting into the water. The tee box, the fairway, and the rough are where good and bad things happen on the golf course. The green is mostly there to make you hate yourself.

We also have to be careful not to err in the opposite direction and declare that the long game explains everything. All the data show that winning on the PGA Tour requires a player to have a career week, to perform better than average in several different facets of the game. In fact, winning may be even scarier than that: It may be beyond a golfer's control. A team of researchers has found that triumphing on tour almost always comes down to luck.

At this year's Masters, Phil Mickelson provided stunning demonstrations of both luck and skill. On the second hole on Sunday, Phil had what looked like an easy birdie putt:

A seed falling into the path of your putt during your backswing—doesn't get any more unlucky than that. Then there is "The Perfect Shot," a 6-iron that Phil hit around a tree on the 13th hole while nursing a one-stroke lead:

Two business-school professors, Robert A. Connolly and Richard J. Rendleman Jr., have done the most work on luck vs. skill in golf. Connolly and Rendleman collected data (PDF) from all stroke-play PGA events between 1998 and 2001, then used something called a "smoothing spline" model to tease out which portions of a player's score could be attributed to skill and which to luck.

"Luck" can arrive in many fashions. A tournament may be held at a course with a setup that favors a particular player. (Connolly and Rendleman found that this "player-course" effect was present but modest.) Next, a player might get lucky with the weather. That happened this year at the British Open at St. Andrew's when the winds became wicked on Friday afternoon, seeming to ruin the chances of golfers with late tee times. It turns out that getting caught in a "bad rotation" on the course does have a real impact. In some tournaments, this effect came out to just half a stroke, but in competitions that were marred by extreme weather, the rain and wind cost unlucky golfers as many as five strokes.

Then there is the luck that we think of as luck: the approach shot that hits a rock (dang!) and ricochets onto the green or the ball that gets knocked into the hole by another player's shot (yes!). Or, more commonly, the forgiving bounce in the fairway, the putt that takes a victory lap and falls in—and the bad lie in the fairway, the shot that skips off the cart path into the water, etc.

This kind of luck cannot be directly measured. What Connolly and Rendleman do is model what a player is expected to shoot, accounting for their recent play, the course, and the weather. They then declare any deviation from that expected score attributable to "luck."

How big a deal is luck on the golf course? On average, tournament winners are the beneficiaries of 9.6 strokes of good luck. Tiger Woods' superior putting, you'll recall, gives him a three-stroke advantage per tournament. Good luck is potentially three times more important. When Connolly and Rendleman looked at the tournament results, they found that (with extremely few exceptions) the top 20 finishers benefitted from some degree of luck. They played better than predicted. So, in order for a golfer to win, he has to both play well and get lucky.

The "luckiest" performance recorded in the paper was turned in by Mark Calcavecchia at the 2001 Phoenix Open: 21.59 strokes. If you revisit that victory, it makes sense. At the time, Calcavecchia had turned 40 and was in a deep slump. That week, against a strong field that included Tiger Woods, Calc equaled the tour record for birdies, with 32, and tied another tour record by finishing 28 strokes under par.

Of the tournaments that Connolly and Rendleman analyzed, only one win could not be attributed to some degree of luck: Tiger Woods' victory in the 1999 Walt Disney World Resort Classic. While the absence of "luck" is less easily observed than its presence, I can make some guesses about what happened here. This tournament was marked by lightning-fast greens and holes that were cut into the slopes (making the putting even trickier). Woods missed five putts from inside 10 feet and three-putted three times. It seems that everyone else played worse, though. During the final round, Tiger's closest pursuers fell apart: Ernie Els hit into the water and putted off the green, and Bob Tway collapsed after a triple-bogey. In this instance, Tiger's high standard of play allowed him to "hang in there" while everyone fell back.

Connolly and Rendleman conclude that only the very best golfers of the late 1990s and early 2000s—Woods, Mickelson, David Duval, Davis Love III—were able to win a tournament without being significantly luckier than the rest of the field. The average player needs a lot of shots to go right for him—and, typically, a lot of shots to go wrong for everyone else—in order to hoist a trophy on Sunday. Think about that when someone you've never heard of—Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen—wins a major championship.

On the surface, these findings can be dispiriting: It all comes down to the golf gods? Why even bother?

That's not really the point. The "luck" that Connolly and Rendleman quantify doesn't affect how the game is played, only how we understand it after the fact. These researchers also can help reclaim greatness for players who've been blamed for failing to come through in the clutch. Until he won the Masters in 2004, Phil Mickelson was pilloried for choking in the majors. But according to the Connolly-Rendleman analysis, Phil actually played better than expected in these big tournaments. He just wasn't as lucky as the guys who eventually won. He played well. They played out of their minds.

Golf is a psychological kick in the teeth: Like Phil Mickelson, you can bring your best golf to a major and still lose. A golfer can deal with this fact in one of two ways. The first option is to let go and accept your fate—to be the reed bending in the wind. The other choice is to do everything in your power to fine-tune the aspects of the game that you can control. Golfers are, of course, obsessed with their swings. But what about their strategy? That's a part of the game that's within their power, but often neglected. In my last piece, I'll look at how pro golfers approach stats and whether sifting through the numbers can save them strokes on the course.

Next: Why a Pro Is Better Than You

To hear Michael Agger, Josh Levin, Mike Pesca, and Hanna Rosin discuss Agger's "Moneygolf" series, click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 16:35 mark:

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