How Did They Do It?October 23, 2019

Betting on golf: How our experts have correctly predicted nearly every winner this season

Justin Thomas 2019 BMW Championship
(Photo by Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

As a wise man once said (or maybe it was the dad in Hangover), "You never walk away from the table when you're on a heater." The wisdom also applies to predicting winners in golf tournaments, and, well, we're not going anywhere.

Allow us a brief moment to recognize our Golf Digest gambling expert panel, which has now correctly picked the first five winners through six events of the new PGA Tour season. Golf is one of the toughest sports to predict, so finding such success led us to ask ourselves: How have these guys done it?

We thought we'd find out if our experts had any learnings they could share with the larger group regarding their strong success. Are there any trends they've uncovered that they hope to apply all season long? FanDuel expert handicapper Brandon Gdula, who is leading the way thus far, picking three of the six tournaments correctly, including some long bombs in Sebastian Munoz (60-1) at the Sanderson Farms Championship, Lanto Griffin (45-1) at the Houston Open and Joaquin Niemann (22-1) at The Greenbrier, says he has learned to ignore actual results and sticks to what the stats in his model tell him:

"The most important piece of the puzzle for me is doing my best to ignore the eye test and where a golfer finished an event recently," he says. Instead, he confides, he makes sure to familiarize himself "with knowing how each player's strokes-gained data looked, which is going to be more helpful predicting winners in the long run."

Gdula also tends to ignore putting stats, knowing that golfers often go on putting streaks that are entirely unpredictable. This has become an accepted fact among most stats experts in golf.

"When in doubt, look at strokes gained/approach numbers," Gdula says. "According to datagolf.ca, strokes gained/approach is responsible for about as much weekly scoring variance (35 percent) as is strokes gained/putting (36 percent). That means more than 70 percent of a golfer’s score is essentially iron play and their putter. Approach play is much stickier week-to-week than putting, so if you can find a few golfers with good approach numbers and non-dreadful putting, then it’s time to take note."

Our expert panel includes a PGA Tour caddie reporting anonymously from the site of that week's tour event, thanks to our partnership with The Caddie Network; picks from an expert at The Action Network, a comprehensive hub for sports betting and handicapping content; two of the most respected experts in the daily fantasy community, Pat Mayo of DraftKings and Gdula; Lee Alldrick of FanShare Sports, which tracks DFS ownership and sentiment; and Columbia University senior lecturer and Ph.D. Lou Riccio, who uses predictive analysis and modeling to forecast winners in golf. Gdula stands above the rest thus far: If he were to have put $10 on every outright bet (sleeper or winning pick) this season, he'd be up just less than $1,300. Quite the return on your investment.

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Riccio's model is based on simulating an event thousands of times, based on each player's past performance on similar length holes at recent events and modeling those out. Riccio predicted Justin Thomas' win last week, as did Jason Sobel of The Action Network and Alldrick of FanShare Sports.

Alldrick actually disagrees with Gdula a bit, as the UK-based handicapper actually favors putting stats a bit: "My theory is that players must be able to putt well on the type, speed and elevation of said greens to actually win a tournament. It's not entirely unpredictable."

That disagreement, in a nutshell, sums up why golf is so unpredictable. But the beauty of our well-rounded panel is that we get a bunch of varied opinions week to week. Don't leave this heater with us.

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