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Crunching the Numbers

Ryder Cup 2021: What the data (surprisingly) says about how a player’s recent form translates to Ryder Cup success

Patrick Cantlay plays a shot during a practice round prior to the 43rd Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits.

Patrick Smith

September 23, 2021

HAVEN, Wis. — Recent form means absolutely nothing in the Ryder Cup. Don’t believe us—believe the math.

Beginning with the hypothesis that single-round match-play golf is essentially a different sport than 72-hole stroke-play golf, we set out to see if guys who came into Ryder Cups playing well carried the momentum into the biennial matches—or if everything goes out the window once they trade in their sponsor’s garb for the team uniforms.

The methodology

There’s no perfect way to measure a golfer’s form. Something in the strokes-gained family would come closest, but European Tour events do not provide such data, rendering that statistic useless for this exercise. So we went with the Official World Golf Ranking, which awards points based on a player’s finish in a tournament and the tournament’s strength of field. Simply put: the better a performance, the more World Ranking points. We analyzed each player in the last three Ryder Cups for a sample size of 72.

To preserve the integrity of the word recent, we opted only to look at the player’s last five starts coming into Ryder Cup week. To emphasize momentum even more, we weighted each tournament based on how close to the Ryder Cup it was. We gave each player full World Ranking points for their last start prior to the Ryder Cup, 90 percent of their points for the one before that, 80 percent of their points for the one before that … you get the picture, I hope. It’s much easier to conceptualize with an example. So let’s go with Henrik Stenson’s form coming into the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National, starting with his start right before the Ryder Cup.

Deutsche Bank Championship — T-41, 2.37 points x 1 = 2.37

The Barclays — WD, 0 points x .9 = 0

Olympic Golf Competition — second, 27.60 points x .8 = 22.08

PGA Championship — T-7, 16.33 points x .7 = 11.431

Open Championship — WIN, 100 points x .6 = 60

We then added all five “final” values to derive his OWGR score: 95.881.

Stenson went 2-3-0 at that Ryder Cup, meaning he won two of a possible five points. So, his Ryder Cup score for that year is 2/5 = .4.

We put these two values into a handy dandy Excel spreadsheet. Here are all the values and the table for the 24 players who competed in the 2018 Ryder Cup.

Once we put in the data for the last three Ryder Cups, we ran a simple regression to see if a player’s recent form (OWGR score) correlated with their performance in the Ryder Cup (RC score). A positive correlation would result in a line sloping upwards, and would suggest that players in better form perform better at the Ryder Cup. Only that’s not what happened at all. Here’s the regression:

Results

The dotted line actually slopes downward, which suggests that over the last three Ryder Cups, players in good form have performed worse than those in not-as-good form. You may notice, however, two outliers on the bottom line. These correspond to two players who came into the Ryder Cup playing great and failed to win a match. Both were members of the U.S. team in 2018: Tiger Woods and Bryson DeChambeau. Woods arrived in Paris exhausted from his emotional victory at the prior week’s Tour Championship, his first win in five years. The fuel reserves were empty, and he simply wasn’t the same player who fared so well in that year’s FedEx Cup Playoffs. A unique case, so we’ll give Tiger a break and remove him from the data set. (DeChambeau, who was 24 at the time, gets no such slack.)

The line is almost completely flat, suggesting no relationship between a player’s recent form and his performance in the Ryder Cup.

Analysis

We know what you’re thinking. Maybe his partner played poorly. Maybe the opponents made a ridiculous amount of birdies. That’s exactly the point. In stroke play, a golfer is more or less in control of his own destiny. That isn’t the case in match play, and those variables greatly mitigate any skill advantage for one particularly guy. And say a player made a ton of birdies in his events leading up the Ryder Cup but struggled to avoid the blowup holes; in stroke play, that can doom a tournament. In match play, it’s just one hole lost—and it might not even be a loss if his partner comes through.

The head-to-head component of match play cannot be underestimated, either. It’s essentially back-nine Sunday pressure from the onset. We’ve all seen players cruise through 63 holes only to freeze up once the thought of a trophy in their hands starts to get real. Here’s how Mr. Ryder Cup, Ian Poulter, described the difference on Wednesday.

“You can control a match,” Poulter said. You can dictate a match. You can play certain shots to try and put your opponent under pressure. You can’t do that in stroke play unless it comes down to the back nine and the group you’re in, you’re actually clear of the rest of the field.

“It’s just a fun game of chess, to be honest. To enjoy what that means, that you’re under pressure right from the get-go. It just doesn’t happen in stroke play. It’s kind of like you plod your way into the tournament, but it’s back-nine Sunday mentality every single time you tee it up [in match play].”

There’s also the course difference, which is particularly relevant for U.S.-based players. In recent years, the Ryder Cup has closely followed the FedEx Cup, which tends to be staged on long and soft setups that yield plenty of birdies. Ryder Cup venues in Europe offer a different and much sterner test, and while Valhalla and Hazeltine National looked rather similar to a run-of-the-mill PGA Tour course, Whistling Straits couldn’t be more different from the three venues that hosted this year’s playoffs.

Tony Finau won his second career PGA Tour title during the FedEx Cup Playoffs, but that recent success doesn't guarantee success this week at Whistling Straits.

Patrick Smith

Now, how does this apply to this year’s Ryder Cup? The consensus coming in is that the Americans enter in better form. Americans Patrick Cantlay, Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau excelled in the FedEx Cup Playoffs, while European Tommy Fleetwood missed them entirely and Matthew Fitzpatrick and Tyrrell Hatton failed to advance past the first event. Lee Westwood hasn’t done much since the Florida Swing, Rory McIlroy’s been inconsistent all year and Poulter missed the cut in his last event.

These are indisputable facts; the Americans are playing better and thus enter with a much lower average world ranking (8.92) than the Europeans (30.4). It’s also indisputable that, in news that will please European ears, such matters have had no bearing on how recent Ryder Cups have played out.