Which PGA Tour events produce the best leader boards?
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It started with an idea from Golf Digest editor Ryan Herrington, who noticed that the past champions at the Sony Open were a list of impressive names and emailed me with a very good question:
“Got me thinking … what is the tournament with the best group of past champs …wonder if there’s a way to get a ranking?”
I loved this idea, and immediately started turning it around in my head. What tournament produced the best winners … or, looking deeper, the best finishers in general? A champion alone, I thought, was a little too volatile, and would yield a small and unreliable sample size. Still, if you could take the top 15 from the leader board over a number of years, and compare the majors with PGA Tour and World Golf Championships using the same data set, you could start to answer the question.
But what was the question, exactly? As near as I can devise it, the simplest form is this: Which tournaments consistently have the best players finish the highest?
Or, less formally: Which events have the most top-loaded leader boards, relative to their field?
From there, you can form your own opinions about what it all means. My reason is that I thought by finding the tournaments where the best players reliably performed well, over time, you could reasonably infer that those tournaments (and courses) were the best at testing the field, and rewarding the golfers with the most complete games. It’s a way of measuring that old cliché: Where do we find the truest test of golf?
However, as much as I love statistics, I quickly realized the scope of the project had gone beyond me. So I turned to the man I always turn to in these situations, Mark Broadie. Mark needs no introduction among golf heads, but just in case, he’s a Columbia Business School professor and golf statistics guru/pioneer/virtuoso who helped develop the strokes gained/putting metric that has revolutionized how we evaluate PGA Tour golfers, and has spread to every part of the game. Mark and I previously collaborated on finding out which players step up the most at majors relative to their “normal” performance, and attempting to find the single greatest round in PGA Tour history by using advanced metrics. And when I say “collaborate,” let me be clear about what that means: I have a shell of an idea (or in this case, I share an idea with my editor), and Mark helps me clarify the idea and then does all the hard mathematical work to see it come to fruition. This kind of “collaboration,” on my end, is truly the best job in golf.
This time was no different: He quickly devised a plan that would attempt to answer this very complicated question. In brief, he looked at the top 15 finishers in every major, WGC, and PGA Tour event dating back to 2012—obviously that eliminates earlier eras of competition but data limitations meant you could gather reliable numbers to crunch in the last seven years. Broadie ranked the players within the field of every event based on Official World Golf Ranking data, placing more value on a first-place finish than a 15th-place finish, and used some statistical voodoo to account for the effect of different field sizes (allowing us to compare the WGC-Match Play to the Masters to a normal 156-player Tour event). He then adjusted it all so the best possible score for any event was roughly 100 … making it easier for people like me to read and evaluate.
I’m afraid even that description is a gross over-simplification of the labor that went into this, as well as the quality checks that validated the approach, but to go much deeper is to get lost in the weeds. So we’ll move now to the great unveiling of results, but first, what to call the new metric? This one was my idea: MOCCASINS.
M easure o f C ourse/C ompetition A ggregate S trength by IN dividual S uccess
Why not? Everyone loves moccasins. And the great thing is that each separate tournament can be measured by its own MOCCASINS rating, which means this is a statistic with plenty of future utility.
Without further ado, here’s a list of the top 46 tournaments measured by MOCCASINS since 2012—the higher score, the better the leader boards:
Before we discuss the results, Mark pointed out a few factors to consider when digesting the list. First, it’s no surprise that the WGC-Dell Match Play was almost dead last—the format is conducive to wild, unpredictable finishes far more than a stroke-play event. It’s also worth taking “secondary effects” into account, such as the fact that while a PGA Tour event features 156 players who all earned their place by performance at the highest level and each golfer can theoretically win, majors include dozens of players with little shot because of different qualifying systems. That means the top of the leader board has a better chance to be clustered with great players. Then there’s length: the top spots in the OWGR are almost all occupied by bombers, and that’s because most courses reward length. Which means that short courses will do the opposite, and typically rank lower by MOCCASINS standards. Finally, even though Mark devised a system that would allow comparison between events with different field strengths, the fact is that the absolute best players in the world are significantly better than those behind them, meaning the difference between No. 1 and No. 10 is a much wider gulf (measured by strokes gained) than between No. 41 and No. 50. For that reason, there will naturally be more variability in weaker fields.
And with those disclaimers out, let’s look at some of the most interesting results:
1. The major championships do very well, with the PGA (74.9), Open Championship (73.1) and Masters (72.4) holding the top three MOCCASINS spots. The U.S. Open is lower at No. 15 (62.9), but maybe that’s not so surprising when you consider how many top players struggle when facing the USGA’s setups.
2. The RBC Canadian Open is the highest ranked PGA Tour event (No. 4 overall), while the WGC Invitational (RIP Bridgestone) was No. 1 for WGCs and No. 8 overall. It will be interesting to see how and if that changes with the new location in Memphis.
3. The email that started it all proved prophetic: The Sony Open reliably produces great finishing fields, and sits at No. 5 overall with a 69.1 MOCCASINS average.
4. The Players Championship is low, at No. 41 with a 50.3 MOCCASINS average, but that’s no surprise when you consider the factors working against it. First, it’s the toughest field in golf, which means it doesn’t get the artificial boost of having qualifiers who can’t win, the way the other majors do. Second, it’s a (relatively) shorter course, which penalizes it for the reasons stated above. Even so, the number is low enough that it goes beyond certain inherent disadvantages, and shows that compared to other tournaments, the best players are not near the top of the leader board with the same regularity.
5. Last on the list is The Greenbrier Classic, which boasts two of the five lowest MOCCASINS averages from individual events in the last decade, from the 2012 and 2013 events (champions, respectively: Ted Potter Jr., and Jonas Blixt).
Which brings us to a fun part of MOCCASINS—looking at isolated events. Here are the 10 events with the highest MOCCASINS numbers since 2012:
As you see, the 2013 Open Championship comes out on top with an astounding 93.7 score. A look at the top 10 tells the story: Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter, Adam Scott, Lee Westwood, Zach Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, Tiger Woods, Hunter Mahan, Francesco Molinari. They were the best of the best at the time, and they all finished near the top.
Close behind in the No. 2 spot, and first among PGA Tour events, is the 2014 Sony Open, won by Jimmy Walker and featuring Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar and Adam Scott in the top 15. The field itself wasn’t as strong as you’d find at a major, but the best players at the course that week performed quite well. The 2017 Sony Open with a Justin Rose/Justin Thomas/Jordan Spieth top three, is just a few spots behind, and one of only eight tournaments with a MOCCASINS number greater than 90.
Other notable events in the top 10 include the 2012 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational (92.5 on MOCCASINS) featuring Rory McIlroy, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Louis Oosthuizen, Tiger, Jason Dufner, and the 2017 Masters (91.4) featuring Sergio Garcia triumphing over Justin Rose … and Paul Casey, McIlroy, Scott and more. The highest ranked event from last season was the Farmers Insurance Open, won by Rose (there he is again!), and with Scott, Matsuyama, Jason Day, McIlroy and Jon Rahm close behind.
With caveats, MOCCASINS gives us our first statistical look at what courses and events most often give us a “true test,” and where the best players tend to succeed the most. As sample sizes get larger, and more results come in, it will only get better at telling us where to find the best leader boards … for a single weekend, or an entire decade.
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