Number CrunchingApril 18, 2019

Who are the PGA Tour's secret wizards of making cuts?

Hideki Matsuyama
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Watching the Masters this past weekend, most of my thoughts revolved around the eventual champ, but my brain took an occasional detour from the Tiger Superhighway, and on one of these detours I thought about Tony Finau. I knew he wouldn't win the green jacket, partly because he hasn't spent very long in the prime of his career yet, and partly because he's not great at winning. But it occurred to me, not for the first time, that he is seemingly always in contention, or a least near the top 10 (especially in 2018), and that he must be one of the most valuable fantasy golfers in the world. Then I thought: Does this guy ever miss a cut?

As it turns out, yes, but it's very rare. Starting with the 2017-'18 season, he has missed the cut four times in 38 events. A handful of those events didn't actually have cuts, so once we remove the WGCs, the relevant FedEx Cup playoff events, and a few other randoms, his real made-cut number is 25-for-29.

That's obviously very good, but it set me to wondering: Who's the best? As far as I can tell, there's no unified leader board online that tracks this specific stat for PGA Tour events (the tour keeps its own consecutive cuts made records, which is helpful but not comprehensive, and other leader boards seem to be similarly restricted.)

Which raised another question: Over, say, the last two seasons, starting in the fall of 2017—a somewhat arbitrary cut-off, but a reasonable starting point—how many players have simply never missed a cut?

As you might guess, making every single cut while playing full-time over a period that long is an almost impossible feat, and the answer for these specific parameters seems to be "none." Here's how the current top 10 in the world stacked up over that time period:

6 missed cuts: Xander Schauffele
4 missed cuts: Rory McIlroy
3 missed cuts: Justin Rose, Bryson DeChambeau, Rickie Fowler, Francesco Molinari
2 missed cuts: Tiger Woods, Brooks Koepka
1 missed cut: Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas

Oddly enough, DJ and JT missed the exact same cut: The Open Championship at Carnoustie. Thomas was actually near the lead at two under after Thursday, but a second-round 77 doomed him, and that round is the only thing standing between him and two-year cut perfection. The 2018 Players Championship was the other prominent giant-killer, taking down Fowler, Molinari and even Rory a year before he won.

So is the answer that simple? Are Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas the kings? Not quite. Making cuts clearly helps a player's World Ranking, but it's not the be-all and end-all. I wondered: Are there diamonds in the rough as you head down the World Rankings? Guys who don't win enough or make enough top fives to be considered elite, but who have a special talent for never finding themselves in the bottom half of a field?

Even without delving too deeply into the numbers, the answer was an obvious yes. There are players like Ben An who aren't ranked quite as high (he's 55th), but who seem to have a preternatural talent for making cuts. An has made 19 straight weekends on the PGA Tour, dating back to last year's St. Jude Classic, and since Jan. 1, 2018, he's only missed three cuts total. Because An is a high-volume player (36 events in that span), that total of three missed cuts is better, technically, than the same number put up by Rose (30) or Molinari (30) or Fowler (31), all of whom have played fewer tournaments.

To take a true statistical measure of players like An, I needed to account for the sheer number of events played while eliminating those events without cuts. The question before me was obvious—who has the highest made cut percentage in a given period of time?—but the answer was not. In fact, I had buried myself in a dark hole of numbers, and did not have the resources to dig myself out.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

So, as usual in these dire statistical scenarios, I reached out to the man who did have the resources: Mark Broadie. Broadie is a Columbia Business School professor who pioneered the "strokes gained" concept that has revolutionized the world of golf statistics, and we worked together last year on a new stat that measures which players "step it up" the most at majors. I knew that if anyone could help me, it was him.

He could. Broadie disappeared into his secret temple of statistics (I imagine it looks like the House of the Undying in Game of Thrones), and came out bearing a bounty of figures. For the last two seasons, beginning in the fall of 2017, Thomas and Johnson were indeed the leaders, with Thomas in front by percentage points. But there were a couple surprises in the top 10:

1: Justin Thomas - 19/20 - 5.0% missed cut rate
2: Dustin Johnson - 17/18 - 5.6%
3: Tommy Fleetwood - 16/17 - 5.9%
4: Bryson DeChambeau - 24/26 - 7.7%
5: Hideki Matsuyama - 18/20 - 10.0%
6: Tiger Woods - 17/19 - 10.5%
7: Emiliano Grillo - 25/28 - 10.7%
T-8: Justin Rose 16/18 - 11.1%
T-8: Rafa Cabrera-Bello 16/18 - 11.1%
10: Rickie Fowler - 21/24 - 12.5%

Grillo is the one of that group you might not expect, and there's a couple more in the next 10, from An to Keegan Bradley to Charles Howell III. The inspiration for this post, Tony Finau, clocked in at 12th.

Head further back in time to the 2016-'17 season and look at data for three years, and Hideki Matsuyama takes the lead, with Tommy Fleetwood and Patrick Cantlay tied for second (here is where we should pause to note that all of these players come up woefully short of Woods in the prime of his career, when he rattled off an incredible streak of 142 made cuts between 1998 and 2005):

1: Hideki Matsuyama - 29/33 - 12.1% missed cut rate
T-2: Tommy Fleetwood - 21/24 - 12.5%
T-2: Patrick Cantlay - 28/32 - 12.5%
4: Rickie Fowler - 34/39 - 12.8%
T-5: Justin Rose - 27/31 - 12.9%
T-5: Dustin Johnson - 27/31 - 12.9%

But it's when we go back all the way to the beginning of the 2014-'15 season that we see a really big sample size, and the cut-making titans of the last five years:

1: Dustin Johnson - 54/61 - 11.5% missed cut rate
2: Patrick Cantlay - 29/33 - 12.1%
3: Matt Kuchar - 77/88 - 12.5%
4: Jon Rahm - 42/49 - 14.3%
5: Jason Day - 51/60 - 15.0%
6: Hideki Matsuyama - 54/65 - 16.9%
7: Emiliano Grillo - 58/70 - 17.1%
8: Lee Westwood - 19/23 - 17.4%
9: Charles Howell III - 86/105 - 18.1%
10: Brooks Koepka - 53/65 - 18.5%
11: Webb Simpson - 73/90 - 18.9%
12: Patrick Reed - 67/83 - 19.3%
T-13: Rickie Fowler - 57/71 - 19.7%
T-14: Henrik Stenson - 56/45 - 20.0%
T-15: Adam Scott - 48/60 - 20.0%

That's the full list of players who have played more than 10 PGA Tour events and have made 80 percent of cuts in all events since the fall of 2014. Dustin Johnson sits on the throne, but which numbers are truly the most impressive? That's a matter for interpretation.

Surely Lee Westwood doesn't have enough starts to rank with the greats, but you could make a sample size argument against Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay and maybe even Koepka and Matsuyama too. Meanwhile, the sheer volume of Charles Howell III makes his record particularly impressive, especially when you consider that he's won only a single event in that time. But in every case, these are the creme de la creme—the cut-making stars of the PGA Tour.