Who were the unluckiest players on the PGA Tour in 2020, and what does it tell us about 2021?
Luck, as a concept in golf, is incredibly difficult to define and identify, so let’s start with this premise: The FedEx Cup points system disproportionately rewards high finishers, as it should. If you miss a cut, you earn zero points, but the difference in points between finishing first and 10th is also massive. This weekend at the Bermuda Championship, for instance, the winner will receive 500 points, and if someone finishes solo 10th, he’ll receive 75 points. That means it’s “better” by this standard to win once and miss five cuts then it is to finish 10th six times in a row. As past fall winners have learned, there is huge value in triumphing just one time, and much less value in long-term consistency that never peaks into excellence.
That said, we’d all generally agree that a player who makes six straight top 10s is playing “better” than a fluke winner who has a monster week and then vanishes. Which means that in terms of FedEx Cup points, the consistent player has been relatively “unlucky,” while the one-time winner was “lucky.” Extrapolated, that also means the final FedEx Cup list for a season isn’t necessarily telling us who the best golfers were in perfect order, but rather who played the best at the right moments. Which, again, is fair and good—winning is a BIG DEAL, especially at the huge events, and should be valued accordingly.
This also means that each year there will be golfers who play beautifully all season, but don’t quite do it at the right times to reap the maximum benefit in terms of FedEx Cup points. Sure, maybe they lacked a killer instinct, but most times it’s just bad luck that their strong play was spread out and didn’t result in high finishes. At the other end of the spectrum, some will be very lucky—they played their best golf in short spurts, won tournaments and capitalized on the system.
But this is where we get to a concept called regression, or progression, to the mean. Basically, if we identify the golfers who have been unlucky one season, it’s not unreasonable to think that if their games remain at a high level, they’ll get luckier the next. That’s the law of averages, and identifying those players has benefits, especially if you’re a gambler or a fantasy player. Not to toot my own horn excessively here, but I used a rudimentary luck system a few weeks ago to predict that Patrick Cantlay would win a fall event. Sure, I got lucky there—irony noted—but my prediction was based on real data.
Patrick Cantlay grabbed his third career PGA Tour win last week at the Zozo Championship.
This week, I decided to try to come up with something a bit more sophisticated—actual numbers to determine a player’s luck quotient. To do so, I needed a number that reflected a player’s performance across the season without regard to finishing position; something less volatile than FEC points. Luckily (sorry), we have strokes gained/total, a terrific metric for measuring exactly that. From shot to shot, event to event, strokes gained is a pure measure of ability, or at least as pure as we’ve got. I reasoned that if I could find out exactly how much a single stroke gained is “worth” in terms of FEC points, on average, I could then calculate how many points each player could expect to receive, based on their SG/ total performance.
Bear with me: Since there are no FEC points awarded for the Tour Championship, I took data from 2019-’20 up to and including the BMW Championship. I used the top 150 players—minus Tiger Woods and J.B. Holmes, who lacked the requisite number of events to show up on the SG leader board—and found that on average, each stroke gained for a season is, among this select group, worth slightly more than 36 FedEx Cup points. From there, I could multiply that number by each player’s total strokes gained to calculate their Expected FEC Points. Then I could subtract that number from their Actual FEC Points, divide by a thousand to make it look nice, and come up with a number that measured luck … or something like it.
On the “lucky” side of things—positive numbers—there aren’t many surprises. You’d expect to see players who won a single event or got close a few times and struggled the rest of the way, and that’s exactly what you get:
1. Jim Herman: +2.35
2. Zac Blair: +1.82
3. Andrew Landry: +1.75
4. Sung Kang: +1.73
5. Robert Streb: +1.57
Jim Herman won the Wyndham Championship but never fared better than T-27 in any other start during the 2019-'20 PGA Tour season.
Herman tops the list as a player who came from nowhere to win the Wyndham Championship, and who otherwise missed 11 cuts and never did better than T-27. Zac Blair never won, but he did maximize his results as a player with -40 SG on the season, scraping together points in the fall before a very rough 2020. Landry followed the Herman formula, winning the American Express in January, while Kang and Streb were more like Blair, with one high finish, a few middling results, and serious struggles otherwise.
The more interesting part is the “unlucky” side. Check out the top 10:
1. Bryson DeChambeau: -2.10
2. Harris English: -1.85
3. Xander Schauffele: -1.78
4. Harold Varner: -1.50
5. Patrick Reed: -1.48
6. Tony Finau: -1.48
7. Daniel Berger: -1.26
8. Patrick Cantlay: -1.21
9. Brian Harman: -1.15
10. Russell Henley: -1.14
Starting at the top, DeChambeau’s presence is just another hilarious anomaly from his already remarkable year. Keep in mind these numbers don’t include his U.S. Open victory; they do indicate that as well as he played by SG/total, he actually could have expected even more of a payoff in terms of winning events, and that’s with a win at the Rocket Mortgage under his belt. Scary. (And also, if we had these numbers at the time, it would have been an even better argument that he was about to win the U.S. Open.)
Forget Bryson, though, because the real value—gambling, fantasy or otherwise—comes in who we see next. Of the nine players after DeChambeau, only two had wins (Reed and Berger), and the rest were consistently excellent without ringing the bell. At least two of them, Varner and Finau, are players who have famously struggled to win events, so it’s tempting to chalk up their presence here less to luck and more to an inability to close. (In other words, until they can resolve that problem, they may continue not to win.) Maybe you could say the same about English. The others, though, are players we know can win, and in fact one of them already has. Cantlay’s victory at the Zozo is nothing more than progression to the mean.
Meanwhile, Russell Henley has finished T-3 and T-4 in consecutive weeks; Reed has two top 15s; English put up a fourth at the U.S. Open and 10th at the C.J. Cup; Schauffele was fifth at the U.S. Open and second at the C.J. Cup; Finau went T-8 at the U.S. Open and T-11 at the Zozo; and Varner, Berger and Harman have been in the 10th-30th range at most of their fall events.
Russell Henley would appear to be a PGA Tour pro primed for big things in 2021 given how "unlucky" he's been at not winning of late.
If you look further down the list at the “unlucky” players from last season, you find names like Scottie Scheffler (11th), Cameron Tringale (12th), Billy Horschel (14th), Doc Redman (15th), Bud Cauley (16th), Gary Woodland (20th), Bubba Watson (21st), Abraham Ancer (22nd) and Brendan Steele (23rd). None of them won last year, and a bunch have already had success this fall.
Believe me, this stat is wildly imperfect. I’m not a statistician, and my hope is that somebody who is will see this and improve it immeasurably. But as a foundational measure, it says quite a lot. It’s interesting on its own merits, and though we’re dealing with a small sample size, it’s already shown some predictive value this fall (and because some of the players are unexpected, the odds are going to be better, too). In a game where peaking at the right moment is everything, from FedEx Cup points to money to fame, it pays to have a stat that shows which players might be on the verge.