Feeling the Pressure? PGA Tour Leaders Often Vulnerable

You would think playing with a five- or six-stroke lead entering the final round of a tournament would be pretty easy. You’re playing extremely well, so just take advantage of that cushion to coast home and collect the winner’s check, thank you very much.

Watching Kyle Stanley and Spencer Levin the last two weeks, you would think playing with a five- or six-stroke lead is pretty hard. Stanley shot a 74 to cough up a five-stroke margin in San Diego and Levin a 76 to blow a six-stroke lead in Phoenix as Stanley bounced back with a victory.

Is it really that difficult to nurture a large margin on a Sunday? I looked back at PGA Tour events from 2000 to the present to try to find an answer, and the results show that entering the final round with a large cushion is not as comfortable a situation as we might think.

In that span there have been 71 occasions when a player led by four or more shots entering the final round, and on 14 of those the leader didn’t win. Even the victories often turn into nail-biters: 11 big-leaders ended up winning by just one stroke and nine by two strokes. All three events that went to playoffs ended up with the 54-hole leader losing. Only 14 times did they finish with a larger victory margin than they entered the round with.

Tiger Woods is an exception to this vulnerability. He had at least a four-stroke margin 12 times during this span, never lost, and increased his margin six times. Let’s face it, Woods’s record in this era has been pretty freakish. So it’s instructive to take him out of the equation and see how mere mortals have done.

That reduces the winning percentage to 45-for-59, with 10 of them winning by just one stroke. And they ended up with a larger margin at the end of the day only eight times (compared to Woods’s six times out of 12).

What’s really striking is what happens to the leaders’ scoring. These non-Woods leaders set a scorching pace through three rounds with a 65.88 scoring average. But they were over par 22 times in those 59 final rounds while shooting in the 60s only 16 times. Their scoring average was 71.14, or 5.26 strokes worse than they shot in the preceding rounds. (Woods’s averages were 66.42 in the first three rounds and 68.92 in the final round for a difference of 2.50 strokes. The fact that he generally plays on tougher courses accounts for his higher average in the opening rounds and makes his final-round average impressive.)

I was about to speculate on some possible causes for the final-round struggles of players with big leads—maybe the relatively high scoring results from playing it safe, maybe they’re too worried about how bad it will look if they give the lead away, maybe it’s hard to recover once the lead does start slipping away. Then I decided to look at players holding leads of one to three strokes entering the final round—and found that their scoring average in the final round isn’t any better; in fact, it’s a little worse.

I may be burying the lead here, but the takeaway is how poorly leaders perform in the final round. Here’s the startling fact: Players who enter Sunday with an outright lead post an average final-round scoring average that is worse than the median scoring average of PGA Tour players as a whole.

For one- to three-stroke leads I used the period 2009-11, yielding a similar sample size to the big-margin leaders from 2000-present. The 85 outright leaders by one to three strokes shot an average of 66.80 in the first three rounds, and their average final-round score was 71.27. (Adding in leaders by four or more strokes in 2009-11, we get 102 outright leaders shooting an average of 66.74 in the first three rounds and 71.35 in the final round.)

The median scoring average for all PGA Tour regulars—those who played a minimum of rounds to qualify for statistical rankings—was 70.76 in 2009-11. So, with the tournament on the line, the final-round leaders played more than a half-stroke worse than a typical Tour player in a typical round and 4.61 strokes worse than they did in the preceding rounds. And since the subset of third-round leaders is undoubtedly a stronger group of players than the set of all Tour regulars, the leaders shot something like a full shot worse than their own scoring average in all rounds.

This raises a question. Is each round by a Tour player independent of all others, so that the expectation in any given round is an average performance, regardless of how he played in the previous round (or how he’s played that week if we’re talking about the final round)? Doesn’t being “in the groove” count for anything? If it doesn’t, this would largely account for the drop-off in performance. Further investigation is required; I’ll look into this for my next post.

For now, let’s assume that there’s at least some carryover from playing well through three rounds, even if the effect is not as large as we intuitively think it is. In any case, third-round leaders actually perform worse than their average, so what’s up with that?

The concept of regression to the mean (or, more colloquially, “the law of averages”) could come into play. Those grounded in statistics know that exceptionally-above-average performances are not sustainable in the long run. In the course of time, a player’s performance will tend toward his baseline. This fits right in with the intuitive thinking that a player can’t stay hot forever. So we tend to think that while the third-round leader is “in the groove” and should play well, we don’t expect him to play quite as well as he did in the first three rounds.

This is consistent with what we see out of Tiger Woods, who, remember, was two-and-a-half strokes worse in the final round when he had a big lead but converted all of his opportunities, most of them pretty easily.

But the rest of the Tour is worse than average when they lead, which fits neither our expectations nor regression to the mean. Statistical regression is a long-term process, it doesn’t mean that three exceptionally good rounds make a “balancing” poor round more likely in the fourth round.

So, there must be some real effects that impact the scoring of leaders negatively. Well, duh, the most likely explanation is pressure. When players are taken out of the “comfort zone” of a regular round, their swings and putting strokes may not hold up. I’ve written before that what people often call “choking” might actually just be randomness. But these leader stats show that choking is real, too. (My main point still holds up. Randomness and choking both exist, and in individual cases it’s impossible to separate them and attribute a loss to one or the other.)

There’s also the matter of playing conservatively with the lead by aiming more toward the center of greens or not going for par fives in two. This can actually raise a player’s score by reducing birdie opportunities, but it’s not necessarily a bad strategy, especially if you’re up by several strokes (even then, it might be better to implement it only late in the round. Eighteen holes is a long way to go). While you might not score as low, the idea is that you’re reducing your chances of a high score that could cost you the tournament.

Leaders don’t always play conservatively. Sometimes they just play poorly. Levin, for example, missed greens on the short side and came up short with an iron shot into the water on a par five (his third shot, since he chipped out sideways after a bad drive). This from a player who led the field in greens in regulation through three rounds.

Levin, incidentally, tied the PGA Tour record for largest 54-hole lead blown, six strokes. It has happened six times—the others were Bobby Cruickshank, 1928 Florida Open; Gay Brewer, 1969 Danny Thomas-Diplomat Classic; Hal Sutton, 1983 Anheuser-Busch Classic; Greg Norman, 1996 Masters; and Sergio Garcia, 2005 Wachovia Championship. Sutton, incidentally, won the PGA Championship in his next outing, a bounceback topping even Stanley’s since it occurred in a major.

The record hasn’t been broken in part because leads of seven or more strokes are pretty rare, but it’s a record that could be broken. There have been turnarounds of more than six strokes, but not in the right context. Most famously, Nick Faldo was 11 strokes better than Norman, 67-78, in the 1996 Masters. Even greater than that, just in the last three years, Charl Schwartzel was 14 strokes better than Rory McIlroy, 66-80, in the 2011 Masters and Henrik Stenson 13 strokes better than Alex Cejka, 66-79, in the 2009 Players Championship. Justin Leonard very nearly lost an eight-stroke lead at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in 2005, but ended up winning by one after a 73 (David Toms shot a 63 but started 11 strokes behind).

Incidentally, outright leaders won 44.1 percent of the time in 2009-11 (note that this doesn’t include tournaments where the lead was shared entering the final round). One-stroke leaders were 18-for-46, two-stroke leaders 6-for-17, three-stroke leaders 9-for-22, four-stroke leaders 5-for-8, and five-or-more-stroke leaders 7-for-9. (Don’t read that to mean it’s particularly hard to win from two strokes ahead; that’s just an anomaly due to sample size).

And here’s a fact to consider when thinking about which player has an advantage going to a playoff. Outright leaders who were caught and forced to go extra holes have a 5-12 record in playoffs from 2009-present.

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