Na Na Na Na…Hey Hey, Goodbye is the Trend For 54-Hole Leaders

Kevin Na’s 76 in the final round of the Players Championship after entering Sunday with the lead was predictable. Here was a guy struggling with such a mental block about pulling the trigger that it was agonizing to watch him prepare to hit a shot on Saturday—and now here he was on Sunday in the glare of the spotlight trying to win one of the biggest tournaments in golf. What’s more it was his first time with the lead going into the final round in such a prestigious event, and just his third time at all on the PGA Tour. If they’d set an over-under line on his final-round score, it probably would have been around 75.

While Na had a personal spin on his Sunday struggles at the Players, it fit right in with the story of 54-hole leaders in 2012. Of 23 third-round leaders or co-leaders this year, 11 of them have shot over par on Sunday and none have shot better than 69. Only eight of the 20 tournaments have been won by leaders or co-leaders.

Leaders have posted an average score of 71.90 in the final round, and that’s nearly three-tenths of a stroke worse than the average score of the field in those same rounds (71.62). Think about that—the players who have performed the best over the first three rounds haven’t even managed to play at a Tour average level when trying to close out a victory on Sunday.

A half-year is a small sample size, but for an article in last week’s Golf World (it didn’t appear online, so I’ve copied it further down on this post) I analyzed data from the PGA Tour and going back to 2003 and found this is not a phenomenon isolated to this year. In fact, leaders have not performed well over the 2007 to 2012 period. If you take Tiger Woods and his other-worldly record out of the equation, leaders have played worse than the field average in the final round over those five-and-a-half years (71.35 vs. an average of 71.19. Note: the 2012 numbers are higher because the schedule is tougher over the first half of the season.)

I also looked at this in an earlier post after Kyle Stanley and Spencer Levin blew five- and six-stroke leads on the West Coast Swing. In that post, I promised to look into the question of the “hot” player and whether we should expect a player to perform well in the fourth round because he has shown good form over the first 54 holes.

To do this, I compiled data from every tournament in 2011 and 2012 (excluding small-field events) on how players in the top 20 through three rounds did in the final round compared to those outside the top 20. The players with “momentum” through 54 holes shot an average score of 71.06; the rest of the field shot 71.33 (the average was 71.24).

That suggests there’s not really all that much carryover of good form from round to round—the difference between the top 20 and the rest may be mostly accounted for by the fact that the top-20 players are a better group of players and therefore should be expected to perform better than the Tour average. But leaders—also a better group than the average Tour player—are performing worse than average.

That suggests they are not handling the pressure very well. For Golf World, I explored with sports psychologists, players, and a TV analyst/swing instructor on why that might be the case. Here’s the story, correcting one unfortunate typo (it listed Vijay Singh’s record with the lead entering the final round as 19-3 when it is actually 19-13), with a follow-up thought and a Q&A with Kyle Stanley below.

* * *

Can’t anyone hold a lead around here anymore?

That question needs to be raised after watching the PGA Tour this year. We’ve already seen 54-hole leads of five and six strokes turn into ugly defeats, and a leader or co-leader entering the final day has held on to win only eight of the first 19 stroke-play tournaments. Nearly half (10 of 22) of the third-round leaders—the latest
Webb Simpson, who failed to convert a 54-hole lead at the Wells Fargo Championship into victory—have shot over par on Sunday.

A deeper look, through an examination of data from the PGA Tour and, shows that this is not an isolated half-year phenomenon. The conversion rate for 54-hole leaders has dipped below 45 percent from 2007 to 2012, and you really begin to see the depths of the leaders’ struggles when you look at average score.

Here’s a startling statistic: Players entering the final round tied for the lead since 2007, other than Tiger Woods, have posted a scoring average of 71.35 on closing day—that’s worse than the average score of the field (71.19) in those rounds. With the title on the line, presumably in the groove after three rounds of excellent play and needing a good round to post a victory, these players have been unable to score even at the tour average.

There are two explanations. The first is that there is less carryover from three rounds of good form than we tend to believe—in fact, very little carryover at all. An analysis of the last 18 months of data shows the top 20 through three rounds shoot not all that much better in the final round than those who started it outside the top 20 (71.06 to 71.33)—a difference mostly accounted for by the fact that the top-20 group are better players overall rather than by momentum from the first three rounds.

So, we shouldn’t expect the 54-hole leader to shoot a fourth round in the 60s simply because he’s “hot.” But leaders, collectively (other than Woods), are playing worse than the rest of the top 20, worse than the field and significantly worse than their own overall scoring average. Why? Since we are dealing with a sample size large enough to eliminate randomness as a major factor, it must be pressure.

It hasn’t always been this way. From 2003 to 2006 leaders won 65.4 percent of the tournaments (119 of 182) compared to 44.7 percent from 2007 to 2012 (109 of 244). In those last five-and-a-half years, prime performers Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh have been leading less often, and the latter two haven’t been as effective at closing as they once were. More parity on tour has meant more players holding the 54-hole lead for the first time. And it’s first-time leaders who are most affected by the
pressures of Sunday.

“I am 24 years old, so a lot of the things that happen to me are things that I am experiencing for the first time,” says Kyle Stanley, who lost a five-stroke lead at Torrey Pines in January but rebounded to win the next week in Phoenix. “The more you put yourself in situations like we are talking about the more comfortable you get and the better you are able to handle them.”

Steve Stricker agrees that there is no substitute for experience. “I can remember the first few times how different your body feels, how different your mind is talking to you, how everything changes,” says the 45-year-old, who has six wins in his last seven times
entering the final round with the lead after winning two of his first eight.

The basic trick for the third-round leader is how to play like you did the first 54 holes for 18 more that feel completely different because the finish line is in sight and your position at the head of the pack has been established. There are a number of potential pitfalls along the way, not the least of which is getting ahead of yourself and thinking about what a victory would mean. That distracts you from the matter at hand.

“Golf is all about staying in the present tense,” says CBS Sports analyst Peter Kostis. “If you’re in the future tense, whether it’s thinking about what it would be like to be a winner, thinking ahead about what you’re going to do with the winner’s check or thinking about how bad it would be to blow the tournament, you’re not in the moment.”

Dr. Gio Valiante, a sport psychologist who has helped Justin Rose win two of his last three times with a 54-hole lead after starting his career 0-for-5, says that when his players find themselves thinking ahead, “We default to a question: What’s my target [on the next shot]? We don’t just talk about playing one shot at a time, we actually play
one shot at a time.”

Distraction is the enemy of the leader on Sunday. And the biggest distraction is getting caught up in what other players are doing. Dr. Bob Rotella tells the players he works with not to look at leader boards.

“Sometimes people ask me: ‘Are players too insecure to look at leader boards?’ No, they believe in themselves too much to care what anybody else is doing,” says Rotella, the author of eight books on the mental game. “To me the ultimate in being self-secure is to play your own game. Most players when they look at leader boards will start overthinking, overreacting, letting it affect the way they play.”

The way to go about winning on Sunday, says Rotella, is by not thinking about winning.

“You put together a game plan based on your skills and abilities,” he says. “The whole idea of that game plan is giving you your best chance to score your lowest. Why would you change it based on whether you are three ahead or one behind?”

Valiante concurs up to a point. “New guys are not allowed to look at leader boards until about the 13th hole. There is absolutely zero upside. Veterans can do it because they know how not to let it distract them,” he says. But he does want his players to know where they stand on the closing holes because it will help their decision-making in risk-reward situations.

The mindset of protecting the lead can be destructive, as it takes a player away from how he was playing in the first three rounds. Kostis says that he has observed too many leaders “trying not to lose it instead of trying to increase their lead. It’s a negative way to play golf. Kyle Stanley is proof of that. When he came out to try to vindicate himself in Phoenix, he was trying to do something as opposed to trying not to do

Rory McIlroy learned that lesson in 2011 when he followed blowing a four-stroke lead at the Masters by turning an eight-stroke lead into an eight-stroke victory at the U.S. Open. “There’s two ways you can approach it,” he says. “You can try and protect your lead, or you can say, ‘OK, I’m four shots ahead. I want to try and go five shots ahead,’ ” he says. “I found out last year [at the Masters] that approaching it the first way didn’t really work.”

Indeed, playing with a big lead isn’t as easy as it appears, because it often leaves a player uncertain what strategy to employ and indecisive in both his strategy and his swing. Entering the final round with a lead of four or more strokes is no assurance of victory: Of the 58 players who entered the final round with that margin since 2003, 13 didn’t win.

“You start to focus possibly on not messing up instead of playing well,” says Rose. “You start to think, ‘OK, let’s just not do anything stupid.’ Your focus changes from what got you into that position to being a little more cagey, and I think that’s when you can run into problems.”

Players in the heat of a close battle for the entire round have a different enemy—tension.
“The pressure of the situation amplifies all of our emotions,” says Valiante. “On Thursday we might feel a little sting from missing a putt but, on Sunday it feels like a crisis. The mind thinks, ‘I can’t afford to miss putts if I want to win,’ even though it’s not true.”

Eventually, the pressure can manifest itself in a player’s swing. “All swings get affected the same way,” says Kostis from his perspective as a swing teacher. “When the pressure starts to get to you, the big muscles tend to freeze and the small muscles get quicker. Your rhythm gets quicker.”

Valiante says too many players worry that their swing technique has broken down. But really it’s the tension and change in rhythm that have caused the breakdown. If you can get rid of the tension, the swing will be fine. How to do that?

“We have techniques we practice, such as muscle relaxation,” says Valiante. “The simplest way is grip pressure. Players often grip the club too tightly without realizing it.
My guys are always talking about soft hands.”

Mickelson, who has a good track record as a closer (23-10 record as overnight leader), says that on Sunday, “I don’t worry about mechanics, I don’t worry about ballstriking. I just want to get it in the hole and find a way to get the job done.”

It’s one thing to know the remedies in theory, but quite another to put them into practice the first time you play a final round with the lead—though Rotella says it can help to prepare the night before by thinking of every possible situation and deciding how to handle it.

The results show just how tough it is for first-timers. Since 2003 players making their debut as 54-hole leaders in a tournament won just 31.9 percent of the time. Experience does pay: Those same players won 34.4 percent their second time and 38.3 percent on subsequent occasions. Looking at it from an individual perspective results in a lower percentage of winners than from the perspective of how many tournaments have been won by leaders or co-leaders. The equivalent overall PGA Tour percentage is that 41.8 percent of leaders or co-leaders have won since 2003.

That’s still not a very good record for the younger generation of players. The systems of junior and college golf could be contributing to the problem. The best junior players mostly compete in large tournaments against the other top players in the country, and top-level college tournaments involve many schools. Such deep fields allow only limited opportunities even for very good players to experience holding the lead or coming down the stretch with a chance to win. Once they hit the PGA Tour, opportunities become even more scarce, and players are ill-prepared for what they face on Sunday.

It’s an open question whether anyone in this generation of golfers will approach the consistency of Mickelson, Singh (19-13 with the lead) or Ernie Els (13-4). Woods, of course, is the gold standard, his 92.5 percent conversion rate (49-4) out of reach—maybe even for the present version of himself.

Woods was left out of the average score calculation at the top of the story because his record with the lead is so out of this world. But his Sunday scoring numbers aren’t superhuman: From 2003 to 2009, his final-round average when holding the lead was 69.38 compared to the field average of 72.08 in those events.

That makes his scoring average as a lockdown closer about the same as his overall average of 69.11 in that period. So, Woods’ unreal winning percentage was built on two things—being the best player in the game combined with the rare ability to play his normal game in the abnormal circumstances of leading the tournament on Sunday.

The latter is something to which all players can aspire—but these days most are falling far short.

* * *

I didn’t have space in the magazine for my usual disclaimer, so here it is. These are overall stats showing that cumulatively leaders haven’t been handling the situation very well on Sundays. It doesn’t mean that every time a leader doesn’t win it’s because he couldn’t handle the pressure.

To listen to Johnny Miller, every single bogey—and even every single bad shot—hit by a leader in the final round was due to the pressure. I used to like Miller, and still do to some extent, but he’s become a one-note announcer, at least on Sundays. To him, there’s no story line except for choking or being clutch.

But golfers hit bad shots in every round they play, whether they are in contention or not. They make bad swings even on the range. As I’ve written before, sometimes a bad swing is just a bad swing. A bogey is more likely due to randomness than to choking.

And the data shows there isn’t all that much of a relationship between scoring in the first three rounds and the final round. This means that there will be a few stinkers by 54-hole leaders in the normal course of events anyway. It is of some significance that leaders are scoring at a below average level, cumulatively, but that doesn’t tell us much about any single round.

* * *
I did an e-mail Q&A with Kyle Stanley about his situation at Torrey Pines and subsequent victory at Phoenix. He gave a good look at the thought process of a first-time player trying to hold onto a lead, so here it is in its entirety:

Q: When you had a big lead in San Diego, particularly on the back nine, how hard was it to keep your focus on the matter at hand? Did thoughts of what a victory would mean keep popping into your head?

A: I think that I kept my focus just fine, but perhaps I started to play more to protect my lead versus sticking to my game plan and putting the tournament away. Keep in mind that was the first time I was in that position, so I had no real experience to fall back on. My mind may have wandered briefly thinking about what comes with a win, but honestly I was pretty focused. I hit good shots on 18 and didn’t miss a shot in the playoff. I feel like I had the proper composure and stood up well to the moment but it just wasn’t meant to be.

Q: Did you start playing safe with the lead or try to keep playing the same way you had for three rounds? If a little bit of both, was it tough to find the right balance?

Q: I think possibly I did start to play safe. When you have a lead that large it is easy to fall into a thought process of thinking what it is going to take to get this done and to not be too reckless. Rather than have the game plan that we used all week you might take some more conservative lines and perhaps make some swings that aren’t quite as aggressive. I hit it great for 63 holes. On the back nine I lost a little rhythm and my ballstriking wasn’t as good. On a course like Torrey South, you need to be hitting it well and I wasn’t quite as sharp.

Q: Did your swing feel the same on Sunday or did the adrenaline and all the other factors make it a different day altogether?

A: I hit the ball so well and played so well in all facets of my game that to keep up that kind of play up for 72 holes is pretty tough. Sleeping on a big lead and thinking about all of the things that might happened and that come with winning is tough. It is hard not to let your mind wander, especially when you are in that position for the very first time. So it was probably a combination of things and as I said it just wasn’t meant to be that day.

Q: On the 18th hole, did you consider going for the green in two since hitting into the water on that shot wouldn’t have hurt your chances all that much? Did you feel super-focused on that hole or were you out of your comfort level, or both?

A: I did consider going for it because it was certainly reachable. However, we made the decision to lay up to a good wedge yardage and we executed the shot pretty well in my opinion. I was very focused and was not out of my comfort zone at all on the third shot. We decided on 56-degree wedge versus the lob wedge to take spin off the shot and we planned to hit it at least nine paces behind the hole location which should have been fine. We actually landed the ball 12 paces behind the hole so I never expected the ball to spin back all the way as it did. Sometimes if the ball spins just right on poa [poa annua grass] you can get some different reactions. It may have been the perfect storm of a very crisp strike, the angle of the slope where it landed and the poa. I executed that shot real well but the result wasn’t what I wanted. In the end I still had a four-footer to win the tournament, which is all you can ask for.

Q: How did the experience of being in that situation before help you when you took the lead near the end of the final round in Phoenix?

Q: Well the main thing that helped was that I was playing very good golf. I left Torrey extremely disappointed about losing the tournament, but I also left very confident because I knew I was playing very well. Being eight shots behind also forces you to be aggressive which I was, so being on the other end of that experience the prior week did nothing but help me. I am 24 years old, so a lot of things that happen to me are things that I am experiencing for the first time. The more you put yourself in situations like we are talking about the more comfortable you get and the better you are able to handle them. I feel oddly fortunate to go through what I did in San Diego as it will make me a better player in the long run.

Q: Did the fact that what happened at Torrey Pines on the 18th was somewhat fluky help with your confidence in facing the situation again?

A: Yeah, again I came into Phoenix very confident knowing I was playing great. One bad hole the prior week was not going to change the fact that I was playing great golf. The course suited me well so there was no reason to think I wouldn’t have a good week. I did learn a lot about myself and my mental toughness because I am not going to lie, what I went through was incredibly tough. And yes, if I hit poor shots coming in at Torrey and melted down, I would have been in a different place mentally. But I thought well, executed good shots and stuck to my process which is all you can do.

Q: How were your thoughts and feelings on the final tee shot and the final putt at Phoenix compared to San Diego?

A: I was a lot less nervous and very excited with the opportunity to win the tournament. I felt like that tournament was mine to win and I needed to go out and be aggressive. I hit a very aggressive tee shot and in doing so took most of the trouble out of play. It was ironic that I was left with a four-foot putt to win (exact length I missed at Torrey) the tournament. The putt went in and it felt amazing.

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