Handicapping Golf

By | June 25, 2014

Stats invited me to share some thoughts on the great game of golf. That figures – he looks like a genius when he dominates easy stuff like football and hoops then he sticks me with the impossible task of handicapping professional golf. Why is it so difficult? I’ll tell you.

1. These Guys are Good.      The difference between the best player in the world and the worst guy on tour is almost imperceptible. Most people don’t remember the first round of the 2013 WGC Match Play. That’s surprising when you consider that Rory McIlroy, the #1 player in the world lost to Shane Lowry, the lowest seed in the field and Charles Howell III eliminated Tiger Woods on the same day. If the #1 player in the tennis lost a first round match at Wimbledon, or a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament went down in round one, you’d never hear the end of it. My annual Calcutta still talks about the time the #15 Richmond Spiders defeated #2 Syracuse and that was 23 years ago.

Golf does not lend itself to dominance the way other sports do and because no sport enjoys greater parity. Remember this – as of January 1, 2014, Tiger Woods has entered 309 tournaments and won 79 of them. That is a career winning percentage of .256. Jack Nicklaus (370 starts and 70 wins) was only .189 for his career. If you fail in baseball seven times out of every ten, you go to the hall of fame. If you fail in golf eight times out of every ten, you’re better than Jack Nicklaus.  Now pick me the winner for next week.

2. Professional Golfers Are Just Like Us.      (Well, sort of.) As good as these guys are, they all deal with fits of inconsistency and confidence issues. Where I might shoot 78 tomorrow and 96 next Saturday, the pro’s fluctuations are smaller but no less significant. Think about the number of times you have shot four consecutive rounds that were materially better than your handicap. That is effectively what a pro must do to win on tour. I looked at my index for the last four years and it happened exactly zero times.

Something else to ponder — do you know how many players have at least one win in each of the last five full seasons (2009-2013) on Tour? Only two – Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson. Sustained excellence is extremely rare and even during hot streaks, there are low points. Think about cuts made? Adam Scott has the longest active streak with 36. If he doubled that, he be tied for fifth best all-time (bonus points if you knew he’d be tied with Dow Finsterwald). If Scott quadrupled his streak, he be two better than Tiger’s all-time record of 142. Think about that for a second – the #1 player in the world has gone a season and a half without missing a cut and that is a really big deal. It goes to show you how tough it is to be consistently good on Tour. It also serves to reinforce how disturbingly great Tiger was.

3. Golf is More Volatile than Other Sports.     Team sports are more predictable. If the quarterback has a bad game, his defense might carry the day. If a pitcher has a poor outing, the offense may bail him out with a lot of runs. Golfers are individuals. There is no one to pick you up when you can’t find a fairway or make a four footer. The fact that this is an individual sport cannot be understated.

Guys can get really hot and really cold and nothing the rest of the field does will make any difference. Just last week Kevin Streelman birdied the last 7 holes to win the Travelers. (This was especially tough to watch as Stats and I had Aaron Baddeley in our golf pool.) That hot streak won him a tournament. Other guys have had hot streaks that made careers. Mark O’Meara was never part of any conversation about great golfers until he won the Masters and the British Open in the same year. John Daly came out of nowhere.  He was the ninth alternate at Crooked Stick. The ninth alternate when he shocked the world and won the PGA. Angel Cabrera has two career PGA Tour wins – they happen to be a Masters and a US Open. Angel is a big game hunter and he turns it on for the big tournaments.  Unfortunately, if he struggles early in the week, he turns it off just as quickly.

And as quickly as some guys arrive, others disappear. David Duval looked invincible for two years then he disappeared from existence. Anthony Kim, Vaughn Taylor, Brett Wetterich and Chris DiMarco played good golf for a while and represented the US in the Ryder Cup. They can now all be found on the back of a milk carton. Where golf is unique is these are all guys that had success then went away quickly (and often inexplicably). It is not the same as a “can’t miss” prospect in football that never really made it. This is the equivalent of a guy rushing for 1,000 yards three years in a row, being named to two Pro Bowls and never getting another touch.

4. Weather.     There is very little unknown to the bookmakers when setting lines for football and basketball games. Injuries are published, the weather is known at kickoff and even the officiating squads are factored into making a line. Golf, however, must contend a weather variable that can drastically alter a course over the span of four days.  Anyone that has played Pebble Beach can attest to the fact that it plays as two entirely different courses — one when the wind blows and one when it doesn’t.

Wind and rain create different conditions.  Different players excel in different conditions.  Rory McIlroy devoured Congressional because it was wet. The lack of roll in the fairway favored McIlroy because he carries his driver further than just about everyone on tour.  If, on the other hand, it rained during the tournament instead of before it, Rory would have played through the rain and he might not missed the cut simply because he hates to play in bad weather (a fact borne out by his performances in the rain).

Furthermore, bad weather can impact players’ schedules. If you look back to the 2009 US Open at Bethpage, play was cancelled on Thursday and one side of the draw was on and off the course all day only to play a few holes. The early group played in unconscionable conditions while the late group caught a break. Older players may have been battling fatigue because they were on the grounds for twelve or more hours trying to play as many holes as possible.  (Joke all you want about golfers not being athletes. I’m reasonably fit and I have taken the cardiac climb up to the 15th green on a humid 96-degree day at the Black.  Doing that twice in the same day after walking 15 miles and playing 27 holes of golf would wear on anyone.)  How exactly do you handicap for that on Wednesday?

5. Lines Suck.     Vegas doesn’t get a lot of golf action so the lines suck. When bookies take football, there is no shortage of action. High volume means margins can be smaller and players have to beat a vig that is only 5%. Golf bets are a fraction of major sportsbook action. This means the books know their golf players are real degenerates and desperate fans. Lesser volume and people desperate for action are going to pay a premium. This is why head-to-head matches will often feature lines like -115/-115. If you saw that on an NFL game you’d be appalled. In golf you have no choice. I remember being outraged when I learned that books could win and push on NHL lines. That pales in comparison to golf betting. That notwithstanding, we bet on golf so let’s figure out how to beat the books…

Considering all the challenges of golf wagering, cappers need to develop a meaningful advantage. As you would expect on the Statsational site, I parse statistics and follow trends. Let’s start with a few basic analyses:

1. Winners’ Statistics.     I assign a disproportional importance to the key performance indicators for each tournament.  This works well for tournaments like The Masters or the Players because the venue does not change. For tournaments that move around (like the US Open) understanding the course is critically important because I must make judgment calls about which statistics matter most.  This means I have to play a lot of good golf courses so I can develop the insights necessary to pick winners.  (Please don’t pity me.)

2. Horses for Courses.     Certain players perform better on certain tracks. Sometimes a course fits a player’s eye and sometimes it fits his game. Knowing who succeeds at certain venues matters. Knowing why players succeed there also matters. And understanding the similarities between courses (and who succeeds at similar sites) helps in picking winners.

3. Trending.     Playing the hot hand works, sometimes. Observing a player’s improvement leading up to a tournament helps, especially when focusing on the statistics that win. Three consecutive top tens is really nice but if we’re headed into the US Open, I might care more about the guy that has putted 95% from inside ten feet for the last three weeks.

4. Intangibles.     The intangibles in golf matter more because it is an individual game. They are also tougher to qualify because there is a dearth of information.  Martin St. Louis lost his mother during the hockey playoffs and the whole world knew about it.  No one has any idea how many promotional and PR events Bubba Watson inserted into his schedule after winning the Masters and no one but Bubba knows what that did to his practice time.  As an individual sport, Bubba has no one to lean on and it won;t take much to show that he hasn’t been putting in the time with his short game.

Lack of experience, physical fatigue from too many consecutive weeks, emotional fatigue from a hard fought loss the prior week – these are all things that also factor into a 72-hole performance. I always favor statistics but I also have to account for these factors because they often serve to disqualify someone from my selections.

Pinehurst Post Mortem.     So how did this work out in the US Open? Profitably, but not as much as I would have liked. I recorded a weekly win with strong head-to-head bets but I missed the overall winner. I liked Dustin Johnson (+3,200) and Jason Day (+3,000). I went through the field and landed on these guys because I saw two guys very close to winning majors on courses that match up with Pinehurst (read my post on #2 – hit the small greens and scramble).

DJ led the Open at Pebble Beach (after several years of strong performances at the AT&T) by driving it a mile and making quick work of the hard to hit greens. Johnson’s strength is length, GIR and par five scoring. His chipping is underrated and his weakness is putting. I remember watching him struggle at the Pebble open as he tried to steer the short putts into the hole with a weak pushing stroke. He has improved but I’d normally say that’s not enough to contend with greens at a US Open. #2, however, are not typical US Open greens. Because of the false edges, the USGA did not cut them to run at 13 and the greens are tilted but not undulating. That means players can manage the ball below the hole and make straight five footers instead of three footers that slide a cup and a half. I thought DJ was up to the challenge and the course set up for him. He finished T4 – overall a good assessment but not a winner.

Day, also hits the ball a mile and he has an exceptional short game. He had two previous second place finishes in the Open plus a second and a third at Augusta. I like his scrambling and I remember watching him come oh so close at Augusta. He played smart golf and he rode strong iron play all the way to the finish. Additionally, the similarities between the redone #2 and courses in his home Australia are myriad. Regarding intangibles, I was comfortable that he is past the wrist injury and it would not hurt him in the Open. There were a lot of strong indicators for JD. He also finished T4 – just not good enough.

I think it is also important to discuss why I didn’t have Kaymer. I looked at both Kaymer and Stenson — guys that deserve a serious consideration in any major tournament. In many ways, they are the same player. Both men hit it a long way, find the fairway and hit GIR. Those were all good indicators for Pinehurst. My trepidation came from their respective play around the greens. Stenson is better chipper but a weaker putter. Kaymer is a solid putter but a weak chipper. Going into the US Open, their stats were:

Player                               Kaymer           Stenson
Total Driving                        4                        T7
GIR                                        T60                      53
Scrambling                        178                     182
Strokes Gained                111                     156

Kaymer made a few tough saves (the Saturday bogey on #4) and a few great shows of resolve (the Saturday eagle on #5) but he won because he managed his Friday night lead all the way to the trophy presentation on Sunday. When he was confronted with tricky chip shots, he often played the wrong shot to a mediocre result and saved par with a 10-footer. No one likes being at the bottom of a collection area staring into the steep face of a trap with a four foot rise (especially when the shot that most stresses your game is a pitch off a tight lie); when confronted with that on Sunday at the seventh hole, Kaymer elected to putt sideways around the trap and on to the green for a “guaranteed” bogey instead of throwing it in the air and at the flag. Throughout the weekend, he constantly putted from too far off the green (you could see the ball bouncing and hopping as it made its way over the greens edge’s) but he made enough of the resulting eight footers and he looked like a genius.  Kaymer could do this because he player so well for the first two days that he had the luxury of an enormous lead.  Smartly, he played for guaranteed bogies and made a few pars instead of playing for pars and maybe making doubles or worse.

Through two rounds he hit over 72% of the GIR versus a field average of 57%. When you do that in a US Open, the scrambling aspect becomes irrelevant. His performance is one of the best I have ever seen in a US Open and I never would have wagered that anyone’s ball striking would be so good that nothing else mattered.

Speaking of ball striking, we are three and a half weeks away from the British Open.  Book those tickets to Royal Liverpool, I hear some guy named Woods will be playing that week.  Check back during tournament week for some thoughts on wagering.

Thanks for reading and best of luck to all.