A while back, I tried my hand at some golf ratings. (Back in the day when Sergio Garcia was playing good golf.) It was a fun experiment, but ultimately it was such a task to gather data for such a project that it was impossible to maintain. At any rate, there are still fun things to do with golf stats and with the US Open days away, it’s a good time to explore some of these things.
Unfortunately, the PGA Tour is far too possessive with its data to tackle a lot these things. However, the money lists are fair game and easily accessible. While there’s a limit to the information that comes from the money that a player earned over the course of a golf season, the primitive state of golf analytics is such that there’s some valuable info to be mined from this.
For instance, there’s very little attention given to quantifying a professional golfer’s performance over the course of a season. A simple way to assess how well a golfer played during a particular year is to use the money list. The problem comes with comparing performance from different seasons because inflation in tournament purses has been pretty impressive. Below is the average prize won by the top 125 players on the money list each season since 1970.
Prizes rose exponentially in the 70’s and 80’s before leveling off in the early 90’s and then exploding again for a 15-year period before the recent stagnation since 2008. Obviously, one has to take this into account when evaluating a golfer’s performance based on money earned.
A crude but effective way to measure performance is to take the ratio of the average prize earned by a particular golfer (total money earned divided by events played) to the average prize earned by the top 125 in a particular season. I’ve multiplied this value by 100 to give us nice whole numbers and branding this metric the Golf Performance Rating. Values of GPR greater than 100 indicate a player that played better than your average Tour member.
I’m not going to sell this as some sort of rock-solid measure of golfing ability, but it seems to hold up well across eras. I have all of the PGA Tour money lists since 1970 (thanks to databasegolf.com, pgatour.com, and yahoo.com) and I hope to have previous years compiled soon. (Edit: Thanks to Neil Paine at sports-reference.com for supplying me with earnings information for previous seasons. You should visit his site often for historical college hoops data. I have updated the chart below to include all years back to 1960.) One thing I thought would be interesting is to determine which player had the best season at a given age. For purposes of this study, I am taking a player’s age for a particular season on July 1 of that year. Here’s what I got for the best GPR for players that participated in at least ten PGA events in any season.
Age Best GPR Second Best GPR 19 1999 Sergio Garcia 246* 20 1996 Tiger Woods 379 2000 Sergio Garcia 163 21 1997 Tiger Woods 473 1973 Ben Crenshaw 429 22 1998 Tiger Woods 353 1962 Jack Nicklaus 319 23 1999 Tiger Woods 888 1963 Jack Nicklaus 550 24 2000 Tiger Woods 1125 1964 Jack Nicklaus 423 25 2001 Tiger Woods 651 1965 Jack Nicklaus 531 26 2002 Tiger Woods 770 1966 Jack Nicklaus 445 27 1974 Johnny Miller 776 2003 Tiger Woods 646 28 1978 Tom Watson 547 2004 Tiger Woods 453 29 2005 Tiger Woods 785 1979 Tom Watson 654 30 2006 Tiger Woods 991 1980 Tom Watson 699 31 2007 Tiger Woods 947 1971 Jack Nicklaus 738 32 1972 Jack Nicklaus 937 1962 Arnold Palmer 521 33 2009 Tiger Woods 835 1973 Jack Nicklaus 806 34 1974 Jack Nicklaus 657 2004 Ernie Els 585 35 1975 Jack Nicklaus 867 1990 Greg Norman 552 36 1976 Jack Nicklaus 702 1972 Gary Player 628 37 1977 Jack Nicklaus 623 1994 Nick Price 499 38 1978 Jack Nicklaus 653 1993 Greg Norman 617 39 1989 Tom Kite 540 1994 Greg Norman 526 40 1995 Greg Norman 596 1980 Lee Trevino 532 41 2004 Vijay Singh 608 1971 Arnold Palmer 474 42 1997 Greg Norman 431 2005 Vijay Singh 425 43 1983 Jack Nicklaus 386 1993 Tom Kite 302 44 1984 Jack Nicklaus 398 1975 Gene Littler 382 45 1990 Hale Irwin 397 2001 Scott Hoch 265 46 1996 Tom Watson 268 2003 Nick Price 236 47 2008 Kenny Perry 255 2002 Loren Roberts 155 48 1960 Sam Snead 303 2009 Kenny Perry 254 49 1992 Ray Floyd 374 1961 Sam Snead 303 50 2004 Jay Haas 146 1962 Sam Snead 123 51 1963 Sam Snead 298 2007 Fred Funk 79 *Garcia played 9 tournaments in his age-19 season, the most of any 19-year-old
The two dominant players of this era expectedly dominate this list. Tiger Woods ranks first at every age for which he qualifies through age-33 with the exception of age-27 and 28 “slump” where he ranks second. His age-32 season consisted of six events so he doesn’t qualify here, but based on those he had a rating of 1370. He led the tour in victories despite the very limited schedule.
Of course, last season he played enough events to qualify for the list (17), but only managed a rating of 144. “Only” is relative here, and for almost any other player, a mid-career slump is much, much worse than this. Take Steve Stricker, who posted the third-best season by a 43-year-old last season and is currently the top-ranked American player. This is how his rating has evolved with age since he joined the tour as a 27-year-old.
In what would normally be the tail end of Stricker’s prime – his age-35 through 38 seasons – he entered 90 PGA events and missed the cut more often than he made it while posting just three top tens.
One of the problems with the PGA money list is that it excludes prominent players that spend most of their time on the European Tour. Thus, I have no data for the current world number-one (and US Open favorite) Lee Westwood, who experienced a similar slump in 2002 and 2003.
A mid-career slump isn’t unusual, and Woods’ drop-off, external factors aside, isn’t particularly alarming in his quest to break Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships. However, it should be mentioned that Woods’ 2010 season was worse than any season Nicklaus experienced between age 30 and 46. Because my data only goes back to 1970, I don’t have ratings for Nicklaus in any of his pre-age-30 seasons yet, but this is what the data for Jack looks like beyond from age 30 onward. (Note the vertical axis spans twice the values of Stricker’s.)
Nicklaus’s “slump” year was at age 39, when he only played in 13 tournaments and recorded just six finishes in the top 20. I hadn’t really followed Nicklaus’s career, but by GPR he was still one of the best five golfers on tour in his early-to-mid 40’s and displayed remarkable consistency through age 46. He just played so few tournaments by that time that it wasn’t reflected on the money list. Winning the Masters in ’86 wasn’t the late-career fluke I was under the impression it was.
Wednesday, I’ll get to the issue of whether there is any hope for Tiger catching Jack’s majors record, but tomorrow we’ll take a look at what success at an early age means and whether we can expect Rory McIlroy to be the next double-digit winner of majors.