Predicting breakouts and new tournament winners are some of the main allures in golf prognostication. Not only do you get the satisfaction that comes from watching a golfer that you’ve touted succeed, you also can bask in the glow of having identified that golfer before other golf pundits (and brag on Twitter). What we as a golf community don’t have is a good understanding of what goes into a breakout. Who typically breaks out, what type of guys win their first PGA Tour tournament, do guys sustain these breakouts in following seasons, etc. My research has concluded that 1. younger players are more likely to dramatically improve their performance than middle-aged or older golfers, 2. break-outs are more likely for bad players (even for bad players with a consistent track record of poor performance), 3. most first time Tour winners are above-average or better PGA Tour players already, 4. most first time winners are established as good players (that this, they don’t play much better in the season when they first win), and 4. first time winners don’t carry-over any particular boost in their performance the following season.
To judge performance I’m using my z-score ratings based on performance relative to the field and to judge expected performance I’m using my projected z-score ratings that I generate weekly based on overall performance, adjusted for recency. I gathered a sample of every golfer between the PGA, European, Web.com, and Challenge Tours who played at least 25 rounds in consecutive seasons. I compared their performance over the 2nd season to their projected performance from after the 1st season. That yielded a change in performance. On average, my sample improved slightly (by around 0.1 strokes/round), likely because I’m excluding some players who performed so poorly in their 1st season rounds that they didn’t record enough rounds in the 2nd season.
I found that for golfers under 30, 33% improved their performance by at least 0.5 strokes/round. Improving by that amount would generally improve an average PGA Tour golfer from 125th in FedEx Cup points to around 65th – a fairly clear breakout. For both golfers in their 30s and their 40s, only 25% broke-out to such an extent. Players rated at around the level of an average Web.com or Challenge Tour player broke-out at a 39% rate, while those established as very good or better PGA Tour players broke out at only a 22% rate. And these situations aren’t examples of guys like Paul Casey or Mike Weir completely losing their games and bouncing back. On average guys who break-out in a big way show fairly consistent performance in the three seasons prior to their breakout.
So these large improvements in performance season to season are more likely for the worst pros (the idea that there’s nowhere to go but up) and for younger golfers (which is certainly intuitive).
Next I wanted to look just at first time PGA Tour winners. I gathered 63 players who had won for the first time since 2010 (51 who had won for the first time in 2010-2013). These guys ran the gamut from Charl Schwartzel at the 2011 Masters to Matt Bettencourt, Bill Lunde, and Arjun Atwal in a two month stretch in 2010. The first thing I found was that their performance in the season they won for the first time hardly increased from the previous year (0.15 strokes versus the 0.1 strokes I found a few paragraphs ago in the general pro population who played 25+ rounds). That is, first time winners generally play only slightly better in the season they win as they did in the previous season. For every Jason Dufner or Graeme McDowell who goes from solid Tour pro to superstar in the season they first win, there’s a Matt Jones (declined by 0.75 strokes) or Tommy Gainey (declined by 0.60 strokes).
The average first time winner played about 0.3 strokes better than PGA Tour average the year they won (approximately around 50th best in the world).
What about the following season, though? Do first time winners carry momentum over and perform better the next season? Of the 51 first time winners from 2010-2013, they didn’t perform any better than in their previous season (in fact losing around 0.1 strokes). Youth is no guarantee here, as for every McIlroy or Patrick Reed who reached new heights in the season after they first won there’s Gary Woodland or Kyle Stanley who slumped.
In general, predicting first time winners mainly comes down to identifying who the clearly above-average PGA Tour golfers are and then waiting. Of the top fifty golfers in my predictive ratings at the beginning of 2010, twenty had never won a PGA Tour tournament. Of those, there are ten mainly European based players (guys like Francesco Molinari or Anders Hansen). Of the remaining ten who spent a lot of time playing in the US, seven won in 2010 or 2011.
The guys who clearly stand-out as the most likely to be first time winners this year who both hold PGA Tour membership and are good at golf are the obvious names like Brooks Koepka, Victor Dubuisson, and Graham DeLaet and elite rookies like Tony Finau, Justin Thomas, and Blayne Barber, but also established pros like Russell Knox, David Hearn, and Brendon de Jonge.