Golf Analytics

How Golfers Win

The Most Exciting Courses on the PGA Tour

About one day before hitting the shot of his career, Phil Mickelson stood over an eagle putt on the 13th green at Augusta National. He started that 2010 third round two back of the lead and had played at one under so far, dropping to five shots behind leader Lee Westwood. He needed a strong run to finish his round and set himself up for Sunday. Of course, Mickelson rolled home the eagle putt, holed out for eagle from the fairway on the 14th hole, and birdied the par 5 15th hole (barely missing eagle) – walking off the 15th green at twelve under and leading the tournament. He would go on to win his third green jacket the next day, providing more evidence that 13-14-15 at Augusta is the most exciting stretch of holes in tournament golf.

To find an objective measure of how exciting a stretch or entire course of holes is, one first has to consider what exciting means in the context of golf. In team sports, exciting stretches of the game are almost always when the game is closest and where the lead bounces back and forth. In fact, in many sports the game becomes boring if one team is playing cautiously and protecting a lead (think about a soccer team parking the bus or a football team running the ball to eat clock). Applying this idea to golf, excitement is generated by the idea that a golfer can gain or lose strokes on a hole. Which hole is more likely to hold your attention: a long par 3 where most golfers will make par or a risk/reward par 5 where anything from eagle to double bogey is in play? What creates excitement is the possibility of movement on the leaderboard, and that’s more likely on holes where anything from two under to two over is in play.

The basis of my Excitement Index is just that, how likely is a golfer to gain or lose strokes on the field when they play the hole? For example, a hole where 20% of players make birdie, 60% par, and 20% bogey will result in a golfer gaining strokes on the field 28% of the time and losing strokes on the field 28% of the time [math at the end]. It turns out that 28% is slightly above average on the PGA Tour; across all holes in 2013 and 2014, golfers gained strokes on 25% and lost strokes on 25% of all holes.

After calculating the Excitement Index for every hole and every course the PGA Tour visited in 2013 and 2014, it turns out that par 5 holes are slightly more exciting (~28%), while par 4s come in at around 25% and par 3s at 23%. This makes intuitive sense as par 5s have more possible outcomes in terms of eagle to double bogey, but also fewer pars than any other hole. It turns out that Excitement Index has a negative correlation with the percentage of golfers who make par; making par doesn’t change the tournament like birdie or bogey does.

Applying Excitement Index to Courses:

Of courses the PGA Tour visited in both 2013 and 2014, Muirfield Village (site of the Memorial Tournament) had the highest average Excitement Index both years, closely followed by Augusta National (site of the Masters) and TPC Sawgrass (site of the Players Championship). Excitement Index is strongly correlated between seasons (R=0.76), indicating that it is measuring something very real and consistent about the course. Namely, that tournaments held at the high Excitement Index courses have more shifts on the leaderboard as golfers gain or lose strokes on the field. I’ve listed all the 2014 courses below; Ex. Index is the % chance of gaining strokes on the field on a hole.

Not only does Augusta National feature the aforementioned 13-14-15 stretch, but the par 5 2nd and par 4 7th both feature in the top 50 most exciting holes on Tour (of 864 holes total). Only TPC Sawgrass also had four holes in the 50 most exciting (though not the white-knuckled 17th hole).

2014 excitement index course

Averaging the Excitement Index for stretches of three holes shows that the stretch of 13-14-15 at Augusta National ss the most exciting stretch on the PGA Tour. The 13th is well known as the risk/reward par 5 closing hole of Amen Corner. The 14th is a difficult par 4 which relies on a sloped green, yielding few birdies and bringing bogey in play for a lot of the field. The 15th is another risk/reward par 5 requiring a carry of the pond to reach it in two. This is the part of the course to make up ground or to fall completely out of contention.

An underrated stretch in a low profile tournament is the same 13-14-15 stretch at TPC River Highlands (site of the Travelers Championship). The 13th is a par 5 with out of bounds on the left and water right on the tee shot. In 2014, the hole yielded 19 eagles, but also 18 double bogeys. The 14th is a fairly generic par 4, but the par 4 15th is drivable for the whole field, but the lake looms to catch errant shots left. The 15th also brings anything from eagle to double bogey into play.

More to come on Excitement Index, including a look at the most exciting holes on Tour.


[math from above]: 20% of the time a golfer makes birdie and gains on everyone who doesn’t make birdie (80%), 60% of the time a golfer makes birdie and gains on everyone who makes worse than par (20%). Multiply 20%*80% = 16% and 60%*20% = 12% and you get 28%.

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