Patrick Reed won a tournament yesterday – his third win since August – and in the process delivered pre-round and post-round interviews where he said he thought he was a top five player in the world. There’s been a lot of bullshit spewed already about his comments so I’m going to try to avoid any of that. I am going to lay out some reasons for and against the idea of Patrick Reed being an elite golfer, with the knowledge that anyone who thinks they know for sure is full of it.
Reasons to Doubt
The main argument against Reed being elite is his aggregate play up to this point in his career. Going beyond his three wins in 51 starts, when you consider all of his rounds (not just the ones since August), Patrick Reed’s performance hasn’t been much different than an average PGA Tour cardholder. I have 180 rounds for him between the Web.com Tour and PGA Tour going back to before he turned pro in 2011. In those rounds he’s played to just barely above the level of an average cardholder (-0.17). 180 rounds isn’t the definitive picture of a golfer, but it tells us that in general he’s been essentially average over a fairly large sample of results over mostly the last three seasons.
As I just wrote in a piece last week, the first two months of the season, when considered alongside the last two years of data, provide little extra information about how a golfer will perform going forward. Reed played to a rating of -0.08 in all rounds prior to January 1st 2014 and he’s played to a rating of -0.81 (over 2 strokes better) in 24 rounds since then. In general, past performances have shown that we should place about 3.5 times as much weight on those prior rounds compared to the rounds from the beginning of the season. Using this line of thinking, Patrick Reed should be considered an above-average PGA Tour player, but no better than Kevin Chappell or Russell Knox or other young guys who no one pays an extra second of attention.
Now some might point to his age saying that plenty of young players break-out in their early to mid 20s. I re-ran the study from the piece linked above to factor in age. The methodology is outlined in the piece, but basically I used a regression analysis to predict performance from March to December of a season using the January/February performance as one variable and the previous two full seasons as another variable. I ran the analysis this time using all seasons from age 27 and younger, age 28 to 38, and age 39 and older. I used the age 27 cut-off because that is where my prior aging studies have shown general age-related improvement halts.
In fact, the age of the player does affect how strongly we should believe in early season improvements/declines, though the evidence still favors the prior two seasons. For the age 27 and under group, the weight was about 2.4 times stronger for the prior seasons than the early season form. The weight on the prior seasons was around 5 times stronger for the age 28 to 38 group and nearly 4 times stronger for the age 39 and older group. Consider that all seasons produced a weight of 3.5 times for the prior seasons and it’s clear there’s an effect for younger golfers. So that indicates that we should believe more in early season improvements for young players, but that we should still defer heavily to the prior performance data. Using this method to project Patrick Reed, I’d compare his abilities now to Billy Horschel or Harris English. Plenty of folks think they’re very good players, but no one (bookmakers included) considers them elite by any stretch.
I then set-up a regression which attempts to predict the delta of the remaining ten months of performance with age and the delta between the prior two seasons and the first two months as dependent variables. The top row of the graph below is the delta between the prior two seasons and the first two months (negative means improvement/positive means decline), while the first column is age. Each cell represents the expected delta between the prior two seasons and the remaining ten months of the season based on a golfer’s first two month delta and their age. You can see that younger golfers that outperform their prior two years are expected to retain more of their improvements over the rest of the season than peak aged or past-peak golfers.
Reasons to Believe
Now that I’ve laid out the reasons to doubt Reed, here are a few reasons to think that this may be more real than the general model predicts.
1. Reed was an outstanding amateur golfer, especially during his final two seasons in college. The gold-standard for measuring collegiate golf performance is Jeff Sagarin’s rankings. Sagarin uses a method that compares who you beat/lose to in the same tournament and how much you beat/lose to them. College golf doesn’t provide a huge sample of results – a golfer might complete 40 rounds during a season – but it works in general. During Reed’s two seasons at Augusta State, he played 20 tournaments and finished 4th and 9th in the nation in Sagarin’ rankings (and led Augusta State to two straight NCAA Championships). Less than ten others have finished with a better average rank in college than Reed (including Bill Haas, Ryan Moore, and Dustin Johnson). Elite college performance at least establishes that Reed isn’t coming out of nowhere; this guy was lighting tournaments up in college.
2. I don’t consider Monday qualifier results in my database. The data is provided by local PGA chapters using multiple spellings of names and it’s generally a hassle to collect. For most guys that wouldn’t be a huge issue, but Reed was 6/8 in Monday Qualifiers in 2012, earning his way into six tournaments when he had no Tour status. Monday qualifiers are held at a nearby courses with around 100 golfers participating (mainly PGA Tour members without the status to enter the tournament directly, Web.com golfers, or minor tour pros). Of those ~100, the best four scores over a single round qualify to enter the tournament. Because only the top four advance, these qualifiers require a golfer to play around the level of peak Tiger Woods for a round to qualify. In short, Reed playing that well in 6/8 qualifiers should inflate his overall rating by a small amount.
3. Most importantly, Reed isn’t getting terribly lucky putting so far this season. Putting drives a lot of luck on Tour – largely because it’s easier to sink an extra eight footer every round for two months than it is to randomly pick up an extra couple yards of driving distance on every hole. When I examined Jimmy Walker’s game a few weeks ago, all of Walker’s improvement in 2014 could be attributed to a strokes gained putting that was inflated nearly a full stroke above his career average. In Reed’s case his putting numbers are slightly higher than his career average, but nothing similar to Walker’s stats.
Entering 2014 he had gained 0.27 strokes on the field through his putting and was basically Tour average in driving/scrambling/approach shots/etc. in his career. So far this season, he’s gained 0.52 strokes from putting and 1.91 strokes from driving/scrambling/approach shots/etc. About 10-15% of his improvement can be traced to his putting and the rest to his driving, iron play, and short game. In short, he’s not relying on a lucky putter like Walker, instead he’s hitting his driver and irons more consistently – leading to more distance, more greens hit, and more birdie opportunities.
This is where I should sum up all the evidence and declare a winner. Is Patrick Reed going to keep winning tournaments, maybe a Major this season? Or is he going to regress to just being another guy grinding for his card? But I don’t really have any idea. I do hope we start getting more post-round interviews that are heavier on bravado than modesty.