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Most Improved in 2015

This is about the time of the season when small-sample issues start to wash away and genuine performances changes can be detected. Last year around this time I wrote these pieces which attempted to tease out 1. how much weight to place on performance in the first two months of the season, 2. whether age was a meaningful factor to answering #1, and 3. whether it mattered if the change in performance was occurring in the tee to green game, with the putter, or both.

I found that past performance should be weighted about 3.5 times more than performance in the first two months. Also, younger golfers who show a lot of improvement tend to retain that improvement more than middle-aged or older golfers. It also turns out that golfers who have improved their putting tend to play worse going forward than those who improved their tee to green play.

What about 2015:
The ten most improved PGA Tour players in 2015 [1] are listed below:

most improved 2015

Coming into 2015, I had Daniel Berger rated as a below-average Tour player – largely because he hadn’t particularly stood-out in his 2014 season on the Web.com Tour (he performed slightly below what you’d expect an average PGA Tour player to do on that tour). Berger clearly had potential – he had finished as Golfweek/Sagarin’s 7th best NCAA golfer in his final season in 2012-13 – but he hadn’t clearly emerged as a future star like the similarly aged Justin Thomas or Jordan Spieth. Well, all that is moot after Berger’s start on Tour; 5/6 made cuts, performance similar to what you’d expect from a top 10 player in the world, and a playoff defeat in his twelfth PGA Tour event.

Applying the criteria from above – young players and those with improved tee to green play retain more of their improvement – Berger grades out well. Not only is Berger only turning 22 in April, but he’s dramatically improved his long game play in his 2015 Shot Link rounds compared to his 2014 Fall Series Shot Link rounds. He was carried a bit in the fall by a hot putter (+0.9 strokes gained/round), but this season’s success has been entirely driven by his play with his irons/driver (+2.5 strokes gained/round). I doubt Berger will continue to play at a top ten in the world level, but he already looks like a clear future star.

James Hahn has already won in his break-out 2015 season. Coming into 2015 he didn’t project as particularly likely to remain on Tour. In fact, I had Hahn rated as 205th out of all players with any PGA Tour status entering the season. Hahn has improved across the board in all key stats: he’s improved his iron shots by +0.5 strokes/round, his drives by +0.2 strokes/round, his putting by +0.5 strokes/round, and his short game by +0.5 strokes/round. I’m still not totally sold on Hahn as he’s has seasons worth of play at below Tour average, but he’s certainly moving in the right direction.

It seems like a long time since Brendan Steele’s rookie year win at the Texas Open in 2011. That win earned Steele notoriety and regular place in the Mickelson practice round matches. Designed in part to prepare guys for the rigors of Ryder Cup play, Steele watched Keegan Bradley and Rickie Fowler earn spots on those teams, while he suffered through a string of mediocre (at least in terms of performance) seasons. However, last year was his best yet on Tour and he’s kept the momentum going so far in 2015 – 5/5 in cuts and a 2nd at the Humana. Steele isn’t that young, but has improved across the board, especially in the long game (+0.5 strokes/round over last year and he’s hitting his drives 5 yards further).

Two other notables are Lucas Glover and Boo Weekley. Both have long track records of being awful at putting, but both have improved their putting numbers a ton in the past few months (Glover is now merely one of the worst rather than the absolute worst of all time). Neither have made many strides in the rest of their games, so I seriously doubt whether Boo Weekley especially can continue to play at this level. He has a decade of awful putting in his past and it strains credulity that he has all of a sudden become average.

Quickly running through the others, Wheatcroft and Laird are hitting their irons much better this year, Knost is relying on putting+short game improvements, and Collins is also riding a great short game. Zac Blair stands out as a young guy who should have no trouble keeping his card as a rookie.

Improvements among the stars:
Of golfers who entered the year in my top 50, the ten most improved are below:

MIP 2015 stars

Of these Shane Lowry sticks out. Lowry has played great in three US stops so far in 2015, earning enough FexEx points where he would be inside the top 100 in only four events. In my ratings he’s climbed all the way to 33rd after spending last year hovering around 100th. Lowry is only 28 and his success this year has been fueled by great long game (approach shots+drives), so I like his chances to remain around his current ranking. Lowry also has a very good shot at earning his Tour card for next year. He’s already at 222 FedEx Cup points – only 216 short of last year’s 125th finisher – and is pretty much guaranteed entry into at least seven more events plus any regular events he qualifies for or earns sponsors invites into.

My numbers are also coming around slowly on Patrick Reed. Reed’s career to this point has been marked by turmoil – four wins but also a lot of MCs and really inconsistent overall play – but he hasn’t missed a cut since July and his play this year has been driven by increases in his driving distance (+5 yards) and better approach shot play (+0.4 strokes/round). I’m not sold on Reed as a top ten player, but he’s definitely better than my numbers thought two months ago.


[1] – For this, first I calculated their performance in terms of strokes better than the field per round and then I compared that to their projection from the first of week of January 2015. I realize this is a bit of a black-box, but basically I try to find who is playing much better than my system expected going into the season. I’ve included only golfers with at least eight rounds played in 2015.

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2015 Humana Challenge Preview

Courses:
A trio of easy resort courses are in play this week – PGA West (Palmer), PGA West (Nicklaus), and La Quinta CC. This week is typically the easiest scoring week of the year for the pros. Expect a lot of fairways hit, a lot of wedge approach shots, and a lot of birdies overall. It’s tough to do anything regarding course form here as the event courses have changed a lot over the year; perhaps most important for the pros is being able to deal with the pro-am format while still staying in the competitive zone.

What I’m Looking At:
This marks Phil Mickelson’s 2015 debut and his first start since he bowed out of the Playoffs early in September. A lot has been written about Phil’s down season last year and what it means for his career and his performance going forward. However, a lot of that “down season” stuff is solely based on him not winning a tournament for the first time since 2003. And yeah, the big results weren’t there (though he had two 2nds), but his overall performance was only down slightly from 2011-2013 – mostly because he wasn’t sinking essentially every putt. The expectations for him week to week on Tour are ridiculous; he’s more like the 20th best player in the world and it’s completely normal for that guy to go a year without winning.

Over the past few years, Phil has lost a ton of club head speed. Five years ago he was 13th on Tour in driving distance and in the top 10-15% in terms of driving performance on Tour. Last year he was 70th and basically average in driving performance. This is entirely normal for a golfer in his mid 40s and he’s responding the right way by trying to get in better shape. We’ll see if it translates at all to his performance this year. He’s also been one of the most aggressive in terms of using driver on holes where others are laying-up.

This week also marks Jason Dufner’s 2015 debut. He was sidelined from August to October with a neck injury after having a disappointing 2014 season. However, he returned in a three week Asian swing where he played more like he had been playing in 2012-13. The most important question for Dufner going forward revolves around his putting. In the past six seasons he’s had three mostly average putting years by Strokes Gained Putting and two disastrous years. When he putts at an average level, his ball-striking makes him a clear top 25 player. When he putts as poorly as last season, he’s simply not a factor. Last year he was only in contention once in sixteen events after something like nine or ten times in 48 events in 2012-13. That all comes down to whether he can not be awful on the greens.

Patrick Reed’s Title Defense:
I wrote about Patrick Reed after he won the Hyundai ToC two weeks ago, saying he displayed a very wide spread of results and especially way more wins than his aggregate performance suggested. Most ridiculously, he has four tournament wins, but only six other top tens. Dividing his results into three groups – good (around top 10 and better), average, bad (missed cut or low finish in the money), he’s at 33% good, 30% average, and 37% bad since 2013. The average spread for guys who are approximately as good as he is is 25% good, 43% average, and 32% bad; instead of those average results he’s racking up some really good performances and some really awful performances.

Now, this could be part of his game or it could be just how the chips have fallen in ~50 tournaments. I ran the same numbers for golfers of similar talent to him for 2011-12 and compared their percentiles to their results in 2013-14. First, Patrick Reed’s results were more extreme than any of the ~75 golfers I compared him to. He had about 12% more good performances than he should’ve based on his talent. Looking ahead to 2013-14, the golfers who had more good performances than they should have still had more good performances, but only slightly. For every three “extra” good performances they retained only one “extra” good performance in 2013-14. Applying that to Reed, we should expect him to fall more into a bell-curve like performance distribution with fewer extreme tournaments, and more average ones.

The interesting question is whether Reed’s aggregate performance is dragged down by him playing especially poorly when he’s not in contention. I examined whether golfers “gave-up” in the fall and concluded that there was only evidence of “giving-up” for golfers who were 10 strokes behind starting the 2nd round and 15 strokes behind starting the 4th round (ie, guys who are going to miss the cut and guys who are locked into 65th place). Golfers in those places play, on average, between 0.25 and 0.5 strokes worse than normal.

Reed’s results are very extreme. When he starts the 2nd round within five strokes of the lead he’s played 1.1 strokes better than expected. When he starts the 2nd round in any worse position he’s played 0.6 strokes worse than expected. That certainly explains why he’s missed so many cuts. Looking deeper, the same phenomenon occurs in the 3rd round where he plays well near the lead, but not when far off the pace. In the 4th round though, the trend completely reverses and he plays slightly worse near the lead, but way better when far off the pace.

It’s impossible to conclude anything about his motivations from this analysis of ~60 tournaments; it’s just not very much data and easily influenced by chance. I’m sure I could find similar results from other golfers. It does, however, go some way towards explaining why his performances have tended towards the extreme.

Best Past Results:
These are the guys who have played best here relative to their typical performances. In other words, for each year they’ve played I’m comparing their Humana/Bob Hope performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 3 starts here since 2008).

1. Chad Collins
2. Colt Knost
3. Matt Jones
4. Zach Johnson
5. Daniel Summerhays

Again, these are polluted by putting luck and there are multiple course histories represented.

Hyundai TOC Recap – 2015

Patrick Reed’s your winner – his 4th win before age 25 – thanks to splashing an 80 yard wedge on 16 and making back to back birdies on 18 to close out his round and beat Jimmy Walker in the playoff. Great recap from Adam Sarson here.

Patrick Reed’s 4th Win:

This win makes Reed the fourth golfer to win four times on Tour before their 25th birthday – Tiger, Rory, and Sergio are the fairly obvious others. Looking forward, Jordan Spieth has 3.5 years to capture three more official wins and I don’t think anyone would be surprised if Hideki Matsuyama reached that total either. Regardless, it’s a pretty impressive accomplishment.

Reed’s career to this point has been pretty amazing to watch. He spent 2012 Monday qualifying (6 times!) and playing on sponsor’s exemptions before winning his Tour card in the last Q-School. He then faced down fellow rookie Jordan Spieth to win his first title at the Wyndham in 2013 and came out last year and won twice in the first three months – including over a stacked field at Doral. The funny thing is he hasn’t played that well outside of those wins; he has four career titles and only six other top tens. In fact, the PGA Tour has him ranked 69th and 52nd in scoring average the past two seasons. He just hasn’t brought it consistently every week.

That disconnect between his results in the large majority of events versus his wins make him one of the most interesting guys this upcoming season. Below is a graph of his results since the start of 2013 subdivided into one of seven bins based on his performance relative to the field. Anything on the left side of the graph is usually a missed cut or a very low finish, anything to the right is top ten territory or a potential win. I’ve compared Reed to golfers similar to his performance suggested by his scoring average and to golfers who have elite performance.

Patrick Reed Performance

You can see Reed’s best performances compare favorably to the elite guys (Keegan, Webb, Dufner, etc.), but quickly drop below even guys with comparable overall performances. He just has more of the awful weeks than he should based on his performance. That’s the challenge for him this year; everyone knows he can win on a great week, but part of being an elite golfer is grinding out those top 10s and top 25s. Reed’s definitely worthy of more research and discussion.

Outlook for Jason Day:

Day’s flashed his ridiculous upside with seven top tens in seventeen major starts and consistent high level play since he was 21. He’s sort of the opposite of Patrick Reed in that he’s reeled off a bunch of great finishes in Tour events, but only captured two wins. He’s also has a weird combination of skills in that he hits it really well off the tee, putts at a consistently high level, and has a good short game, but hasn’t shown much ability to hit his irons well. Last year was his best year with his irons though, despite back, thumb, and hip injuries.

Through the first tournament, things are looking good for him. In a week where the putter and short game weren’t that impressive, Day still finished on top of the long game rankings (Tee shots + approach shots). He showed huge distance off the tee (2nd to Bubba) and hit the 2nd most greens. Day’s already a top ten guy in the world based on his performance; any improvement with the irons would propel him near Rory territory.

 

Putting Driven Performance Changes are Illusory

Last week I posted about how repeatable performance on different shot types was from season to season. Tee to green play is more repeatable than putting which is more repeatable than scrambling. That makes sense once you realize that golfers play 2-3 times more tee to green shots than meaningful putts in a round; there’s just more inherent randomness in a season’s worth of putts than in a season’s worth of tee to green shots. Golfers play even fewer scrambling shots resulting in even more randomness in a season’s worth of scrambling.

Last month I also examined how repeatable small samples (4-8 tournaments) of putting performances are, in the context of discussing why I expected Jimmy Walker’s performance to regress to the mean. That micro-study indicated that there was very little correlation between a golfer’s performance in a 4-8 tournament sample of putts and the following 4-8 tournament sample of putts. In the whole, performances in such short samples regress almost entirely to the mean.

Those two lines of inquiry led me to examine whether putting was more random than tee to green performance. I have always believed that improvements/declines that were driven by over-performance in putting were less real than those driven by tee to green over-performance, but I had never actually tested that hypothesis. The key question is whether changes in performance driven by putting are less persistent than those driven by tee to green play. That is when a golfer performs better over the first half of a season, and much of the improvement can be traced back to an improvement in his putting stats, will that golfer continue to perform better in the second half of the season? The evidence says changes in performance driven by putting are more illusory than changes in performance driven by tee to green play.

Design:

I gathered the tournament by tournament overall, tee to green, and putting performances of all PGA Tour golfers in rounds measured by the ShotLink system for 2011-Present. I divided those rounds into roughly half-season chunks (January-May 2011, May-November 2011, January-May 2012, May-November 2012, January-May 2013, May-September 2013, October 2013-Present). Each chunk included around 15-18 tournaments. I considered all golfers who recorded at least 20 rounds in consecutive half-season chunks.

To measure putting performance I used the PGA Tour’s Strokes Gained Putting stat and to measure tee to green performance I used my own overall ratings with putting performance subtracted out. This methodology is consistent with my measurement of tee to green performance in numerous recent work.

Half-Season Correlations by Shot Type:

First, I measured how repeatable putting and tee to green performance was between half-season samples, much like the full-season samples used in this study. I included all golfers with at least 20 rounds in consecutive half-season samples and compared each half-season to the half-season that directly followed, including 2nd halves to 1st halves of following calendar years. This yielded samples of ~800 golfers for both tee to green and putting. Graphs are below.

half tee to green

half putting

Tee to green performance was again more repeatable than putting performance. In the study linked above consecutive full-seasons of tee to green performance were correlated at a R=0.69 level. I found a correlation of R=0.62 between consecutive half-seasons, understandably less given the smaller number of rounds/shots played. The full-season correlation for putting was R=0.55. Half-season putting performances were similarly less correlated than full-seasons at R=0.40. Both these findings are consistent with the understanding that randomness between samples increases when fewer rounds/shots are compared. Most importantly, putting is less repeatable than tee to green play.

Persistence of Changes in Performance by Shot Type:

Next, I measured how persistent changes in performance are when considering putting and tee to green play. That is, when a golfer improves their putting over a half-season sample, how much of that performance is retained in the following half-season? If 100% of the performance is retained, changes in putting performance over a half-season entirely represent a change in true talent. If 0% of the performance is retained, changes in putting performance over a half-season entirely represent randomness. The same for tee to green play. My assumption was that a larger percent of performance would be retained for tee to green play than putting, meaning that half-season samples of putting are more affected by randomness than half-seasons of tee to green play.

To measure the effect, I first established prior expectations of performance for every golfer in my sample. I simply averaged performance in tee to green play and putting for the three years prior to the beginning of each half-season sample. For example, for the May-November 2011 sample, I averaged play between May 2008 and May 2011. This is not an ideal measure of performance, but it provides a consistent baseline for comparisons to be made.

I removed all golfers from the sample who had no prior performances. This reduced my sample to around 750 consecutive half-seasons.

The values I compared were the initial delta (Prior minus 1st Half-season) and the subsequent delta (Prior minus 2nd Half-season). Using this method I can find how persistent a change in performance is between to half-seasons. I did this considering putting and tee to green play. Graphs are below.

persist tee to green

persist putting

Changes in tee to green play were twice as persistent as changes in putting play, meaning golfers who improved their tee to green play retained twice as much of those improvements as golfers who improved a similar amount in putting. Golfers maintained around 60% of their tee to green improvements, but only 30% of their putting improvements. This indicates that putting performances regress more sharply to prior expectations than tee to green performances.

Are Putting Performances More Illusory?

Finally, I gathered the data from above to measure whether changes in performance driven by putting less real than changes in performance driven by tee to green play. I ran a linear regression using the initial delta for overall performance and the initial delta for putting performance as independent variables and the subsequent delta for overall performance as the dependent variable. In short, given a certain overall change in performance and a certain change in putting performance over the first half-season, how much of that overall change in performance is retained over the second half-season?

As the following table shows golfers retain much more of their improvement or decline when that improvement or decline occurred in tee to green shots than if it occurred in putting. The columns show improvements/declines in overall play (considering all shots) and the rows show improvements/declines solely in putting. The table shows that a golfer who improves overall by 0.50 strokes will retain only a quarter of their improvement if all of the improvement was due to putting (0.50), while they will retain over half of their improvement if none of the improvement was due to putting (0.00). The equation used to produce this chart is Subsequent Delta = (0.56 * Initial Overall Delta) – (0.28 * Initial Putting Delta).

delta comparisons

Discussion:

These findings should fundamentally alter how we discuss short-term changes in performance. I’ve already shown repeatedly that performances better than prior expectation will regress to the mean over larger samples. That idea is consistent across sports analytics. However, these findings indicate that the amount of regression depends on which part of a golfer’s game is improving or declining. Golfers who improve on the basis of putting are largely getting lucky and will regress more strongly to the mean than golfers who are improve on the basis of the tee to green game. Those who improve using the tee to green game are showing more robust improvements which should be expected to be more strongly retained.

The golfers who represent either side of this for the 2014 season are Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed. I’ve discussed both in the past month, alluding to how Walker’s improvements were almost entirely driven by putting and how Reed’s were mostly driven by tee to green play. Based off these findings, Reed is more likely to retain his improvements over the rest of the season, all else being equal, than Walker.

 

All graphs/charts are denominated in strokes better or worse than PGA Tour average. Negative numbers indicate performances better than PGA Tour average.

Thoughts on Patrick Reed (Without Using “Confident” or “Cocky”)

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.

ValueHotStartGraphByAge

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.