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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 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, 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.

We Need to Talk About Jimmy

After his win at last week’s Pebble Beach National Pro-am, Jimmy Walker has run his 2013-14 PGA Tour record to 3 wins, another top-ten, only 1 missed cut, and 1st place in the FedEx Cup standings. Prior to his win at the Open in October, Walker was certainly a strong PGA Tour player, but not widely considered among the elite golfers in the world. His world ranking peaked at 59th after the Players Championship in 2013, but has shot to 45th after winning the Open, 32nd after winning the Sony Open, and 24th this week. All of a sudden, Walker is entering tournaments as one of the touted favorites. What I’d like to do is to show where Jimmy Walker has come from and why you should be skeptical that he should be considered one of the Tour’s elite players.

Walker emerged as a PGA Tour regular in 2008 after bouncing around between the Nationwide Tour and PGA Tour between 2004-2007. Initially, he wasn’t a particularly good player. My Z-Score ratings have him at +0.16 in 2008, +0.16 in 2009, and -0.08 in 2010. For context, 0.00 is set as the average of all players who play on the Tour (down to the lowest qualifier, past champion, and club pro who competes in a tournament) while around -0.10 is the average player who holds a PGA Tour card. His seasons reflected those underlying stats; he was forced to re-earn his card at Q-School in 2008 and finished outside the top 100 on the money list in each of the next two seasons. Up to the beginning of 2011, Walker was a 32 year old who had never won a PGA tournament. It was as likely as not that he would fall off the PGA Tour in the next five years at that point.

But then something changed. Walker posted his best season in 2011 by actual results and underlying performance. His -0.24 Z-Score was well above PGA Tour average and he recorded four top-tens (including at Pebble Beach, Riviera CC, and the Sony Open). He followed that success up with a -0.31 Z-Score and five top-tens (again at Pebble Beach and Riviera CC) in 2012. Entering last year, Walker had posted consecutive solid seasons, but certainly no one was touting him as someone due to win a tournament. In fact, in this Golf Channel article from 2012 his name isn’t mentioned among eight guys (including Jeff Overton, Charlie Wi, and Brendon de Jonge).

Statistically up to 2012, Walker was decidedly a bomber. His average driving distance rank was 45th between 2008-12, while his average accuracy rank was 181st. He showed little ability to consistently hit greens, finishing no higher than 116th in GIR from 2008-12. Mostly, he putted well – he averaged 0.18 strokes gained putting over that period, solidly above PGA Tour average.

With all that context, Walker’s emergence looked unlikely as 2013 began. However, he played even better in the first half of the season, continuing a streak of 25 straight made cuts from the 2012 John Deere Classic to the 2013 Memorial. That run included four top-tens (again at Pebble Beach). From the Memorial onward, he missed six of nine cuts, crashed out of both Majors he competed in, and failed to reach the Tour Championship. For 2013 as a whole, Walker posted a Z-Score of -0.46 (including his fall swing) which is roughly what is expected out of a top 20 player in the world. The he went out in 2014 and won twice in four starts.

So did something change for Walker in 2013 that he carried over this year? Or is he suddenly a different player this season? In 2013, he remained wedded to distance above accuracy with his drives, finishing ~25th best in distance, but outside the top 150 in accuracy. He also putted about as well as he did in the previous five years, finishing with an average strokes gained putting of 0.27. What did change was his ability to hit greens. This article claims that Jimmy changed his aggressive style to chase pars on par 3/4s. It’s possible to imagine a more conservative game plan for attacking pins would lead to more greens hit, but his average proximity in 2013 was two feet closer to the pin than in 2012. What we’re likely looking at instead is a general improvement in Walker’s approach game. He was hitting more greens and hitting it closer because he was playing his irons better.

In his eight 2013-14 tournaments, Walker’s stats (adjusted for field and course conditions) are basically exact copies of his 2013 performance in terms of driving distance, driving accuracy, and greens in regulation. In fact, the only major statistical indicators that are different are his scrambling (surged from 60% to 65% this season) and his putting (he’s gained an additional +1.06 strokes on the field each round due to his putting). Now, obviously scrambling well is a typical result of putting well. I examined his proximity to the hole after the scrambling shot for 2014 and prior seasons to see if he was hitting it closer. Instead, he’s actually hitting it around 2 feet further from the pin, leaving himself more difficult putts to earn his par. From that, all I can conclude is that his putting results are driving all of his improvement from 2013 to this new season.

That conclusion is all well and good, but is it realistic to expect him to maintain such a putting improvement? In short, no. Since the Tour started tracking shot-by-shot data in 2004, only one player (Ben Crane 2005) has maintained a SGP above +1.00 per round. Most seasons, the leader is around +0.90 and those leaders are players who are demonstrated elite putters (Luke Donald, Brandt Snedeker, Greg Chalmers, etc.) who have multiple seasons of near that level of play. Walker only has one such elite season (+0.46 in 2012). Right now his SGP for 2014 is based on only 19 recorded rounds. There’s a ton of room for randomness to creep in over such a small number of rounds. In comparison, he has over 300 rounds of prior play that show that he is an above-average, but not elite putter. Being a proper Bayesian, that’s not enough to convince me that he’s significantly better going forward. At most, I’d place him as something like a +0.30 to +0.40 putter, enough to be in the top 20 putters on Tour, but not nearly the +1.33 figure he’s sporting so far.

Now that doesn’t mean Walker isn’t going to continue to be a very good player. He didn’t receive nearly the recognition he deserved over the past two seasons when he was legitimately playing at a top-50 in the world level. His three wins, 25 tournament streak of made cuts, and -0.36 Z-Score from 2011 to present are fantastic achievements for a guy who didn’t look like he’d ever contend for anything as recently as 2010. He’s has to be considered a favorite to earn a spot on the Ryder Cup team as a bonus. But no one should expect him to continue playing like he has since October. His putting is likely being driven by a ton of luck right now and luck cannot be relied on to stick around. Going forward, he’s probably not going to be able to putt nearly as well as he has; that doesn’t mean he’s not going to be successful, just that he shouldn’t be considered one of the favorites in a field with Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson, Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth, and Matt Kuchar.