The Person You Golf With May Affect Your Score

A version of this article appeared in Deadspin’s Regressing on August 9, 2014.

The legendary Bobby Jones, once said, “Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course – the distance between your ears.” Everyone from the local weekend hacker to the top pros playing on TV every Sunday can relate to that quote on some level.

To be sure, a lot of thoughts pass through a golfer’s mind on a course. Important decisions are made throughout each round of golf regarding shot selection and course management. A player must weigh the risk of hitting his ball into a hazard against the reasonable chance of hitting the green in two. He has to consider how aggressively he wants to go after a 30-foot downhill, double-breaking putt.

Emotions are constantly tested, especially in the pressure-filled environment of the PGA TOUR where a single shot potentially can make or break a player’s chances of winning. As Jones alluded to, mental toughness is a requirement even for the game’s greatest players.

But what about something that is completely out of their control: the composition of their groupings? Are the best golfers in the world affected by the quality of player(s) with whom they are paired? A playing partner’s World Ranking seemingly should not affect one’s performance. From the time they were children, every professional golfer was taught to block such distractions from his mind while on the course. That, however, may be easier said than done.

Based on the results of PGA TOUR events during the 2013 season, it would appear that even the best golfers in the world indeed are affected by the strength of their groupings, even if only subconsciously. While it may not be surprising that playing alongside the game’s greatest may increase one’s level of concentration and determination, the magnitude of this effect may be larger than expected.

The following table shows how golf’s top players perform when paired with or without another player with a World Golf Ranking in the Top 5. Match play events and tournaments with smaller fields (e.g., the WGC – Accenture Match Play Championship, the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola and the President’s Cup) are excluded from these numbers.

Performance Through First Two Rounds of PGA TOUR Event
Players Ranked #1-5 Entering Tournament, 2013

Highest-Ranked Other Player in Group Median Place on Leader Board Top 20 on Leader Board Missed Cut
Top 5 13th 65.6% 3.1%
Outside Top 5 28th 38.5% 12.8%

Through two rounds of a given PGA TOUR event last year, a professional golfer ranked fifth or better was over 70% more likely to be among the Top 20 on the leader board if he had drawn a pairing with another player ranked in the Top 5. This difference is very significant, both practically and mathematically. Assuming the results of Top 5 players as shown above are nearly normally distributed, there is only a 0.3% chance of achieving such an extreme outcome (in either direction) if playing partners had absolutely no effect on performance.

The number of instances in which Top 5 golfers missed the cut in 2013 was rather small, so although they were over four times more likely to miss the cut when paired with someone outside the Top 5, it is difficult to definitively draw conclusions on that particular statistic. That said, when coupled with the rest of the data in the table above, there does appear to be a correlation.

Note that the manner in which many of the initial pairings are drawn on the PGA TOUR is not randomized. Tournaments generally group players with similar rankings during the first two rounds. Because of this, it would be difficult to compare, say, the #2 ranked golfer’s grouping and that of the #22 ranked player, who typically will be paired with lower-ranked opponents.

For example, Top 5 players were paired with at least one other golfer ranked among the Top 5 roughly 45% of the time during the opening two rounds of a PGA TOUR event in 2013. This was true for less than 10% of the groupings involving players ranked between #21 and #25 and that number drops below 2% for golfers between #51 and #55.

For that reason, along with the fact that higher-ranked players generally score better than lower-ranked ones, independently of their playing partners’ ability, it is necessary to focus on such a tight range of players when considering this data. By reviewing statistics from golfers ranked within five spots of each other at once, it increases the likelihood that their playing partners are more comparable and therefore, that the data is more meaningful.

And the trend is similar within other spreads, as well. Pros ranked between #21 and #25 were over 30% more likely to be in 20th position or better after two rounds – and over 65% more likely to be in the Top 10 on the leader board (29.8% to 17.9%) – when playing in a group with at least one other Top 25 golfer.

To further reduce the number of variables that potentially could affect a player’s score, the statistics above are based solely on the first two rounds of an event. As tournaments progress through the weekend, golfers are faced with additional factors that may influence their scores. Pressure can increase for those who are still in contention on Sunday. Strategies may be altered late in a tournament as players measure the risk and reward of playing aggressively from ahead or slightly behind. Golfers who have fallen far off the lead may be more likely to lose focus than someone near the top of the leader board.

While it is not discussed very often in golf, this phenomenon of raising one’s performance when directly facing an elite opponent is talked about in other sports. Athletes are often said to have “found another gear,” which of course is a metaphor for suddenly increasing their levels of focus, intensity and even motivation. One such instance occurs in baseball, where pitchers often “discover” another mile per hour or two on their fastball when one of the game’s great hitters is standing 60 feet and six inches away.

This adrenaline rush doesn’t even necessarily transpire during a crucial moment of a sporting event. It can occur during the first inning of a baseball game or the first two rounds of a golf tournament. The experience is merely the result of one’s awareness of an increasingly high level of competition. Based on the results of PGA TOUR events last year, it certainly appears golf is not immune to its effects.

(photo by Craig O’Neal)

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