Proof Fields Aren’t Any Deeper Than They Used to Be

April 13, 2016

Today, it’s said, there are more Tour-caliber players than the game has ever seen. But are fields deeper than ever?

Conventional wisdom says yes. To learn the truth, I set out to measure the depth of fields on the PGA Tour since 1983. What I found surprised me: Fields are no deeper today than they were then. They hit their deepest point in 2008 and have since become shallower.

A deep field means parity—any player can win in any given week. Parity means fewer superstars. Conversely, in a shallow field, only a small number of players have a good chance to claim the trophy.

Here’s how I defined the depth of a field. Suppose we know the chances of every player winning a given tournament. (I used a mathematical model to estimate this, but betting-market odds would also work.) I sorted the players from best to worst (i.e., from highest to lowest winning probability) and counted how many players need to be pooled together to exceed a 50 percent chance of victory. The larger this number, the deeper the field. Example: If everyone in a 100-man field has an equal chance, then the depth is 50. If the top two players in a 100-man field both have a 30 percent chance of victory, then the depth is two.

I averaged these depth-of-field results for every Tour event from 1983 to 2015 (see above). Lo and behold, field depth has been a roller-coaster ride, yet overall fields aren’t deeper than they were in the “80s.

This may be a good thing. I think fans prefer shallow fields (as we saw in Tiger’s heyday) over deep ones. Why? It clears the stage for the superstars to duel for dramatic victories. So the New Big 3 should make for must-see TV.