Sergio Garcia entered the final round of the Honda Classic tied with Adam Scott – Garcia’s 13th career 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour. Despite being one of the best golfers in the world (Garcia has ranked inside the top 25 on the PGA Tour in scoring average in 13 of 16 seasons), he had only managed to convert three of those 12 54-hole leads into victories. Sure enough, his Sunday 71 was a shot worse than Scott, and Garcia fell to 3-for-13 for his career.
A 23% winning percentage feels weak, but that conversion rate lacks context. It’s important to understand how factors like the size of lead, number of players tied at the top, and individual player ability affect the odds of closing out a 54-hole lead. To measure the importance of these factors, I collected PGA Tour data from 1996-present and set up a logistic regression to predict the probability of winning. Logistic regression is designed to measure the effect each variable has on an outcome that is either true (a win) or false (not a win).
The easiest variables to factor in were the size of the lead (Tiger Woods’ 10 shot lead at the 2000 U.S. Open was the largest), individual player ability of the player in the lead (it’s more likely that Woods in his prime would close out a lead than a randomly selected Tour player), and whether the player was tied with others (a two-way tie is easier to beat than a four-way tie, etc.). More difficult to factor was the number of players within striking distance (for example, this weekend at the Honda it was very unlikely that anyone other than Scott or Garcia would rally to win) or the ability of the players chasing (for example, twice in 2007 Rory Sabbatini had 54-hole leads where Woods started one shot back and beat him both times). I left those factors out of this basic model.
Above is a table of expected winning percentages for players with a 54-hole lead based on those three factors — players tied, individual player ability, and strokes ahead. For tied players, see the left table and for solo leads check out the right. For individual player ability, Woods in his prime was around 3.0 to 3.5, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy now are around 2.5, and Garcia and other top ten players are typically around 1.5 to 2.0. You can see that Sergio’s odds of winning — knowing nothing else going into Sunday — were about 30% (tied, with one other, approximately 1.5 to 2.0 strokes better than the field).
Summing all of these probabilities for each 54-hole leader in every tournament from 1996 to 2016 produces the table below of the best and worst closers.
Measured by the raw number of wins Garcia has let slip away, he and Tom Lehman rank worst among Tour players in the last 20 years at -3.6 wins. In other words, if Garcia had played up to his expected level of play he should have three or four more PGA Tour wins (and likely a major championship) to add to the eight PGA Tour titles he has already captured. It’s not as if Garcia choked it away on Sunday; he shot a 71 versus a field average of 71.4 and an average of 70.4 of those starting the final round in the top 10. He just couldn’t execute enough good shots down the stretch to catch Scott.
Lehman’s futility in the lead may be even more painful. He only closed out two of eleven 54-hole leads from 1996 on, and the two he did manage to win were six-shot and nine-shot leads. He blew two consecutive solo 54-hole leads at the 1996 and 1997 US Opens.
Others posting poor overall marks include Jim Furyk and Justin Rose. Furyk ended his five-year stretch without a PGA Tour victory last season at the Heritage, but still had a six-year and 10-tournament streak of blowing 54-hole leads — including at the 2012 U.S. Open and 2013 PGA Championship. Rose’s victory at the Zurich Classic last year was the first time in his PGA Tour career that he closed out a 54-hole lead of less than four strokes.
The obvious King of Closing is Tiger Woods, who produced nine additional victories beyond what would be expected. His famous loss at the 2009 PGA Championship was his first 54-hole lead in a major that he wasn’t able to win, and it was only the second solo 54-hole lead that he coughed up, and his first since losing the Quad Cities Classic as a rookie in 1996. Woods even managed to retain his closing ability in the wake of scandal and injury — converting 6-of-6 54-hole leads since 2010.
Looking at the current top players like Spieth and McIlroy, none stand out to the degree that Woods or even Phil Mickelson once did. Spieth has converted 6-of-10 54-hole leads; McIlroy is 6-for-9, and Jason Day 5-for-11 — all of them in line with expectations. Rickie Fowler, meanwhile, has won three Tour titles and the Scottish Open in comeback efforts. Maybe he’s the Tour’s new top closer.