​Mark Broadie: Unexpected, Surprise Champions

October 1, 2015
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After missing five cuts in a row, Troy Merritt won the Quicken Loans National in August. That was a surprising outcome for sure, but not all that unusual. As a golf fan, I marvel at the depth of today’s fields and how any player good enough to be on Tour is good enough to win any given week. I’m a professor at Columbia Business School, and as an academic with an interest in golf analytics, I got to wondering: How do you rank winners based on how surprising their victories were?

Quantifying the degree of surprise of a given victory is tricky. One way to approach it would be to simply count the number of missed cuts leading up to a win, but this ignores players who reach the weekend only to finish at the bottom of the pack. I wanted a better, yet still simple, way to measure the surprise factor. So I looked at each winner’s total Strokes Gained per round for the season (which I adjusted for the strength of the field in each event), and then ranked Tour winners from the most to the least surprising.

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By this metric, the least surprising winners since 1983 are Tiger Woods, Jose Maria Olazabal, Greg Norman, Vijay Singh and Seve Ballesteros. The least surprising winners in the 2015 season? Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson. Those are all big names, of course. I was more curious about the victories that no one had predicted.

The five most surprising Tour winners since 1983 are Andre Stolz, Derek Ernst, Dicky Pride, Greg Twiggs and Gabriel Hjertstedt. A snapshot of the top two: In 2004, Stolz missed 11 cuts in 20 events, and his best finishes of the season, excluding his win at the Michelin Championship, were T34 and T54. For his part, Ernst missed 14 cuts in 21 events in 2013 and never cracked the top 40, apart from his Wells Fargo Championship victory.

What’s more, these five players combined for a grand total of just one other Tour victory, courtesy of Hjertstedt. The other four members of this “surprise” party? Well, they’re all one-hit wonders.

You may think that anyone in the field can win a given Tour event, but victories rarely go to “below average” players.

Since 1983, just 6 percent of Tour winners (that’s 90 out of 1,501) had a negative Strokes Gained average per round during the season of their win. You may think that any player can win in any given week, but trophies rarely go to the ranks of the “below average” (that is, Tour players with a negative Strokes Gained per round average for the season).

This year’s most surprising winners through late summer (see below) are Padraig Harrington, Nick Taylor and Matt Every. Given Harrington’s six PGA Tour wins, including three major titles, his 2015 Honda Classic victory might not surprise you. But then we look at his finishes leading up to that triumph: T75, cut, T73, cut, cut, cut, cut, T56.

As for Merritt, his win is the sixth most unexpected of 2015. Although five missed cuts preceded his victory, that is mitigated somewhat by a pair of top-10 finishes.

And if he wins again—well, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.