Ranking the PGA Tour’s Toughest, and Easiest, Tournaments to Win

May 1, 2016

There’s a competition before players tee it up on Thursdays, and I’m not talking about the pro-am. It’s the competition between tournaments (and their sponsors) for the biggest stars and the strongest fields. The sport’s top players are easy to identify. Harder to determine is what constitutes a statistically strong field.

A crude approach would be to tally the number of Top 50 (or Top 100 or Top 200) players participating in any given event, but that wouldn’t properly differentiate the value of having the World No. 1 in the field instead of, say, the World No. 50. A better approach is to rate the strength of a field by the probability of winning the tournament.

A Tour event with a strong field is tough to win. Using that simple idea, I’ve rated the strength of a field by the probability of winning the tournament. The lower the probability of winning, the stronger the field. To make comparisons across tournaments, I looked at every stroke-play event (except the BMW and Tour Championship) from 2011 to 2015 and computed the win probability for a hypothetical golfer with a fixed skill. (My approach and results are similar to analysis done by my colleague in academia, Dick Rendleman.) I then ranked the tournaments from smallest win probability (strongest field, toughest to win) to largest win probability (weakest field, easiest to win).

In order, the four strongest fields belonged to the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open, the Open Championship, and the Players, which returns to TPC Sawgrass this month. After the Players, the tournaments with the next strongest fields were the Barclays and Deutsche Bank, FedEx Cup playoff events open to only the year’s top performers. Where’s the Masters? Because of its smaller field (which, effectively, is even smaller due to spots designated for lifetime exemptions and special invites), golf’s most prestigious event ranks just seventh on the list.

The Tour’s least competitive tournaments are found in the season’s very early events (Frys.com Open, OHL Classic) and opposite-field tournaments (Puerto Rico Open, Sanderson Farms). This accounts for the parade of first-time winners we see at these events. Starting with the 2016-17 season, partly in an effort to bring competitive balance to all Tour events, players will be required to add a “new” event to their schedule, one they haven’t played in the last four years. How’s that for tough love?

PGA Tour events, ranked from strongest to weakest field:

1. PGA Championship
2. U.S. Open
3. Open Championship
4. The Players
5. Barclays
6. Deutsche Bank
7. The Masters
8. WGC–Bridgestone
9. BMW Championship
10. WGC–Cadillac
11. The Memorial
12. Northern Trust Open
13. Arnold Palmer Invitational
14. Wells Fargo Championship
15. Valspar Championship
16. The Honda Classic
17. Shell Houston Open
18. Crowne Plaza Invitational
19. RBC Heritage
20. Farmers Insurance Open
21. Waste Management
22. Sony Open In Hawaii
23. AT&T Pebble Beach
24. Zurich Classic
25. CareerBuilder Challenge
26. Travelers Championship
27. The Greenbrier Classic
28. AT&T Byron Nelson
29. Quicken Loans National
30. RBC Canadian Open
31. Wyndham Championship
32. The RSM Classic
33. John Deere Classic
34. FedEx St. Jude
35. Valero Texas Open
36. Frys.com Open
37. OHL Classic
38. Barracuda Championship
39. Puerto Rico Open
40. Sanderson Farms Championship

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