Amid Rickie Fowler’s torrid summer last year – which included top five finishes in each major championship – the collective golf media was focused on Fowler’s need to win tournaments to validate his status as one of the big stars on Tour. Bring up Rickie’s name among golf fans now, and the question immediately turns to why he doesn’t win more often. These sorts of questions are nothing new. Phil Mickelson was hounded about his inability to win a major for years before he broke through at the Masters. Up to a week before McIlroy’s Open Championship win last summer there were questions about his ability to close out tournaments when he jumped into the lead. And just last week, Jordan Spieth captured his second PGA Tour win – hopefully distracting the critics who think he needs to win more often for a few months.
Winning is why the elite players are out there. Rickie Fowler has said as much in interviews, and he’s certainly frustrated after watching Rory McIlroy best him twice in a month to win majors last summer. But when the story line around a guy who just finished top five in every major is that he needs to win more, it’s pretty obvious we need to give Rickie Fowler a break.
What’s very interesting when you dig into Rickie Fowler’s stats and results is that there are several important reasons why he has won only once on Tour. It’s not because he hasn’t played well (he has), it’s not because he hasn’t had some fantastic tournaments (he has), and it’s not because he hasn’t played well when it counts (he has). It turns out that Rickie Fowler 1) Has played his best golf in the biggest events (majors, WGCs, the Players, and the strongest regular Tour events) and 2) Hasn’t racked up the wins in weaker fielded events that some of his similarly talented peers have.
Putting Rickie’s Results in Context
Below is a chart of how often golfers have won on the PGA Tour since 2010 (Fowler’s rookie year on Tour) in the form of wins per event played. I’ve included everyone with at least 50 PGA Tour events, whether or not they’ve actually won an event. On the x-axis is each player’s scoring average over those 5+ seasons. Obviously the better players win more often, with Tiger and Rory winning about once every eight events entered and someone of Bubba Watson or Dustin Johnson’s performance winning about once every fifteen events entered. When top players only enter around 20 events per season, it’s pretty obvious that no one but guys of Rory and Tiger’s ability should be expected to win more than once or twice a season.
Rickie Fowler has been around the 25th best golfer in the world over this span in terms of his pure performance. He’s won once in 128 events – a winning percentage of less than 1% – about the level achieved by Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia, but lower than almost everyone who has played as well as he has since 2010.
Let’s look deeper at what it takes to win on Tour.
Introducing Expected Wins
For pretty much every top level tour pro, winning each week is the goal, as unrealistic as that is. However, the probability of winning fluctuates each week due to a number of factors unique to each tournament – course set-up, weather, but most importantly, the quality of other golfers in the field. This is intuitive; we shouldn’t expect a player to have the same probability of winning the US Open as the following week at the Travelers – mostly because the US Open field includes every other top level player while the Travelers field might only include a 15-20 of the top 50 players in the world.
To illustrate the differences, I’ve included a chart of the 2nd place performance in PGA Tour events since 2010 broken down by the type of field. The winners of each event had to beat that particular score to win. Collectively, the stronger fielded events – the majors, the World Golf Championship events, the Playoff events, and the Players Championship – required the winners to play at a higher level than the regular fielded events – despite many of them having smaller fields. There was also a substantial difference in difficulty between normal events, with the fall events being significantly easier to win than the early or mid-season events.
Pretty much everything I’ve said so far is uncontroversial. I think everyone understands that winning the majors/WGCs requires a performance that goes beyond that required to win a normal PGA Tour event. When you get the best in the world together in one event, the chances of someone producing four great rounds in row is much higher than for a weaker field. What I’m interested in is: what is the probability of winning an average PGA Tour tournament given a certain level of performance in terms of strokes/round better than the field. That is, if a golfer plays 3.5 strokes/round better than the field, what is the chance that performance is good enough to win an average event? Using this information I can then put a number on how many wins a golfer deserved based on their performances in a season.
What I like about this expected wins number is that it ignores the quality of the field and it ignores outlier performances (like Martin Kaymer or Rory McIlroy’s US Open wins where they absolutely blitzed the field). It’s tough to fault a golfer who is consistently finishing near the top of very strong events or who plays very well in an event but loses to one of those rare times a guy just goes off and destroys everyone. What this method rewards is guys who deliver elite level tournament performances, no matter whether they win or finish 4th in a very strong field.
To answer this question, I collected all tournament performances on the PGA Tour for the past seven seasons (2008-2014). I then ran a logistic regression with the dependent variable as tournament wins and the independent variable as strokes/round better or worse than the field. For those who are unfamiliar with a logistic regression, it attempts to find the relationship between some data (strokes/round vs. field) and a binomial outcome (whether a player wins or does not win a tournament). In other words, given a certain level of performance, what’s the probability of that performance earning a win? I’ve included a graph of the results below.
Interpret this as when a Tour pro plays three strokes/round better than the field, they normally win less than 10% of the time. That performance is rarely enough, but against certain weaker fields occasionally earns the player a win. If a pro plays four strokes/round better than the field, they normally win around 50% of the time. Four strokes/round is usually enough to win most regular Tour events. Playing over five strokes/round better than the field – approximately what Martin Kaymer did at last year’s US Open – is almost certain to produce a victory (95%+).
Applying the Results to Rickie Fowler’s Career
Using the expected wins formula introduced above I can find the probability that Rickie Fowler deserved to win an average PGA Tour event, based on his performance in each week of his career. This exercise assumes that he’s playing an average Tour event each week – something like the Houston Open or Torrey Pines. The chart below is every tournament where my numbers gave Fowler at least a 10% chance of deserving to win an average tournament.
Fowler has played well enough to win plenty of events during his five seasons on Tour, but he has had a curious tendency to play his best tournaments in the strongest fielded events. We’re all familiar with his top five finishes in every major last season – he had a 74% chance of earning a win based on his Open Championship play and 42% chance of earning a win based on his play at Valhalla in the PGA Championship – but my numbers also indicate he was very deserving of a win at the 2011 WGC-Bridgestone (62%) and 2010 Memorial (65%) – both of which have very strong fields. His victory at the Wells Fargo event in 2012 was actually only his fifth best tournament of his career (and also against a strong field).
If Rickie Fowler had played as well in some events with weaker fields – the St. Jude Classic or Humana Challenge for example – as he did in those events above he would likely have 2-3 more PGA Tour wins. In fact, you can see the difference easily when I compare his results to Ryan Moore’s results. Ryan Moore has been pretty similar in performance to Fowler in the past five seasons, but looking at the chart below Moore has played his best tournaments in weaker events – Las Vegas, CIMB in Malaysia, Travelers, etc. This has earned him four wins in his career despite not playing any better than Fowler overall.
For everyone wondering why Rickie Fowler hasn’t won more often on Tour, it’s actually a pretty easy answer. He’s played really good golf overall, but most of his great tournament performances have been in the strongest events – events where there are other great golfers turning in great performances. In his five best tournaments where he didn’t earn the victory, he lost to Rory McIlroy (twice), Matt Kuchar, Justin Rose, and Adam Scott. In short, Rickie is doing exactly what golf fans want the best players to do: play well in the best events and duel with the best players. If Rickie keeps up the kind of golf he played last year I think he’ll come out on top of more of those duels in the coming years.