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How the Ryder Cup points system overrates winning

I introduced a take on Twitter the other day. I knew it wouldn’t go well, and I did it any way. Do I regret it? No.

(Yes.)

The issue came with this tweet in particular:

Admittedly, I should have thought this through. This is Twitter, where everything exists in a vacuum, and the first responders (thank you for your service) are not going to read any of the surrounding conversation to try to understand the context before replying or before quote tweeting.

Let’s back up a bit to the beginning of the conversation:

This is not a new topic around these parts. I’ve long clamored that the points system is very arbitrary, and even did a little exercise in 2016 on how different the team would look if the system was tweaked even slightly.

Ignoring all of the tweaking that we could do to the points, let’s just look at how points are actually earned.

– 1 point per $1,000 earned in a regular PGA Tour event

– 2 points per $1,000 earned for the winner of a major

– 1.5 points per $1,000 earned for all others to make the cut at The Masters; U.S. Open; Open Championship; PGA Championship.

We know how purses work on the PGA Tour. Giant checks are handed out to the guys that win tournaments, and exponentially smaller checks get handed out to the runner up and everyone else that made the cut. It’s what helps make the PGA Tour exciting. If the difference between the winner and the runner up was $50,000, it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting to turn into an event on Sunday. Sports are for entertainment, and I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that payouts for PGA Tour events should be different.

But tying the points system to this very very, very top-heavy purse system does not accurately reflect who has actually performed the best over the course of a season. 

In comes Jake Nichols, who helped spark the eventual fire in the mentions. Jake is a friend of the pod, and is one of the smartest people I’ve encountered in golf. His ability to think outside the box when it comes to golf analytics has helped shape my understanding of the game.

Simply put, when Jake disagrees with me on something, I know I’m wrong.

The line in there that triggered the discussion was “anything that puts Bubba’s 2018 above Finau’s is broken.” Bubba, having won three times this year, would appear on the surface to have easily had a more successful season than Finau. Let’s break down why this is not necessarily the case.

Winning on the PGA Tour

I’m separating this part out, because I want to make this as clear as possible.

If I am a player on the PGA Tour, I would take Bubba Watson’s season over Tony Finau’s 100 times out of 100. Winning is incredibly, incredibly hard, and winners get rewarded handsomely. Bubba has earned more money, more world rankings points, and more FedExCup ranking points. Hit and miss guys strike it rich on the PGA Tour, because a win and five missed cuts means more than six straight 10th-place finishes.

To be clear, no one is saying that they would trade Finau’s season for Bubba’s.

(But please do note that I have not used the word better yet.)

The Tweet

One of my many regrets here is how I phrased it. The “without a doubt” part is what seemed to really aggravate people. Add that to the fact that this position needs a lot more explaining than Twitter allows, and maybe the take did deserve to be called “the dumbest thing I’ve ever read on the internet” and for me to personally be called Skip Bayless.

Again taking what I said above, and repurposing it here:

If I am a player on the PGA Tour, I would take Bubba Watson’s season over Tony Finau’s 100 times out of 100.

Tony Finau has played better golf than Bubba has over the course of this season.

Strap in!

It’s actually not even that close. Now, the wise Jake Nichols is the one that began this Finau vs. Watson debate in the first place. I’m not necessarily advocating for Tony to be on the team, but I believe he chose this as the biggest outlier in actual performance on the course compared to how the players were rewarded from a points perspective.

Golfweek’s Sagarin rankings are the best “power rankings” in the current golf landscape, in my amateur opinion. They’re what we would want the Official World Golf Rankings to be. They’re a measure of how often you are beating your peers, and they even separate out your W/L record against top 10 players, top 50 players, and top 100 players (with the idea that you are playing 155 players individually every time you tee it up). In this scenario, beating every player in the field (which Bubba has done three times this year) is great! But missing cuts is also punished greatly, as you are also losing to every player who made the cut, and anyone else that finished above you. The system essentially measures your average finish, and it’s a true measure of how you are performing against your peers and how often you are beating them on the golf course.

Let’s again go back to the root of this discussion, which is the formulation of a Ryder Cup team based on a points system. The Ryder Cup is a match play event. For a match play event, you do not have to be better than every player in the field that week. You just need to be better than your opponent on that day. The Sagarin rankings are a measure of how often a player has been better than their opponents (every other player in the field) over the course of an entire year.

Of course there are variables here. The Sagarin rankings are based on the stroke play events that the pros play week in and week out, and there are strategical elements of match play that are not on display. Additionally, you cannot see everything your “opponent” is doing, you’re not able to react to it, etc. It’s far from a perfect evaluator, but it’s the best one that we have, and it’s a hell of a lot better than the current arbitrary points system.

The Numbers

The Sagarin system ranks Tony Finau as the 13th best player in the world. It ranks Bubba Watson 47th. The breakdown by category is even more damning:

Win % vs top 10 players: Finau: 45% Bubba: 32%

Win % vs top 50 players: Finau: 57% Bubba: 42%

Win % vs top 100 players: Finau: 63% Bubba: 46%

Win % vs all players: Finau 76%, Bubba 60%

For the purposes of this exercise, we can safely ignore the bottom two numbers. Although Europe likely will have 1-2 players from outside the top-50 in the Sagarin rankings on their team (yikes), what we’re most concerned with is performance against the top players that a player is likely to face in the team event (which makes the top 50 and top 10 numbers more relevant).

Let’s look at some other stats.

Strokes Gained:

Finau: 1.225 (22nd)

Bubba: 0.714 (48th)

Scoring average:

Finau: 69.68 (12th)

Bubba:  70.40 (51st)

Cuts:

Finau: 21/24 (87.5%)

Bubba: 15/20 (75%)

Top-10:

Finau: 8/24 (33.3%)

Bubba: 5/20 (25%)

Head-to-Head:

Bubba and Finau have teed it up in the same event 14 times this year. Finau has finished higher than Bubba in seven of them, Bubba higher in six of them, and they tied one.

In the nine events they have played together since the Masters, Finau has finished higher than Bubba in seven of them, Bubba higher in one of them, and the one tie (the Players Championship).

Summary

For a team event, consistently beating your peers is way, way, way more important than showing the ability to beat ALL of your peers in a given week (while being unable to consistently grind out good finishes). Why would it make sense to point out Bubba’s three best performances, and ignore his three worst? Which one is more likely to occur? Statistically, they have the same likelihood of occurring if we’re considering random chance.

Now consider that two of Bubba’s wins this year came on courses he’s won on before. How likely is he to replicate those performances this year in France on a course he’s only played once (and did not like)? Add in that he’s got a 1-6 Ryder Cup record on foreign soil and is famously tough to pair with, and the U.S. is bringing along a guy likely wouldn’t be on the team were it not for this points system.

For my money, give me the most consistent performers in relation to their peers. And if it came down to it, between these two, I’m taking Finau every day of the week.

About the Author

Inventor of #TourSauce, always waits for the green to clear, and club twirl savant.

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