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Is Winning The Players Championship As Hard As Winning A Major?

There is perhaps no professional golf tournament that advertises its degree of difficulty quite as liberally as does the Players Championship. It almost reeks of a golf tournament inferiority complex. The event’s official Twitter handle advertises the “best field in golf” in its profile. And just in case you miss the profile, the account tweeted the claim here, here and here — all in the span of a few weeks.

This may come off as a desperate campaign by the PGA Tour to promote its marquee event. But it’s not inaccurate: The Players may actually have the best class of golfer from top to bottom.

This week’s tournament will be the 45th installment. Its $11 million purse is tied with that of the Masters for the second-largest on tour, behind only the U.S. Open, with the winner collecting $1.98 million. The tournament also awards 600 FedExCup points, the same number delegated to major winners. Its difficulty is infamous: Birthed from swampland nearly four decades ago, TPC Sawgrass is a mishmash of water hazards, razor-thin turns and spacious bunkers, and it boasts one of the most dramatic three-hole finishing stretches in professional golf. “You can never let up anywhere on this course,” said golfer Billy Horschel. “Nothing is easy.” And of course the 17th hole — arguably the most famous par-3 in the world — has buried many a golfer; just ask Russell Knox or Sergio Garcia.

The “fifth major” is effectively a major in every way save for classification.

Matt and Will Courchene at Data Golf sought to tackle the “best field in golf” debate with a more rigorous methodology than merely averaging world rankings. Their study compared tournament fields from the Players Championship and the four majors from 2011 to 2017.

The first step was to approximate field strength. To do so, they calculated the historical adjusted scoring average of every golfer in every field in every respective season, taking course difficulty into account — for example, playing a bogey-free round at, say, TPC Kuala Lumpur isn’t the same as playing blemish-free at Augusta National. They then scaled those numbers to express how many strokes a player is better or worse than the average PGA Tour player in 2017. So a player who was two strokes better than an average tour player in 2017 would have a mark of plus-2. This allows for a better look at comparing performance over courses and years.1

According to these metrics, the Players Championship was far and away the strongest tournament in terms of average player quality, earning the top mark in each respective season. Where it mostly separated itself is in the bottom fourth of the field. The bottom 25 percent of the field at the Players, the Courchenes found, was significantly stronger than the bottom quarter of each of the respective majors — more than a stroke better per round.

What would account for that difference? The Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open allow amateur players to qualify — which leads to stories like the one about a firefighter achieving his lifelong goal of playing in a major but also guarantees some lower scores at the bottom of the pack. The PGA Championship makes it extremely difficult for amateurs to qualify, but it does reserve 20 spots in its field for club professionals. The Masters and the PGA Championship both give their winners lifetime exemptions. At the U.S. Open, winners get a 10-year exemption; at the British Open, so long as a winner is under 60, he’s able to compete. None of that is the case at the Players, where amateurs aren’t allowed, nor are club pros or sectional qualifiers, and winners receive measly five-year exemptions.

Put another way, if there was a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately tournament in professional golf, it would be the Players, an event for which you can qualify only by generating recent success.

With an estimate of each player’s ability on hand — and an understanding of what each golfer is capable of doing on the course, using a given mean and standard deviation to guide the calculus — the folks at Data Golf then ran simulations to estimate win probabilities for each player. The average PGA Tour player had no better than a 0.18 percent win probability at each of the events from 2011 to 2017, and no top-five player had a higher win probability than in 2016, when each of the five best players on tour had a 6.44 percent win probability at the Masters.

The PGA Championship, the Courchenes found, was considered the most difficult tournament to win in five of the seven years they looked at, with an average player having a win probability of no greater than 0.12 percent in all but one year.2 In the 2013 season, the Players Championship was considered the most difficult tournament for a top-five player to win (4.55 percent). Here’s how the five tournaments stacked up in 2017:

The Players is as hard or harder to win than the majors

Simulated win probability for a top five golfer* and average PGA player at the four majors and the Players Championship in 2017

Win Probability
Event Avg. PGA player Top 5 player
PGA Championship 0.08% 5.20%
British Open 0.08 5.25
Players Championship 0.08 5.48
U.S. Open 0.13 5.60
Masters Tournament 0.10 6.02

* Average of the players with the five highest strokes-gained averages.

Source: Data Golf

While this research doesn’t cover this year’s Players Championship, the field is no less stacked. Every man who has won a major since 2013 is in Florida this week, as are 49 of the top 50 players on the current iteration of the World Golf Rankings, a notable feat considering the attrition that so often plays into tournament fields. All but one of the top 32 players in total strokes gained is in attendance, as are the top seven drivers on tour. Additionally, four players — Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth and Justin Rose — could take the world No. 1 ranking away from Dustin Johnson over the weekend; Johnson needs to finish at least in the top 11 to maintain the crown.

With arguably the most dramatic three holes in golf at the end of the course, the Players Championship should remind us again this week of how challenging this tournament is. And if you somehow forget that it showcases the strongest field in professional golf, don’t worry: The PGA Tour will find a way to remind you.

Footnotes

  1. More information on their calculus can be found here.

  2. In 2014, the average PGA Tour player had a win probability of 0.18 percent.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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