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Jordan Spieth’s Collapse Also Required A Great Comeback

Few sports offer as much potential for dramatic, heartbreaking collapse as golf. Jordan Spieth learned as much on Sunday:

Spieth isn’t the first golfer to experience an unceremonious meltdown on Sunday at a major championship; YouTube is littered with the bones of players snatching ignominy from the jaws of victory. That doesn’t make it any less jarring to see a player as good as Spieth, leading by 5 midway through the Masters’ final round, fresh off of one of the greatest seasons at the majors in modern history last year, fall apart in such spectacular fashion. And that he was beaten by Danny Willett, who had just one career top-10 finish at a major before this week, made Spieth’s defeat all the more stunning.

In measuring Spieth’s performance in majors last year, I used “major shares,” a statistic that estimates how many majors a player would have been expected to win given his scoring relative to the field average in past majors. Fractional “shares” of wins accumulate over time for good players; the number is nailed right around zero for the also-rans. Going into the Masters, Spieth had 1.48 career major shares,1 the 10th-most of any active player; Willett, on the other hand, had 0.01 major shares. That difference, 1.47 major shares, was the 17th-biggest disparity in résumés between a major’s third-round leader and the player who eventually overtook him since 1958.2 In other words, there have been less likely candidates to come from behind, but not many.

LEADER THROUGH 3 RDS EVENTUAL WINNER
YEAR MAJOR PLAYER MAJOR SHARES PLAYER MAJOR SHARES DIFF
1977 British Jack Nicklaus 12.50 Tom Watson 0.85 11.65
2009 PGA Tiger Woods 10.85 Y.E. Yang 0.00 10.85
1971 Masters Jack Nicklaus 7.29 Charles Coody 0.09 7.20
2009 British Tom Watson 5.98 Stewart Cink 0.37 5.61
1987 U.S. Tom Watson 5.48 Scott Simpson 0.04 5.44
2013 U.S. Phil Mickelson 4.58 Justin Rose 0.24 4.34
1983 U.S. Tom Watson 4.44 Larry Nelson 0.70 3.73
2006 U.S. Phil Mickelson 3.45 Geoff Ogilvy 0.03 3.43
1984 British Tom Watson 5.33 Seve Ballesteros 2.05 3.28
2008 British Greg Norman 3.45 P. Harrington 0.34 3.12
1995 U.S. Greg Norman 3.23 Corey Pavin 0.24 2.99
1993 PGA Greg Norman 2.92 Paul Azinger 0.48 2.43
1985 Masters Raymond Floyd 2.22 Bernhard Langer 0.25 1.97
1987 Masters Ben Crenshaw 1.84 Larry Mize 0.02 1.81
1990 Masters Raymond Floyd 2.66 Nick Faldo 1.05 1.61
1986 PGA Greg Norman 1.60 Bob Tway 0.02 1.58
2016 Masters Jordan Spieth 1.48 Danny Willett 0.01 1.47
1978 PGA Tom Watson 1.78 John Mahaffey 0.53 1.25
2012 U.S. Jim Furyk 1.25 Webb Simpson 0.00 1.25
1989 Masters Ben Crenshaw 2.09 Nick Faldo 0.85 1.24
Biggest major upsets since 1958

SourceS: ESPN, Yahoo

Considering Spieth’s immense potential, the difference between the two golfers would likely have been even higher if Willett had pulled this upset later in Spieth’s career. Spieth is no Tiger Woods, but before Sunday, he’d developed a reputation for steadiness, particularly in majors. After he birdied the ninth hole on Sunday to go up 5 strokes, a third major — and second Green Jacket — in the span of 12 months seemed imminent. (Ken Pomeroy — who maintains a golf win probability feed on Twitter in addition to his indispensable college basketball stats site — gave Spieth a 92 percent chance of winning at that point.) Then, a pair of bogeys to give a few strokes back. Then, quadruple-bogey.

But epic collapses such as Spieth’s are often accompanied by incredible comebacks. And for all the water-cooler chatter about Spieth’s disastrous final trip through Augusta’s back nine, Willett also had to play tremendous golf over the weekend, particularly on Sunday. In the final 36 holes of the tournament, Willett outplayed the field average by 9.4 strokes, the ninth-best weekend enjoyed by any Masters winner since 1958. And 5.7 of those strokes were gained against the field in Round 4 alone, representing the eighth-best final round performance by a winner since ’58.

STROKES GAINED AGAINST FIELD
YEAR PLAYER R1 R2 R3 R4 WEEKEND TOTAL
1965 Jack Nicklaus +4.1 +2.9 +9.1 +4.6 +13.7 +20.7
1997 Tiger Woods +3.7 +5.8 +7.2 +4.2 +11.5 +21.0
1978 Gary Player +1.2 -0.4 +3.1 +8.2 +11.3 +12.1
1990 Nick Faldo +1.1 +0.9 +6.6 +4.2 +10.8 +12.8
1985 Bernhard Langer +1.2 -1.3 +6.0 +4.8 +10.8 +10.6
2010 Phil Mickelson +3.9 +1.5 +5.6 +4.9 +10.5 +16.0
1994 Jose Maria Olazabal -0.8 +5.0 +5.4 +4.9 +10.3 +14.5
2011 Charl Schwartzel +2.0 -0.5 +4.1 +5.7 +9.8 +11.3
2016 Danny Willett +2.3 -0.3 +3.7 +5.7 +9.4 +11.5
2005 Tiger Woods -1.2 +6.2 +7.2 +2.2 +9.4 +14.4
Best weekend performances at Augusta, 1958-2016
STROKES GAINED AGAINST FIELD
YEAR PLAYER R1 R2 R3 R4 WEEKEND TOTAL
1978 Gary Player +1.2 -0.4 +3.1 +8.2 +11.3 +12.1
1959 Art Wall +0.8 -1.6 +1.8 +7.4 +9.2 +8.4
1967 Gay Brewer +0.6 +5.1 +1.7 +7.2 +8.9 +14.6
1986 Jack Nicklaus -0.6 +1.3 +2.0 +7.0 +9.0 +9.7
1996 Nick Faldo +2.1 +4.8 +0.8 +6.7 +7.5 +14.3
1989 Nick Faldo +5.3 +1.3 -2.9 +6.7 +3.8 +10.3
1973 Tommy Aaron +6.0 -0.5 +0.2 +6.1 +6.3 +11.8
2016 Danny Willett +2.3 -0.3 +3.7 +5.7 +9.4 +11.5
2011 Charl Schwartzel +2.0 -0.5 +4.1 +5.7 +9.8 +11.3
1995 Ben Crenshaw +0.7 +3.5 +2.3 +5.3 +7.7 +11.9
Best Sundays at Augusta, 1958-2016

The quality (or lack thereof) with which Spieth hit the ball at the 12th hole was shocking, but Willett’s weekend charge was also pretty historic. It took a combination of the two to generate a Green Jacket ceremony this awkward:

Footnotes

  1. A few notes, since I tweaked the methodology a bit since last season: Instead of using z-scores, I’m now basing major shares on a player’s strokes above the field average in a tournament. (Research by Daniel Myers shows that converting those to z-scores needlessly adds statistical noise to a player’s rating.) I also listed two versions of major shares last season — one that adjusts for other performances in the field, one that does not — and I’ve averaged those together here.

  2. Out of the 139 instances in that span where the leader after three rounds didn’t go on to win the major.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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