Rickie Fowler is good, but how good?

It doesn’t take long starting at this weeks Fill-in-the-blank-sponsor-who-won’t-be-still-sponsoring-this-garbage-fall-series-event-in-two-years-Fall-Series-event to see what the elephant in the room is.

“Rickie Fowler +1015”

That’s right. Rickie Fowler, with 126 rounds on the major professional tours, is favored over a slightly below average field on the PGA Tour.

There was a time when I would just call this insane and think nothing of it. However, let’s try to look at why Rickie Fowler really isn’t that good.

To be honest, there are a lot of unknowns about Rickie. He hasn’t played a ton of rounds on the PGA Tour and he’s young. How do we account for an actual skill and potential upside?

Luckily, Golfweek has the Sagarin ratings for College players*. This is a pretty good objective judge of players.

*Based on their PGA Tour rankings, I’d say the SOS is a little off and using win % against other players then converting that to a score is good to rank players but is not a great indication of the true difference between players.

Next, I went back and looked at how rookies have fared in their first season on a major tour**.

**I defined a rookie year as the first season with over 39 rounds played on a major tour without having played more than 40 total rounds on the major tours in previous years.

Fowler, in fact, is in pretty good company for a young player. There were only 27 players, in the past 10 years, that have appeared in Golfweek’s Sagarin college top-10 in multiple seasons. You would probably recognize the names of Anthony Kim, Dustin Johnson, Lucas Glover, Luke Donald, Hunter Mahan, Ryan Moore, Rickie Fowler, Camilo Villegas, Nick Watney, Oliver Wilson and Rhys Davies among them.

Fowler has also had a good start to his PGA Tour career. From 2005-2009 there were 89 players that made their major tour debut-under my definition-and had at least one season in the Sagarin college rankings. Fowler’s 2010 rookie season (Although 30 rounds in 2009 is probably a big advantage for him) would rank third behind only Sean O’Hair and Anthony Kim.
So, there is no doubt that Fowler has been really good this year. However, to be favored in this event, there has to be a pretty high upside for Rickie. Looking at comparable players has that been the case?

Starting with all college players in 2005, who registered rounds for the next 5 years, here is a look at the progression in average score. There turned out to be 7 players who came from the college ranks in 2005, that stuck around until 2010. (Charlie Wi, Martin Laird, Camilo Villegas, Sean O’Hair, Chris Nallen, Ryan Moore, Peter Tomasulo)

As you can see, there is some progression from this 2005*** group. But, that’s only seven players, two of which Villegas,O’Hair are clearly top-20 players in the world. That’s probably an outlier as is the fact that Moore, Nallen and Laird all had very above average season.

***I used 2005 to start because this was the first year that I had a good sample going forward and the Sagarin ratings had a good sample going backward.

To check this out I combined it with other classes (Year 0=rookie year):

This gives Rickie a modest boost for upside around .05 standard deviations. Certainly, that falls short of Vegas’ expectations, but does allow some room for growth.

What happens if we get more specific and take the ten most similar rookie seasons to Rickie Fowler:
Anthony Kim, Sean O’Hair, Ryan Moore, Webb Simpson, Kevin Streelman, Steve Marino, Derek Lamely, Brendan Todd, Daniel Summerhays, Alejandro Canizares and Jeff Overton:

This supports the possible theory that players that are good in their first year on tour are in some part lucky. On average, the guys with great rookie seasons actually regressed in year 1 and 2. After Year 3, I wouldn’t put too much weight in this chart as the players from the classes with more than 3 years are Ryan Moore, Steve Marino, Jeff Overton and Sean O’Hair who all turned into really good players in 2009 and 2010.

It’s important to remember where Rickie Fowler falls in all this. He is one of a small group of players who posted two really good college seasons. He came out onto the PGA Tour and put together a really good rookie season. There is no doubt that he is good. Just not favored over a field that includes Watney, Mahan and Kim to name a few.

As far as conclusive evidence towards a possible upside, there really is not too much with the limited rankings I have. When you look at the big picture of players there is probably some evidence to slight improvements in the sophomore season, but it’s not much. I’d have to say my rankings are pretty fair on Rickie Fowler.

That means 10-1 to win isn’t.


Nick Watney 8.57% 1067
Hunter Mahan 6.98% 1333
Kevin Na 5.94% 1584
Charley Hoffman 5.70% 1653
Anthony Kim 5.68% 1661
Steve Marino 4.88% 1948
Rickie Fowler 4.71% 2023
Bryce Molder 3.99% 2408
Paul Goydos 3.49% 2767
Rory Sabbatini 3.41% 2833
Stephen Ames 3.28% 2950
Brian Gay 3.14% 3089
Davis Love III 3.10% 3121
Kevin Sutherland 2.83% 3435


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  1. N.

    Interesting post. But I’d say Rickie Fowler is a better player than you think:

    In the “comparable” graph, the uptick you see after the rookie season is caused by a bunch of mediocre players having good enough rookie seasons to qualify for your rankings, and subsequently regressing back to their skill level. But I don’t think Rickie Fowler falls into the same category as many of “Webb Simpson, Kevin Streelman, Steve Marino, Derek Lamely, Brendan Todd, Daniel Summerhays, Alejandro Canizares and Jeff Overton” because

    1. Rickie had a great, great college career. This lowers the chance of his rookie year being an anomaly.

    2. Rickie went *right to the big stage* after college and performed well immediately. In 2009, straight out of college, he played one Nationwide Tour event and placed 2nd. He also played in a few PGA Tour events, earning a runner-up finish and a top ten. His short 2009 season was impressive, because he managed a couple runner up finishes in just a few starts, and decreases the chance of his 2010 season being an anomaly.

    Just look at Rickie’s OWGR: it’s 31st, despite ZERO wins and mediocre performance in the majors. It’s because he’s never gone through a long bad stretch. Right out of college, he just played well. This makes him more like AK (who had a runner up finish in one of his first couple Tour events) and less like Steve (who didn’t manage to crack the top 100 on the OWGR until a few seasons in the PGA Tour and previous work on the Nationwide Tour).

    [Yes, I do know Steve is underrated.]

  2. I’d put Watney, Mahan, Na and Hoffman (like above) ahead of him for now, though its worth mentioning that Fowler was probably better than all of them at 22.

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