The Nationwide Tour Championship is one of the most pressure-packed events on the PGA Tour.
You make it into the top-25, you get your card. You come up short, it’s back to the Nationwide Tour.
Aside from all the non-monetary aspects like achieving a dream of making the PGA Tour, and the sponsorship opportunities for being a PGA pro, it’s basically a $400,000 dollar bonus in earnings for making the tour. Over the past two years, the average money earned for players who fall into “The 25” the next year is around $560,000. For those who fall from 26-60, its around $155,000 made the next year.
That’s a lot of money for someone who has been touring the country in a beat-up Honda Civic.
So, with all those consequences in mind, does it really affect play at the Nationwide Tour Championship?
To take a look into this, I gave each player a pressure rating based on the above numbers. I struggled to come up with a system to accurately account for pressure, but I ended up using a ranking that accounted for how close a player was to 50-50. So the players with a 50-50 chance would be under the most pressure, while the players with 100% or 0% chances of earning their tour card would be under the most.
Overall, there wasn’t much connection:
At last week’s tour championship it really didn’t matter how much on the line your tour card was, players basically played to their average. However, I wanted break it down a little further to determine.
The first was simply averaging out the players scores based on two simple criteria: You’re guaranteed a card prior to the round, or you’re not.
CARD NOT AT STAKE:
90 of the 236 rounds at Daniel Island were played with a tour card determined. Sixty-eight after the card had been clinched, 22 after there was 0 chance in 50,000 tries of earning a card. Not surprisingly the players who clinched a tour card were on average -.09 standard deviations better than the field over two years. They played about -.07 standard deviations better than the field at the Tour Championship, so basically average.
The players who played rounds with no shot were—again, obviously—worse than average for this field. They came into the tournament about .12 standard deviations worse than average and played the Tour Championship at .01 standard deviations worse than the field.
What does that all mean, not much really. In 68 rounds that were guaranteed with a tour card performance fell in the 44th-percentile. For those with no shot, it looks like they played a lot better, but there were only 22 rounds all week with no shot. So, they were in the 70th-percentile, well within one standard deviation of the mean.
CARD NOT GUARANTED:
There were 146 rounds play this week with a tour card in jeopardy. These players were slightly worse than average coming into the week at .02 standard deviations worse than the field. This group slightly under-performed for the week at an average round of .04. That falls around the 40th percentile in 146 rounds, still well within one standard deviation of the mean.
You could argue, looking at this, that there was a slight effect for being under pressure. However, I think the easiest solution here is just randomness. I’m sure if you looked at more NW Tour Championships the data it would probably even out.
Of course, one flaw that seems somewhat likely considering the PGA Tour keeps putting up awful “projections” that players really have no idea where they currently stand. This is quite possible.
Overall, though, it doesn’t seem likely that pressure actually affected performance this week. If you cherry pick a few players you can probably find some instances that looked like* pressure wilted a player, but yet again it seems like on the average nerves don’t have much of an impact.
*I’m not trying to say this doesn’t exist. I’m saying that it’s incredibly hard to prove. Sure it may exist, and some players may certainly choke, while others thrive, but the data is so limited that most of the time people are probably just fooled by randomness.