FINAL ROUND PRESSURE AT A MAJOR

Rory McIlroy’s painful 80 on Sunday at Augusta was not unique.

Rory is the next in a long line of players who have crumbled in the final pairing of a major championship. Rory is also not the only “young gun” who supposedly have no fear of Tiger, or winning to falter when the pressure is on the most. Dustin Johnson and Nick Watney were equally as bad during their collapses at last year’s US Open and PGA Championship, respectively.

So, is there anything to major championship pressure or are these just outliers?

I went back and looked at every major championship since 2005* and which group a player played in in the final round and compared that with how they performed based on their average. It turns out there is a pattern. Players play a lot worse on average when in contention.

*I ignored the 2009 US Open, the 2005 Masters and the 2009 PGA where the final round pairings were not set until after the third round completed on Sunday.

Here’s the graph:

This is ranked by pairings back from the final group. So 0=the final group and -6 is would be near the end.

As you can see, there is a decent correlation between teeing off and performance relative to average. While the general trend seems to dip in the middle of pack, then rising towards the final groups, I still have some questions. In 41 rounds, players in the final pairing have played horrendously poorly. They are basically a Dustin Johnson worse than average in the final round. Players in the second- and third-to-last groups played better than the curve would suggest and the third-to-last group actually played better than average. I’m not sure how much to make of it, but I will say that over a 40ish round sample, there is still a lot of randomness that can occur.

I can’t stress how poorly the final group has played since 2005. However, I do think the pressure may be a little overrated, as the three of the five worst final round scores came since the 2010 US Open (Rory was the worst). The best final round, came from Tiger Woods in the 2006 British Open.

A couple of other notes:

  • There seems to be no correlation between a players overall skill and their performance in the final round. Tiger has played worse than average by about .1, in 8 final pairings. Phil, has played better than average in four final pairings. Unfortunately, the sample is really too small to tell if that is just luck or there is something meaningful to it.
  • It’s important to remember that even though Tiger has played worse than average in final pairings, he’s still better than all golfers with that adjustment, plus a lead. Not that his final round record does not have some luck in it, but I would estimate he probably goes 12 or 13 out of 15 on average given his overall skill and the graph above. He’s 14 for 15 with a lead in a major in his career.
  • Adam Scott and Charl Schwartzel had two of the four best final rounds, while in the final three groups this year at the Masters. Maybe that’s why the tournament was so exciting.
  • Tiger Woods is about -.05 worse than average in a final round, mostly because a surprising number of his rounds have come in the final three pairings of the day. Phil Mickelson has played about -.02 better than average on Sunday’s, but has only played 5 times in the final four groups compared to 13 times for Tiger.

I think this is a good start, but I’d like to compare this to regular tour events where it would be much easier to get a large sample size before drawing any serious conclusions.

By the way, here’s a look at the 2011 Masters with pressure factored in:

Player

total wins

odds

vegas

winning

Rory McIlroy

60.86%

-155

-130

$1.08

K.J. Choi

6.56%

1424

895

$0.65

Charl Schwartzel

5.97%

1575

1375

$0.88

Jason Day

5.92%

1589

1750

$1.10

Angel Cabrera

5.04%

1884

1300

$0.71

Luke Donald

5.04%

1884

1050

$0.58

Adam Scott

2.85%

3409

2600

$0.77

Tiger Woods

1.97%

4976

3000

$0.61

Bo Van Pelt

1.03%

9609

12000

$1.25

Bubba Watson

0.81%

12246

10000

$0.82

 

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