A thumping win in a highly unpredictable tournament

BY THE TIME the last players were finishing their rounds, the winner of the 2016 Ryder Cup was already known. Team USA had not fallen behind their European opponents at any point during the three-day competition at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota. The tournament is decided using match-play rules, whereby players score points for the number of holes in which they beat their opponents. The Americans established a healthy lead on Friday and Saturday in the foursomes (featuring two opposing pairs, each with a single ball that they take turns to hit) and fourballs (where each player has his own ball). They sealed victory on Sunday with three singles matches remaining. 

The final score, with one point awarded for a win and half a point for a draw in each match, was an emphatic 17-11. It was a cathartic success for the Americans. Before last weekend they had triumphed in the prestigious biannual contest just once in the 21st century, and had formed a special “Ryder Cup Task Force” to redress that poor return. European blushes were spared by Martin Kaymer’s late rally which prevented the Americans from collecting an 18th point, something they have not achieved since 1981.

To many spectators—especially the home fans, who roared their side to victory (and irked a few European players in the process)—the margin of the win must have seemed to be a fair reflection of Team USA’s dominance. The Americans collected all four points on the opening morning, the first time that they had “sweeped” a single session in 35 years. The home side’s confidence was embodied by Patrick Reed, the brawny fist-pumping Texan who beat Rory McIlroy, Europe’s strongest player, in Sunday’s opening game.

But though the score will mean that this year’s edition goes down in the history books as a thrashing, it hides how close the 2016 Ryder Cup was, according to Mark Broadie, a professor at of business at Columbia University who invented some of the most used metrics in modern golf analytics (notably “total shots gained”, an average of how much better a player is than the field). Mr Broadie remarked that many of the results at Hazeltine could have gone the other way: 23 of the 28 ties were still undecided as the competitors approached the 16th green, a proportion that has only been exceeded once in the last three decades.  

His end-of-session forecasts, which were based on total-shots-gained ratings for each player, gave the Europeans a 35% chance of retaining the trophy midway through Saturday, after they had cut Team USA’s early four-point lead (4-0) back to a single score (6.5-5.5).  Even on Sunday, when the Europeans needed a comeback akin to the “Miracle at Medinah” to get to 14 points—enough to tie, which would see them keep the cup—Mr Broadie reckoned they had a one-in-five shot.

The Ryder Cup, it turns out, is highly prone to randomness. The singles matches are easiest to predict since they involve a straight head-to-head contest. You will need luck to pick a winner though. Since 1987, when the world rankings system was first introduced, the better-rated player has won just 52% of the available singles points. Perhaps these rankings are a better indicator of form than class. But experience—defined here as the number of points earned in previous Ryder Cups—also seems to give only a slight advantage. In the same period, the player with the better past record collected just 54% of the available points.

This is not to say that form and experience are worthless. 15th Club, a golf analytics firm that advised Team Europe at Hazeltine, has revealed that both world rankings and past Ryder-Cup success are statistically significant predictors of victory in individual matches. But golf, as any Sunday hacker or polished putter knows, is rarely the same from one day to the next. A champion on the front nine can look like a chump while playing back towards the clubhouse. Mr McIlroy, a four-time major winner, will not always have a better round than Mr Reed, who has never finished in the top ten at a major tournament.

Match play adds an extra element of uncertainty, since the tactics are different from stroke play. In the Ryder Cup, a player who shanks his first shot will risk everything on his second in the hope of catching up to his opponent. This turns each match into an 18-hole shootout that rarely has a runaway favourite. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the most decorated players in the 21st century, have taken less than half of the available points in such matches (see chart). Few competitors maintain a rate of more than 60% over a lengthy career; only the late Arnold Palmer has surpassed 70%. 

It gets trickier. If singles results are hard to forecast, then fourballs and foursomes are even tougher: how good is a pair with one world-beater and one journeyman? Furthermore, the details of who will be playing whom are only released hours before each session. When searching for an overall winner, should you put your money on the team with the most top-ranked players? That would not be a great long-term strategy: the side with the most members in the top 20 has lost nine times in 15 since the rankings were introduced. Betting on the team with the fewest rookies is not an appealing option either. You would have lost six wagers out of the last 15.

This unpredictability, in addition to the aggressive shot selection and tribal atmosphere, makes the Ryder Cup special. It is rare that you see a scoreboard as lopsided as the one at Hazeltine: Team USA made several important putts and thoroughly deserved to win. But the feeling that any individual match—and often the entire tournament—hangs in the balance is intoxicating. It will be a long two years until it comes around again.


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