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Antinomy

Evaluating Tournament Difficulty

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I don't play golf.  I watch is casually (I find it restful), and I have a bit of a mathy streak.  Has anyone figured out a way to evaluate how much more difficult it is to win a major vs. a typical weekly PGA Tour tournament?  Obviously, the majors tend to have almost all of the best players in the world contending, whereas the week-in-week-out tournaments only have a fraction of them.

I've looked at the way the Official Golf World Ranking awards points.  It doesn't strike me as irrational, but it is ad hoc.  Has anyone come up with a more rigorous method?  For example, is there any way to determine mathematically that winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational twice is about as hard as, say, winning the U.S. Open once?

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I would say that there are a lot of normal Tournys that are more difficult than some majors.

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Winning a major is always tougher because its harder to get into them, and the field is always stacked. Also the course is more difficult and favors the veterans who know the ins and outs. If youre some rookie you ain't got a chance, unless you are a prodigy like tiger or Rory.
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I don't play golf.  I watch is casually (I find it restful), and I have a bit of a mathy streak.  Has anyone figured out a way to evaluate how much more difficult it is to win a major vs. a typical weekly PGA Tour tournament?  Obviously, the majors tend to have almost all of the best players in the world contending, whereas the week-in-week-out tournaments only have a fraction of them. I've looked at the way the Official Golf World Ranking awards points.  It doesn't strike me as irrational, but it is ad hoc.  Has anyone come up with a more rigorous method?  For example, is there any way to determine mathematically that winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational twice is about as hard as, say, winning the U.S. Open once?

Short answer: yes, the World Golf Ranking points system is a bit arbitrary, but no, nobody has come up with anything better. It automatically awards the winner of a major 100 points, and the winner of the Players Championship 80 points. For all other PGA events, the number of points is calculated by a formula based on the world rankings of the players in the field, with a maximum possible 80 points, and a minimum of 24 points. So by that system, a major is worth about 1.3 times as much as a WGC, about 1.5 times as much as a very strong regular event like the Arnold Palmer or Memorial, about 2 times as much as a fairly strong event like the Honda, almost 3 times as much as a weak event like the John Deere, and over four times as much as events played the same week as a major or WGC, like the Reno-Tahoe. It's miles ahead of more simplistic systems like the points system used by the PGA of America to determine the Player of the Year, which says any major is worth at least three of any non-major, or the World Golf Hall of Fame, which implies a major is worth five non-majors, regardless of how weak the major is, or how strong the regular event is. Since you're just a casual viewer, you should know that all majors are not equally strong. The US and British Opens have 150+ players in the field, with around 130+ of them being world class players, plus some amateurs and legacy champs. But the Masters typically has only 90-odd players in the field (just 88 in 2002), including several amateurs, old timers, and affirmative action Asian players, so it may have no more than 75-80 world class players --- about the same as a stroke play WGC. The majors have evolved quite a bit over the years. Today, the PGA Championship has over 130 world class players, and 20-odd club pros. But in the 1960's, believe it or not, it typically had 110+ club pros, and just 50+ touring pros. Even Jack Nicklaus called that distribution "absurd and unfortunate." Some of the older Masters had less than 50 players in the field. And for several decades, ending probably in the late 70's, the British Open had weaker fields than most regular PGA events today. When Gary Player won his first Open in 1959, there were just three Americans in the field --- one amateur, one senior, and one club pro. Not a single world class US player. There were less than a dozen Americans in the field all through the 60's, when Arnie, Gary, and Jack were piling up wins and top tens. And this was at a time when probably at least 60 of the top 100 players in the world were Americans. So yeah, if you look at the number of world class players in the field, the majors today are just four of about a dozen events each year with 70 or more of the world's top 100 in the field, and many regular events today have more world class players in the field than most of the majors played before the mid-70's, at least. But there are intangibles. The pressure in a major today is higher than in any other event, because winning a major is not just a win over a strong field, it's fame and fortune forever. It is MUCH harder to win two WGCs the same year than one major --- we've had something like 19 different major winners in the last five years, while only one player in history has won two WGCs in the same year --- but a first time major winner will still get more ink and endorsements and appearances on Letterman than the first guy not named Tiger to win two WGCs the same year. Again, that is a modern phenomenon, the result of decades of hype since TV discovered Arnold Palmer. Before Arnie, the British Open was so lightly regarded that not only did very few Americans play it, the PGA didn't even bother to schedule around it, so you had fiascoes like 1953, when the PGA and Open overlapped. Something like that happening today is inconceivable. Majors are the biggest events in the golf world for the foreseeable future. But you never know --- if the Olympics causes a crash golf talent development program in China, Russia, and India, and 30 years from now, six of the top ten golfers in the world are Asians, and they play the five WGCs held in Asia and skip some of the majors, the pendulum might swing back. But for now, the intense pressure of the majors makes them harder to win --- at least, for many players. Even Tiger seems to be buckling under the weekend pressure lately, although that may just be coincidence, because nobody plays great every week. But there's another side to that coin. The more players who fold under pressure at majors, the easier it is for the rest of them to win one. A guy like Dufner, who just seems to have been born with a super low key personality, might find majors easier to win than a regular event, because so many other players are too tense. Jack Nicklaus famously said that in a major, he only needed to worry about a few guys, because the others would beat themselves. And that seems to be the way it worked for Tiger, before his world fell apart. From the day he turned pro until the day he hit the hydrant, Tiger played in 239 official PGA events, including 50 majors and 30 WGCs, leaving 159 "regular" events. He won 41 of the 159 regular events, or 25.8%. He won 14 of the 50 majors, or 28.0 %. He won 16 of the 30 WGCs, or 53.3%. In other words, the majors were easier for him to win than regular tour events. The WGCs were MUCH easier to win than regular tour events, which shows that doubling the size of the field doubles the difficulty of the event, even if all the extra players are second or third tier. In debates about Tiger vs Jack, the Jack side will sometimes concede that the middle of the pack is better today, but then claim it doesn't matter, because the middle of the pack doesn't win majors. But the thing is, the lower tier players DO win majors --- lots of them. In the four years 2009-2012, the average world ranking of the major winners was 45, and there were three outside the top 100. And that is skewed by the Masters, which has such a small field and high bar for entry that not may players ranked between 50 and 100 are in the field. Even so, the average world ranking of the Masters champs during that period was 29. Today, anybody who plays his way into a major can win it.

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I don't play golf.  I watch is casually (I find it restful), and I have a bit of a mathy streak.  Has anyone figured out a way to evaluate how much more difficult it is to win a major vs. a typical weekly PGA Tour tournament?  Obviously, the majors tend to have almost all of the best players in the world contending, whereas the week-in-week-out tournaments only have a fraction of them. I've looked at the way the Official Golf World Ranking awards points.  It doesn't strike me as irrational, but it is ad hoc.  Has anyone come up with a more rigorous method?  For example, is there any way to determine mathematically that winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational twice is about as hard as, say, winning the U.S. Open once?

You'd have to compare them to some of the other top tour events. The Barclays has a pretty great field because it's the first FedExCup Playoff event, so it's got the 125 best players on the PGA Tour that year. The Players always advertises that it has the best field in golf. The Bridgestone and Cadillac both have great fields, but they're half the size of normal events. Some of the more popular events like the Memorial and Bay Hill have great fields, but not quite as deep. I don't think plotting it out would be that difficult, but it would be time-consuming.

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Thanks, brocks, that is some interesting stuff.

The shear size of the field increasing the difficulty in winning makes sense.  The more players, the greater the chance of a weaker player either getting lucky or just having a good tournament, so the results are more random.

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