The current landscape of pro golf is disorienting. This week, there’s a bunch of great golfers playing in the LIV event in Saudi Arabia. Another crop of 78 top-level players are pegging it at the PGA Tour’s Zozo Championship in Japan. And yet another group of pros (including world No. 10 Matt Fitzpatrick) is facing off at the DP World Tour event in Spain.
To make it all a bit less dizzying, any number of questions would seem to serve as a good starting point:
So, how many of those players in Saudi Arabia are actually “elite”?
Wait, how many of those pros in Spain could legitimately win on the PGA Tour?
OK, so how many players in Japan would be considered a top-5 favorite at the other two events?
Unfortunately, the answers to all those questions are … some, not all. The best players in Japan are much better than those at the bottom of the field in Saudi Arabia. The field in Spain might be second best among the three, but it probably has the weakest depth. Yep, it’s all quite murky.
The further along we travel in this civil war — and without LIV golfers earning Official World Golf Ranking points — the harder it becomes to contextualize the merits of what’s happening in different corners of the golf world — ie, how much attention should golf fans pay to 22-year-old Eugenio Lopez-Chacarra beating the 47 other players at LIV Golf Bangkok? Or, looking down the road: If, say, Dustin Johnson wins two LIV Golf events next spring, would that be more, less or equally as impressive as Rory McIlroy winning the Genesis Invitational, historically one of the hardest tests on the PGA Tour?
What does it all mean?
Thankfully, DataGolf can serve as a great resource for those of us watching at home to understand what a victory on each Tour actually means. DataGolf specializes in many things, but appointing skill levels and win probability is something they do better than just about any other outlet. (At least publicly!) The two figures are tied to each other with a simple understanding that the higher a player’s skill rating, the higher their win probability. Skill rating, for these purposes, is a factor of how well a player has played against their competition, adjusted to the point that if you’ve played well on the PGA Tour, your skill level is going to be significantly higher than a player playing average golf on the DP World Tour, which has fewer quality players. The differences can be slight; they also can be massive.
With that in mind, DataGolf has a straightforward interpretation of how difficult it might be to win, say, LIV Golf’s event this past week in Bangkok. According to their field strength measurements, a player with the demonstrated skill level of being top 5 on the planet would, in a vacuum, be expected to win that event 11.3% of the time.
Declaration: Stick Xander Schauffele into LIV Golf’s event last week, and DataGolf would expect him to win it ONCE out of NINE tries.
That might not seem like much dominance from Schauffele, one of the best golfers on the planet, but that’s because winning a golf tournament with a solid field is not easy. Between Cam Smith, Dustin Johnson and Joaquin Niemann, LIV Golf fields boast three of DataGolf’s top 15 players in the world. Beyond that, LIV fields have about 17 of the world’s best 100 golfers. Schauele is great but he wouldn’t be whooping up on those fields nine times out of nine. Add in Rory McIlroy and Tony Finau and the law firm of McIlroy, Finau & Schauffele are going to do some damage at that hypothetical event. Simply put, they are better right now than most of the players who played in Bangkok.
Slow, predictable progress for LIV?
LIV may have a small sample size of six events, but according to DataGolf progress has been made in the quality of LIV fields, simply by how difficult it would be for a top-level pro to win. The fifth event was slightly stronger than the fourth, and the fourth was slightly stronger than the third, and so on. Of course, this starts from a weak beginning at the first event in London, where low-ranked players like Andy Ogletree, Ian Snyman and Itthipat Buranatanyarat were in the mix. At that point, a top 5 player in the world would be expected to win 19.5% of the time, nearly one in five tries. By the third event, at Trump Bedminster, in New Jersey, the probability of a top 5 player winning was down to 15.1% thanks to the additions of Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed and others.
By comparison to this metric, every standalone PGA Tour event held in 2022 had stronger fields than LIV Golf Bedminster. The John Deere Classic hosted one of its weakest fields in history this year, and a top 5 player would be expected to win the event only 14% of the time, according to DataGolf. The last few weeks have seen LIV events increase in the same win-probability difficulty, but only to the level of low-ranking PGA Tour events. For instance, this month’s Sanderson Farms Championship, in Mississippi, was the fourth-weakest field on the PGA Tour in 2022, per DataGolf. The Fortinet Championship, held in mid-September, was the fifth-weakest. The perceived difficulty to win LIV Golf’s Bangkok event would fit neatly in between both those fall-series Tour events.
Statement: LIV wins are getting slightly more impressive. They’re nowhere near the best (or the median) events on the PGA Tour, but they do line up nicely against DP World Tour tournaments.
One glaring weakness? Field-depth
An interesting scenario played out in early September, when LIV’s Boston event was played. As DataGolf tweeted out, winning that tournament was theoretically easier for an average DP World Tour player than it would be in that week’s DP World Tour event. Why? Because LIV has only 48 players in its tournaments compared to the 120-plus who typically tee it up in any PGA Tour or DP World Tour event. There are simply fewer players to beat — and from that small group there are only so many great players.
During all of its six events to this point, LIV has certainly had a dozen or more really good players. Top 100 players, if you will. That number has grown slightly over the summer, but the same fields have also maintained a steady number of weaker players, too. Phil Mickelson, despite his storied career, has been a bad golfer in 2022. There’s no other way to put it. DataGolf ranks him as No. 353 in the world right now. For Cameron Smith, a surefire top 10 player in the world, beating Mickelson across 54 holes has not been difficult. Mickelson has been consistently worse than average in his performances this summer. The same can be said for Graeme McDowell, who began his LIV Golf career ranked 202nd in the world by DataGolf. Today, he’s 283rd.
So as the steady stream of tournaments take place across the world, it’s worth asking questions like these: Lopez-Chacarra played the best golf of his life last week and for his efforts went home with a trophy and many millions of dollars — but how many great golfers did he have to beat? Relatively speaking, a couple dozen. Tom Kim’s victory in Las Vegas asked him to beat a similar level of great players, including, down the stretch, Patrick Cantlay, who DataGolf ranks as the No. 3 player in the world. Whoever wins in Japan this week will have beaten at least 30 of the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking. In short, depth matters.
Declaration: LIV still has much to prove, and it’s not clear how or when it will. Whereas part of the summer was spent wondering who would jump from the PGA Tour to LIV, a lot of dust has settled in that debate. It may be disorienting to have multiple events featuring great players taking place at once, but we now know who will be competing where. Two sides have been drawn out. To have LIV’s wins matter as much as those on the PGA Tour, the new tour still has a long way to go.
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