Closing the deal: Examining success rates by 54-hole leaders

November 13, 2019
Justin Ray

Hours before the six-man, floodlit playoff under the stars Sunday in Turkey, Matthias Schwab looked like he would sail to his first career European Tour win. Schwab carried a three-shot lead into the final round, was eviscerating the par fives, and was leading the field in strokes gained putting. Matthias looked locked in to become the youngest winner from Austria in the history of the European Tour.

Then the beauty of sports happened.

Schwab didn’t play poorly, but made just one birdie in his last 14 holes, leaving the door slightly ajar for the field. Six players would wind up tied at 20-under-par, generating the biggest sudden-death playoff on the European Tour in 16 years. Matthias was the last man standing against Tyrrell Hatton, but made his only par-five-bogey all week on the fourth playoff hole.

Artboard 2@4x

It served as a reminder of just how difficult it is to close out a 54-hole lead on the game’s biggest stages. Over the last 15 years, players with a 1-shot lead through 54 holes on the PGA and European Tours combined to win at just a 36.4 percent rate. With a 2-shot lead, that number is still less than a coin flip: 44.5 percent.

And what happened to Matthias on Sunday wasn’t out of the norm, either. With a 3-shot lead, players go on to win just 56.0 percent of the time. What can sometimes seem like a foregone conclusion on Saturday night really is anything but.

The historic aberration who mutated the final round expectations of fans, of course, is Tiger Woods. Tiger is 56-for-60 converting 54-hole leads or co-leads in official PGA Tour events in his career. He is 11-for-13 converting when he’s tied for the lead entering the final round – a clip of 85 percent. The rest of the world converts those opportunities just 25 percent of the time.

Aside from Woods, who are some of the best performers with the lead entering Sunday?

There are 95 different players who have held at least five 54-hole leads or co-leads on the PGA and European Tours over the last 15 years. In that group, the player to average the most strokes gained against the field in the final round in those events is Ernie Els, at 3.51. No other player has averaged more than three strokes gained in that span.

The greatest single-round performance in our sample size came on the biggest stage in the sport globally: Sunday at The Open Championship. In 2016, Henrik Stenson’s closing 63 at Royal Troon gained 9.8 strokes against the field, by far the best number of any player in this stretch. Rory McIlroy holds the second-best total with his 61 earlier this year at the RBC Canadian Open (8.7 strokes gained total).

Artboard 3@4x

Tiger has the best win percentage in this sample slice (27-for-29), but who’s win percentage is second-best? That honor belongs to Branden Grace, who is 6-for-7 converting 54-hole leads worldwide. Jimmy Walker, Mark Wilson and Thorbjorn Olesen follow shortly thereafter, each 4-for-5 (80 percent) in that span.

As for Schwab, his closing round 70 beat the field average on Sunday in Turkey by about half-a-stroke, a solid performance. But to win on the PGA or European Tour when holding the 54-hole lead over the last 15 years, that isn’t nearly enough: the average winner in that group has gained 2.46 strokes on the field in the final round en route to victory.

NOTES ON PLAYERS IN ACTION

The PGA Tour resumes its fall schedule in Mexico, while the European Tour is shifting to South Africa for the second-to-last event in the Race to Dubai. Some player notes from both events:

– It hasn’t been a great year for Emiliano Grillo – he has just one top-ten finish in 23 starts worldwide in 2019 – but his career performance at Mayakoba is impossible to ignore. Of the 197 players with ten or more career rounds on this course, Grillo has the best scoring average, at 67.7. He is also the only player to finish in the top-15 each of the last three years here.

– Over the last six years, no player has averaged more birdies and eagles per round at Mayakoba than J.J. Spaun. Below is a look at the tournament leaders in that statistic:

Most Birdies/Eagles Per Round – Mayakoba Previous 6 Years (Minimum 10 Rounds)

J.J. Spaun – 5.58

Scott Piercy – 5.46

Danny Lee – 5.44

Patton Kizzire – 5.25

Harold Varner III – 5.20

*All five players in the field this week

– 42-year-old Matt Kuchar is the defending champion this week in Mexico. It’s hard enough to win the same event in back-to-back years on the PGA Tour, but how about for players 40 and older? This decade, it’s only happened twice: Steve Stricker at the John Deere Classic, and Paul Casey at the Valspar Championship. A refreshed Kuchar will be making his first start worldwide in more than two months.

– Speaking of defending champions in their 40s, that’s exactly what Lee Westwood is doing this week in South Africa. Lee is coming off a good performance in Turkey, where he finished tied for tenth. Westwood is one of four players atop this event’s all-time wins list: he, Els, Nick Price and David Frost each have three victories. Lee was the last player to go back-to-back in this event, doing so in 2010 and 2011.

Erik Van Rooyen’s tie for second in Turkey was his third runner-up worldwide this year. The burgeoning breakout star can credit his improved putting for that success: in 2019, he’s jumped from 114th to 12th on the European Tour in strokes gained putting, and from 131st to 3rd in putts per green in regulation. Erik is currently eighth in the Race to Dubai standings.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

From 2005 through 2008, Tiger played in 14 majors. He finished in the top-four in 12 of them. Woods’ combined score to par in that stretch of majors was 61-under. The player with the second-best score in that span with at least thirty rounds played was Steve Flesch, at 45-over – a difference of 106 shots.