Who’s Hot Heading Into the FedEx Cup Playoffs? Stats Say, ‘Who Cares?’

August 26, 2015

Jordan Spieth had a historically great year, winning two majors and coming painfully close in two more.

Many observers expect the 22-year-old wunderkind to cruise through the FedEx playoffs. Golf.com’s own Cameron Morfit called Jordan Spieth winning the FedEx “the safest bet in golf.”

But can you rely on “hot” golfers to continue their winning ways in the FedEx Cup playoffs? Sorry to spoil the excitement, but the data says no.

When it comes to which golfers have won the playoff events, it doesn’t look like being hot in the summer means much. While six of the last 20 playoff-event winners have been “hot” coming into the playoffs (beating their prior performance by half a stroke or more a round), five of the winners had been struggling heading into the Barclays.

Focusing on FedEx Cup winners, only Henrik Stenson (2013) had been riding a significant summer hot streak. Jim Furyk (2010), Bill Haas (2011), Billy Horschel (2014) and Brandt Snedeker (2012) hadn’t been playing particularly “hot” golf entering the playoffs, but all four managed to turn it on and win the $10 million prize.

To examine FedEx Cup Playoff success, I gathered results from the last five playoffs. I then analyzed adjusted scoring average data for the period of the season between the Masters and the playoffs and for the sixteen months prior to each of those periods (essentially measuring performance from January 2009-April 2010, for example). That 16-month period serves as a measure of expectations going into each summer.

I then set-up a simple regression using the data I collected above to illustrate performances in the FedEx Cup playoffs. I included performance from before the summer (that 16-month period of play) and then a measure of how a golfer had performed relative to that level over the summer (whether a golfer was “hot” or “cold”). It turns out that when it comes to predicting how golfers will fare in the playoffs, their 16-month performance prior to the summer is twice as predictive as summer-only results.

Why? When predicting golf performance, it’s important to consider results from a large number of events. Including results from tournaments played early in the season or in the previous season places more recent performance in context. The data shows that future results will tend to revert towards past performance, indicating that when attempting to predict the future, we should place more weight on a golfer’s entire performance record, not just the most recent results.

The biggest name who could make a playoff rally has to be Adam Scott. He entered the summer having played the fourth-best golf in the world over the previous year and a half, but between becoming a new father and yo-yoing between putters, Scott has under-performed across the board. My model suggests that he could be a surprise factor this month – even though he starts deep down the rankings at 94th.

Jake Nichols is the editor of Golf Analytics, a blog that uses stats-based models to predict golfers’ future performances.