It’s a common cry ahead of a final round: “Anyone can win it!”
In fact, of course, it is a particularly persuasive bit of Augusta National folklore – the notion that a host of players begin the final round with every chance of adding a green jacket to the wardrobe because of the twin threats of a course that is fickle in nature and a tournament committee that is capricious in its humor.
All of which tends to overlook a rather inconvenient truth – that the last man to win the Masters from outside the top ten with 18 holes to play was Art Wall Jr. (in 1959).
But what of normal weeks? We instinctively know that there have been notable comebacks, but just how common are they? We’re all tempted by the romantic idea of someone shooting a low number, but is it pie in the sky?
Let’s take a closer look at where the eventual winners of tournaments were placed going into the final round.
A few notes
The following study includes only strokeplay events on the European and PGA Tours in the 21st century. So, there is no WGC Match Play, Paul Lawrie Match Play, World Super 6 or Belgian Knockout. Nor is the ANZ Championship, The International or the Barracuda Championship (since 2012) included (all utilized Stableford scoring). The major championships are only counted once. The Open falls within the European Tour numbers, the other three among the PGA Tour. All WGC events feature among the PGA Tour details. Of course, the vast majority of these tournaments were 72-hole affairs, but some were reduced to 54 or even 36. In all cases, the pre-final round positions is used. To avoid repetition in the text all references to position refer to solo and shared situations.
Why focus only on position ahead of the final round?
Part two of this report will look at how many shots ahead or behind the eventual winners were with 18 holes to play – hopefully adding more nuance to the picture.
Results: the European Tour
In all, there have been 807 winners in this period and no less than 437 (54.2%) of them were 1st with 18 holes to play. Another 143 were 2nd, which means a total of 580 were top two (71.9%), and 65 were 3rd, making it 645 who were top three (79.9%). What about top five? 730 (90.5%). Top ten? 783 (97.0%). Top 15? 797 (98.8%). Top 20? 802 (99.4%). Yes – only five golfers started the final round outside the top 20.
The exceptions – the winners from outside the top 20
Gut instinct would scream that the outliers must have played exceptional rounds, conducted them in peculiar circumstances or dealt with terrible weather. Let’s have a look.
2003 Mallorca Classic – Miguel Angel Jimenez was the winner by one having been T25 after 36 holes of an event reduced to 54 holes. The final day weather was not poor, however, and Jimenez had changed out of his golf clothes before being warned that a play-off may ensue. But pre-round leader David Park shot 77 and the man behind him Jose-Maria Olazabal closed double bogey-bogey. Jimenez had, however, been just five shots back.
2006 Scottish Open – Johan Edfors grabbed a third win of the year having been T24 after 54 holes. He played over two hours head of the pre-round leaders (the experienced Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjorn) and thrashed a final round 63, the best of the day by two, for a two-shot win.
2006 New Zealand Open – Nathan Green carded a 65 three hours before the leaders finished in a howling wind to leap from T39 to a victory by two strokes.
2012 Nelson Mandela Invitational – Nothing more or less than an exceptionally strange event. Appalling weather earlier in the week meant the course played to a par of 65 and only 36 holes could be completed. Scott Jamieson carded a final round 57 and won a play-off. His final day vault was ridiculous – he was T68 ahead of the last round, the only man in the century to emerge from outside the top 40 to win.
2017 BMW PGA Championship – Alex Noren’s brilliant 62 jumped him from T21 to a win by one. The momentum of the leaders was stalled by a downpour as they hit the turn.
Results: the PGA Tour
There have been a total of 895 tournaments in the period, with 452 winners lying 1st with 18 holes to play (50.5%). 151 were 2nd which means 603 (67.4%) were top two and with 85 in 3rd that’s 688 who were top three (76.9%). The top five total was 785 (87.7%). Top ten was 870 (97.2%), top 15 886 (99.0%) and top 20 890 (99.4%). Only six players made bigger moves.
The exceptions – the winners from outside the top 20
2004 The Heritage – Stewart Cink was nine strokes back and T22 before his 64 tied the lead and he won a five hole play-off, but only after controversy (only after ten replays of a shot he hit from a bunker did referees deem it legal).
2005 Honda Classic – Padraig Harrington was T21 and seven shots off the lead, posted a 63 in blustery conditions, forced a play-off and won it. The pre-round leaders both carded 73.
2012 Travelers Championship – Marc Leishman, six back and T20, carved a 62 to win by one. A strange Sunday when many went very low, but not at the top of the leaderboard.
2012 McGladreys Classic – Tommy Gainey was T29 and seven blows off the lead before thrashing a 60 to set a target none could match. Veteran 54 hole pace-setters Jim Furyk and Davis Love III wilted in gusty, but not remarkable, winds.
2015 Shriner’s Open – Smylie Kaufman smote a 61 to turn T28, seven back, into a one shot win. 23 of the top 24 went sub-70 in R4, but Kaufman trumped them all.
2016 Farmers Insurance Open – Brandt Snedeker crafted a 69 to leap from T27, and six back, to a one shot win. A 69 achieved all that?!?! Yes, the weather was dire.
Among those exceptions are perhaps everything we’d expect: Players who posted early in poor conditions, the odd freak in a curious event and also examples of stunning golf on the final day – but how rare they are.
Results: PGA TOUR versus European Tour
If the initial numbers are notable for being similar, the top ten is remarkably alike and the top 20 are exact matches.
It’s interesting to ponder why the sport clings to the idea that anything can happen in the final round.
For television it’s possible that the reluctance is related to the importance of attracting viewers – the last thing they want to admit is that the superstar or popular character lying 20th has very little hope of winning; fans will turn elsewhere for their entertainment.
But there is also, surely, a dogged belief in received wisdom at play here: Golf folk simply refuse to believe that a whopping 97% of winners come from the top ten on Saturday evening.
A rather more important angle is the fury with which these sort of numbers are greeted on social media.
Because folk get terribly offended if you note that a player currently 15th has a huge mountain to climb – and should that golfer buck all trends and win the indignant are quick to say “I told you so” and yet is it not the case that they are the ones under-selling the achievement?
By pointing out how difficult it is to win from outside the top ten, we’re actually placing the feat in perspective, whereas to regularly claim every week that it’s a live possibility rather diminishes the achievement when it happens.
We should also, perhaps, remember that there is more to a tournament than the man who holds aloft the trophy. Plenty of golfers will jump up the leaderboard on Sunday into the top ten or top five, in the process saving cards, reviving/kickstarting careers or maybe just prompting an illusion of the possibilities in the future. We should knock none of these – they are all part of the rich Sunday story of the sport.
And what use can we make of these numbers in the future? That’s up to you. This is the ammo, choose your own targets.
Note: Curiosity led me to take a look at the LPGA and Ladies European Tours. The former’s rate of winner-coming-from-the-top-ten is 98.7% and the latter 97.7%. For the top 20 it is 99.6% and 99.5% respectively. Remarkable consistency across all golf, in other words. It's also true that if you chop up the last two decades of PGA and European Tour results into five year chunks the percentages rarely change.