THE PGA Championship has long been to men’s golf what the Australian Open is to tennis: the ugly stepchild among the sport’s four major annual tournaments. The Masters sets itself apart for occurring at the same venue every year, fielding the smallest number of players and maintaining quaint traditions. The U.S. Open is distinguished by famously punishing courses, which are sometimes so brutal that no one finishes below par. And the Open Championship, known as the British Open outside the United Kingdom, is the oldest of the four (it began in 1860); the only one not played in America; and is regularly held on coastal links courses, characterised by firm greens and shifting winds.
As for the PGA? From 1916 to 1957, it was the only major with a match-play format. But ever since it adopted the same 72-hole stroke-play format as the others, it has lacked a clear identity. Its only unique characteristic is reserving 20 spaces in the field for resident professionals at golf clubs, slightly diluting its level of competition. Aside from that, it mimics the U.S. Open, but has historically been played at less prestigious courses. The event’s occasional use of the slogan “This Is Major” carried a distinct note of protesting too much.
This weekend, however, the PGA Championship will be the focus not just of keen golf fans but of the sporting world at large. In advance of the 2019 season, the event was moved from August to May. This made it the second major of the year rather than the fourth, and created a regular drumbeat of one major per month from April through July. And fortuitously, after an 11-year-long drought, the 43-year-old Tiger Woods stormed back from scandal and injury to win the 15th major of his career at the Masters last month. All of a sudden, Mr Woods’s quest to surpass Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major victories looks very much alive. This year’s PGA Championship, held on the Bethpage Black Course in New York state—a test so difficult its warning sign has become a golf-world meme—represents Mr Woods’s first opportunity to narrow his deficit relative to the Golden Bear.
EAGLE, The Economist’s statistical prediction system for major tournaments, returns for the PGA as well, after taking a mild bruising at the Masters. (You can follow its predictions, which update live every two minutes, at http://eagle.economist.com.) Although our model recognised that Mr Woods had played well enough during his comeback to rank among golf’s elite once again, its evaluation of his prowess was somewhat more conservative than that of betting markets. At the time, EAGLE considered him the ninth-best player in the world, with around a 2% chance of victory; punters put him third or fourth, with roughly a 5% chance.
Now that Mr Woods has proven he is still capable of winning a major, bettors’ view of him has improved once again. His current market price corresponds to a 6.6% chance of winning the PGA, making him the narrow fourth-favourite behind Dustin Johnson (8.5%), Brooks Koepka (7.8%), and Rory McIlroy (7.3%). No one else exceeds 5%.
Yet EAGLE, undeterred by the toll Mr Woods may have taken on its reputation last month, is a stubborn bird. Mr Woods has not played in any events since his Masters victory, giving the model a paltry four new rounds’ worth of data with which to update its assessment of him. Moreover, his triumph at Augusta National was slightly less impressive than it appears. He beat the field’s average score by a modest ten strokes, a margin that historically has been sufficient to win a major just 8% of the time. By that measure, his showing at the Masters was actually slightly worse than he did at last year’s PGA Championship, when he was the runner-up to Mr Koepka.
Mr Woods is not the only betting favourite about whom EAGLE harbours reservations. The model is just as cautious about Mr Koepka, who claimed the last PGA Championship by two strokes over Mr Woods, and then lost this year’s Masters to him by a single shot. More than any other golfer at the moment, Mr Koepka seems to play up or down to the importance of the competition. He has won three of the past six majors he has entered, and tied for second in another. Yet these successes have alternated with missteps that should be rarer for an elite player, such as an eight-over-par second round at the Tour Championship last September, which Mr Woods won. Blending the good with the bad, the sometimes erratic Mr Koepka’s average scores during the 67 rounds he has played since winning the PGA Championship rank just 15th in this year’s field.
The notion that some players rise to the occasion while others wilt under pressure is not necessarily only the stuff of hagiographic nostalgia films. In fact, predictions for scores in majors can be modestly improved by taking account of the gap between players’ past performances in majors and their work in other events. However, this effect is exceedingly small. And its biggest beneficiary is not Mr Koepka but rather Jason Day, who historically has played about a full stroke per round better in majors than he has on lesser stages. EAGLE agrees with punters that Mr Koepka and Mr Woods, the winner and runner-up at the last PGA Championship, have similar chances of lofting the Wanamaker Trophy this time. However, it puts those probabilities in the range of 2.5-3%, less than half the markets’ estimate.
By definition, win probabilities are zero-sum. As a result, if Mr Woods and Mr Koepka stand less of a chance than is popularly thought, someone else must be under-valued. As it has been for every major since the start of 2018, EAGLE’s top pick to win is Mr Johnson. He has just reclaimed the top spot in the official world rankings from Justin Rose, and for good reason. After adjusting for playing conditions, Mr Johnson’s average scores during the past nine months are 0.13 strokes per round better than those of Mr McIlroy, and 0.31 strokes per round better than anyone else’s. However, these two superstars’ prowess is no secret. The chances of victory EAGLE assigns to them, at 6.8% and 4.4%, are actually slightly below those seen in betting markets.
So where might a bettor looking to make a buck—or simply a fan hoping to impress friends with her savvy—turn to look for a surprise winner? Among top-tier players, the one who has received curiously little buzz in advance of the event is Paul Casey. Mr Casey is to an extent Mr Koepka’s mirror image: he has 19 professional victories, but has never won a major. Moreover, he has missed the cut in each of the past two majors, as well as in the prestigious Players Championship. At the age of 41, his best years are likely behind him.
Nonetheless, Mr Casey is off to a blazing start to 2019. He successully defended his 2018 title against a strong field at the Valspar Championship, and has secured four more top-five finishes in his past nine events. He currently sits 12th in both the official world rankings and EAGLE’s, just a bit behind Mr Woods. At this stage of his career, Mr Casey probably is not quite the player that Mr Woods is. But Mr Woods’s chances of winning the PGA Championship are surely not five times greater than Mr Casey’s, as the markets suggest.
The focus of the television cameras will rarely waver from the likes of Mr Woods and Mr McIlroy during the early days of the event. However, the chaotic nature of golf is such that the eventual victor is likely to come from the long tail of players with records even less distinguished than Mr Casey’s. Among players with odds longer than 100 to one, EAGLE is partial to Webb Simpson, who won the U.S. Open in 2012 and finished fifth in the Masters last month; Matthew Fitzpatrick, an up-and-coming British youngster still hunting for his first major; and Joost Luiten, a Dutchman who holds the rare distinction of having made both a hole-in-one in a major and a rarer-than-rare albatross. The annals of PGA Championship victors include most of the greats, but also unheralded champions like Y.E. Yang and Keegan Bradley. In a sport as unpredictable as golf, no one can be counted out.