Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Reassessing the Quality of Play on the LPGA Relative to the Futures Tour: Observations and Implications

I've heard it said that the top third of the players on the Futures Tour are at least as good as the bottom third on the LPGA, but I wonder if the conventional wisdom is undervaluing the quality of play on the LPGA's developmental tour.

Consider 1st that the Futures Tour's money list leader, Cindy LaCrosse, has earned almost as much as the player in 65th place on the LPGA money list, Sarah Jane Smith. LaCrosse had to do it in 5 more starts than Smith, but look at how their stats stack up.

Scoring Average: LaCrosse 69.53, Smith 72.04
Birdie Rate: LaCrosse 4.03, Smith 2.91
Greens in Regulation: LaCrosse .739, Smith .687
Putting Average: LaCrosse 28.77, Smith 30.53

Maybe all this shows is that the courses on the Futures Tour are a lot easier than those on the LPGA, but aren't the differences striking?

Consider next that Kristie Smith, who's spent most of the season leading the LET's Rookie of the Year race until In-Kyung Kim overtook her last week, has won once in 4 starts on the Futures Tour and has earned enough (just over $20K) to sit at #21 on their money list. The closest player to $20K on the LPGA, Allison Fouch, has the 102nd spot nailed down on their money list right now, but it took her 9 starts to get there. Because Smith has played so few FT events, she's not eligible to be listed on their stats page, but we do know her scoring average is 70.00 while Fouch's is 74.33. Again, this might be explainable simply by positing that it's easier to score on the FT, and we find some support for it by looking at Smith's LET scoring average (73.00). However, given Smith's LET birdie rate of 3.56 exceeds Fouch's of 2.46, her LET greens in regulation rate of .722 blows away Fouch's of .591, and that her LET putting average of 30.58 is comparable to Fouch's of 30.55, isn't it just possible that Smith has been playing better than Fouch this year? That is, isn't it possible that the #21 player on the Futures Tour is playing better than the #102 player on the LPGA?

Of course, Fouch herself made the leap from the Futures Tour to the LPGA relatively recently. And a couple of years ago, back when she was playing well, she made an interesting observation, in response to the question of what she learned about the LPGA that she would want to pass along to Futures Tour players:

I would tell them that the way they hit the ball, putt and chip is good enough or better than the bottom half of the LPGA Tour. Other than the top 30 players in the world, stop putting the LPGA Tour players on such high pedestals. With the exception of the top 10 finishers each week, the rest of the LPGA field is shooting around even par. I think it's easy to get lost in what the winners are shooting, rather than looking at the entire field. Sure, the top players in the world get up and down from 100 yards most of the time, but the best players on the Duramed FUTURES Tour have just as much talent. It's a matter of getting experience. Good wedge play and making more birdies was something my game needed to get better to take that next step, and I did it over time. The biggest thing, though, was surrounding myself by people who continuously pointed me in the right direction. You have to manage your game, your thoughts, your emotions, your everything with a lot of help. That has to start before you get to the LPGA.

I've been looking at stats for a lot of players on the LPGA this season, in preparation for my next Best of the LPGA ranking update, and what I found surprised me. Key performance indicators like greens in regulation and putts per green in regulation, along with key results like scoring average and birdies per round, seem quite low to me for the vast majority of the LPGA. Outside the very top tier of players and their lead chase pack, I haven't seen very many with very impressive stats. Only 52 players are hitting greens in regulation more than 65% of the time. Only 52 players are taking fewer than 1.82 putts per green in regulation. Only 55 players have scoring averages below 72.50. Only about 60 players are averaging 3 birdies or more per round. So I would go so far as to argue that there are only about 50 LPGAers who are clearly better than any given top 50 player on the Futures Tour.

Now, it's true that not all top Futures Tour graduates excel immediately on the LPGA. Song-Hee Kim's early struggles on the LPGA are well-known. Vicky Hurst is only beginning to learn how to compete on the LPGA. And Mina Harigae will need to turn it on in the 2nd half of the season to break into the top 100 on the money list and avoid Q-School. It does take time to adjust to courses, travel, and competition on the LPGA. Plus, many players don't stay on the big tour for long. But my point isn't about individuals. It's about odds. The 200 or so professional golfers competing regularly in the United States who aren't among the LPGA's top 50 are very closely bunched together, whatever tour they play exclusively or regularly on.

Why is this so? Part of the reason is that so many former LPGAers or part-time LPGAers play regularly on the Futures Tour. Part of the reason is that the Futures Tour continues to attract top young talent from around the world who don't want to start their professional careers on European or Asian tours. And part of the reason is that the next generation of top American golfers is really good. Over time, they're all going to swell the ranks of the really good players on the LPGA to 75 or 100 players.

But until that happens, the LPGA would do well to rethink its membership and priority status categories. I would recommend shrinking Category 1 to the top 70 on the previous year's money list, down from the top 80 as it stands now. I would expand Category 9 from the top 5 on the previous year's Futures Tour money list to the top 10. And I would expand Category 11, which is currently designed to take 20 players from #81 to #100 on the money list and the top 20 finishers from Q-School, to take players from #71 to #90 on the money list and the top 30 from Q-School. Along with the other categories up to and including #13 (an early promotion for any 3-time Futures Tour winners), all you'd then need to do to make room for this group of "fully exempt" golfers would be to expand all "regular-season" full-field events from 144 to 156 spots, as Hound Dog called for back in April.

In addition, the LPGA would do well to focus on radically expanding the Futures Tour. The measure of any tour's success is how many players can make a living on it. With its small purses, the Futures Tour is not currently a break-even proposition for most of its members. Rather than seeking to raise purses, the Tour's organizers should be focused on expanding playing opportunities, getting more tournaments on the schedule and giving everyone more chances to make cuts and cash checks. $100K purses for new Futures Tour events and $1M purses for new domestic LPGA events would give the non-elite players competing regularly on the U.S. more chances to hone their games and their minds.

If the LPGA and Futures Tour don't take these measures, or similar ones, then fewer international golfers will seek to compete professionally in the United States and more and more American golfers will decide they're better off starting their professional careers abroad. If they do, however, it won't be long before the level of competition on the Futures Tour exceeds the LET and even the KLPGA.

[Update 1 (8/6/10, 4:23 am): If you haven't been reading the comments thread on this post, you should. Because it has a bearing on a very interesting idea that Mike Southern just floated over at Ruthless Golf.]


courtgolf said...

I'm not sure that a dollar to dollar comparison is a legitimate comparison. The top money winners on the DFT are not competing against the best women in the world or on comparable courses. As you pointed out, it takes a while for the DFT girls to make their way towards even the middle of the LPGA, if they get there at all.

Even with things like The Big Break filling up with DFT players (based more on looks than potential LPGA talent) the LPGA is still heads and shoulders above the DFT. If that were not true, there would be more than 5 Tour cards handed out to the DFT money leaders, and more DFT rookies winning or at least finishing top 10 on a fairly regular basis.

The DFT is not to the LPGA what the Nationwide Tour is to the PGA Tour...not yet at least.

Just a theory, but this idea that the top DFT players are as good as he bottom half of the LPGA could be because the top DFT players are hungry and needing to win and get to the LPGA Tour - but a lot of the LPGA players towards the bottom half are journeyman players who are there making a living, not pushing for wins.

The Constructivist said...

Yeah, dollar to dollar is really rough, but you have to also factor in the much smaller Futures Tour purses, as well, which may even things out. In any case, that roughness is why I brought in the scoring and performance measures when I could (even though the layouts and setups on the LPGA are tougher than on the FT). Granted that the FTers are not competing against the best in the world, but the level of competition is higher than most people realize.

What I could have brought in to better support this point is the fact that most of the current and former LPGAers on the Futures Tour aren't dominating it. Sure, a good number of the latter are not playing as well now as they did when they were on the LPGA. But if the top players on the FT were really only about as good as the #75 to #150 players on the LPGA, wouldn't you expect more from that latter bunch to dominate it?

Moreover, there have been truly exceptional players to come out of the FT beyond the ones I mentioned. Lorena Ochoa. Se Ri Pak. Cristie Kerr. Grace Park. Candie Kung. Seon Hwa Lee. Brittany Lincicome. The sky's the limit for talents like theirs. But, yeah, breaking into the top 50 is a real accomplishment for most of the successful FT grads. After all, they have to beat the successful grads before them to get there, along with the vets and the new blood from other tours.

On the hunger/needing to win front, yeah, the fact that you need to finish top 3 in a given week to make any kind of money on the FT puts an even bigger incentive on learning to put yourself in contention on a regular basis. But I don't think the FT grads lose that motivation when they get to the big tour. Even with the current system, it's still fairly easy to lose your card.

What I'm calling for is a more volatile system of professional women's golf in the U.S., where there are fewer protections for the middle and bottom 50 on the LPGA and more opportunities for the top 50 on the FT. I'd rather see more top players from the Futures Tour get their cards and make LPGAers who finish outside the top 90 on the money list have to earn their way back in (via Q-School or the FT).

Mike said...

TC, you and Court both have some good points, but I think maybe there's another aspect that needs to be considered.

First, it sounds to me like you've discovered that my "Rule of 67" exists on the LPGA. The PGA Tour shows, for each of its statistical categories, how the "average Tour player" ranks on that stat. It seems that the average in Fairways Hit, GIR, and Scrambling is rarely above 67% (if it gets that high), and I get laughed at for saying that if you can beat 67% in those three stats, you're better than the average Tour player. Still, it sounds like you've found something similar on the LPGA.

But doesn't this make sense? I mean, aren't most sports dominated by a gifted few... while the remainder of the field is filled with journeymen who form the backdrop for the gifted to excel against? Kobe Bryant stands out because of the "lesser" players who fill out much of the league.

But those "lesser" players are important as well, because they're still better than most of us. They provide the measuring stick against which we measure those great performances from the stars.

My point is this: I think you need a large pool of journeymen in order to "grow" stars. Most of these journeymen want to become stars; some simply don't have the talent, but still give us perspective on just how well the others play. Some have the talent but need time to develop it... which means they spend some time in the "perspective" group. And I suppose some just play for fun and a living and don't care about getting better... but if they can stay on Tour, they must be doing something right.

Any sports league needs those players that will never rise to the top. And if we really want to discover that "top" group, we need to make it easier for the "bottom" group to survive. The availability (or lack thereof) of tour cards doesn't tell us anything other than the powers-that-be may be too short-sighted to recognize this simple fact.

As for volatility, it might be better to incorporate a "how did they win?" factor into the rankings. Give a set number of points for a win, as they do now, but add "bonus" points based on whether players excelled in certain important stats during that win. In essence, you get credit for being lucky, but more credit for being good.

I think we have to consider what makes it easier for the cream to rise to the top, rather than just churning butter -- all you get that way is a thick sticky mess... and no cream.

The Constructivist said...

Mike, I think your Rule of 67 is a good one. I hit 13 greens on a calm day a couple of days ago and 7 greens today in fairly strong winds. For me to average 12 GIR over the course of an entire summer, playing in all kinds of conditions...well, let's just say I've never come close. My best summer ever, I averaged 9.33, but over the last 20 years, it's down to 7.36. Oh, and the pros have to play a different course every week and except for Colgate's Seven Oaks, none of the courses I've played regularly are close to LPGA, much less PGA standards.

I'd really like to see you develop your own rankings system, Mike. Have you seen Hound Dog's? I think his is the best one out there. His new top 70 just came out and he has some interesting comments on the importance of winning relative to other factors this week, as well.

And I totally agree with your points about the need for prospects and vets in the system who are not elite players (yet/again). Those golfers in particular need practice scouting out courses, developing game plans and course management skills, and working on their 120 yards-and-in games. I think it's those areas where the elite players really excel.

Mike said...

You and HoundDog are classic examples of just why I shouldn't develop a rating system. While I feel that I can see the big picture well enough to grasp what should probably be included, figuring out what sort of formulas and comparisons would make it work is beyond me. You and he are able to quantify things in a way that just amazes me.

My strength is that I can often see connections between apparently unrelated facts -- to say, "Hey, this affects that in this way" -- but I lack the technical understanding to convert that connection into a useful formula. To put it in terms of this post, I can see the need for a variety of player types to make the system work, but I tend to get lost trying to figure out the optimal percentages of each type.

The Constructivist said...

I think one place to start would be to figure out how you would want to value different kinds of wins. Two examples come to mind.

The first is the blowout, like what Cristie Kerr did at the LPGA Championship (or Annika at the Michelob Ultra in what I hope doesn't turn out to be her last season).

The second is a hard-fought battle between two or more players who played well enough to blow out the field, except for the others who did so, as well.

Wouldn't you say the latter is a better win?

If you agree, then you could build a formular around that. If not, you would want to come up with a better definition of your sense of what the best possible win is, and build a formula around that instead.

In my example, you'd look at the winner's key performance stats relative to the averages that week for the field--and for the lead chase pack, as defined by margin of victory. You could factor in how many players were within different ranges--1 shot, 3 shots, 5 shots, whatever--of the winner. That way you'd have one variable that tracks how much better than average the winner was. And another that tracks how much better the winner was than everyone else who could have won.

Now, it would get complicated. Because the winner doesn't always do all things better than everyone else. And you'd have to decide if the best win were one where you did do everything better than everyone else. Or whether the kind of win where someone else did more things better than you and you still found a way to win is the best kind of win.

Other possible variables could include one that compares your score to other winners' scores on that course (isn't the best win one that establishes a 54-hole or 72-hole record on that course?); another that compares it to other (winning) scores of yours (isn't the best win one where you set a personal best in the process?); one that tracks the strength of the field in general and also of the lead chase pack (isn't it best to beat the best?); and so on. You could even figure out a scale to take into account the weather conditions and the course set-up (kind of like a degree of difficulty thing in diving and figure skating), and use it to adjust the rest of the equation (isn't the best win one where you set a course and personal best against the best possible field and lead chase pack, in the toughest possible conditions?).

You see, you're building value judgments into your formula. So it's good to be as clear as possible at the start what those founding assumptions are. And have a justification for them. Preferably a good one. A very good one. But in the end the path your very interesting idea takes us on is one where we have to imagine and agree upon what the best possible win would look like.

So the first question is, is this desirable? How about possible?

Mike said...

I don't think you can use stats as a condition for points because the person with the best stats doesn't necessarily win. A good example from the LPGA is Song Hee Kim -- she's #1 in scoring (thus leading for the Vare Trophy), but #8 in the Rolex. Stats complicate things too much to add them into the overall rankings; it's better to keep different rankings for different stats (like scoring), and maintain the overall rankings just based on finishes.

Here's a simple idea for gauging the quality of the win, which I'll call the "3/6/9 Bump." As a general rule, the bulk of the field is pretty close, and only the leaders break away and separate themselves. The "3/6/9 Bump" would award extra points to players who manage this. Simply put, if you finish 3-5 strokes ahead of the next closest player you get bonus points for your finish; if you finish 6-8 strokes ahead of the next closest player you get more bonus points; and if you finish 9 or more strokes ahead you get a still bigger bonus. (And that should be a proportionately bigger bonus, since it's a more impressive finish.)

A couple of examples:

At the Ricoh Women's British Open, Tseng finished -11, Hull -10, Choi & I.K. Kim at -7, and nobody else is separated by more than 2 strokes. In this tournament, Tseng and Hull get the 3-stroke bump, while the others get regular points.

At the LPGA Championship, Kerr was -19, S.H. Kim -7, and nobody else more than 2 strokes apart. Kerr would get the 9-stroke bump, and everybody else regular points.

The bump would apply to any gap groups, down to the bunched field. As an example, suppose Kerr had posted her -19 at the Ricoh and all the other scores remained the same. Then Tseng and Hull still get the 3-stroke bump for being at least 3 strokes ahead of the bunched field... and Kerr gets the 9-stroke bump for being 12 strokes ahead of the bunched field. This way, all of the leaders get credit for scoring better than the bulk of the field.

I suppose you'd have to make some kind of limit on this because, although it's unlikely, you could have a field with several huge gaps scattered throughout the field. I think I'd draw the line at the Top 10 of the field -- that is, gaps only count in the Top 10; beyond that, you're in the main field. Example: You have 3-stroke gaps between 1 & 2, 4 & 5, 11 & 13, and 16 & 17. You ignore the gaps below 10, because they're outside the Top 10, and the rest get points this way:

1: 6-stroke bonus
2, 3, 4: 3-stroke bonus
5 & under: no bonus, because there's no big gap between 5 & 11

Does that make sense? This seems a fair way to reward above-average play without getting bogged down in numbers.