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What Explains the “Shocking” European Ryder Cup Win?

2012 October 5
by Phil Miller

It seems that almost everything is shocking these days.  Yahoo’s main page always seems to have a headline screaming about some actress’s shocking dress or some soccer player’s shocking flop.  It seems that to call attention to an article, somehow or another the headline writer has to work the word “shocking” in.

Sports economist Jeff Owen sent me the following short essay about the use of the word shocking to describe team Europe’s win in the Ryder Cup.  I post this with his permission.

Judging from the comments made by Johnny Miller et al during NBC’s coverage of the Ryder Cup and the reaction that followed from the sports media, the European comeback in singles play from a 10-6 was miraculous. The logical implication is it was only possible because of a collapse by the American team. However, basically probability theory tells us that words like “unlikely” or “improbable” better describe what actually happened. If we assume that all of the matches were between even matched players with an equal likelihood of winning, then the outcome of a European comeback has the same odds as flipping a coin and turning up heads at least eight out of 12 times. This is a binomial distribution with a probability of about 20% (see http://stattrek.com/online-calculator/binomial.aspx for any easy calculation tool.) A one in five chance is not exactly “Miracle on Ice” territory. Of course this ignores factors such as actual matchups, home course advantage, and momentum. However, given the highly random nature of one round of golf, I don’t think any of those factors would be large enough to shift the odds substantially.  None of this will change the opinion of those who want to point fingers at the players or question captain Davis Love’s decisions, but it may just have been one of those days.

Matthew Futterman, however, sees things a bit differently when looking at the results over the past 13 years.  It may have been one of those days, but most of the last several matches have been won by Europe.

When something happens six out of seven times over 13 years, it’s probably not an accident.

If we go back to 1985, Europe has won 9 out of 14 times with one tie.

If there were any doubt that the best European golfers are better than the best Americans now, it was erased Sunday when the Euros erased what had been a 10-4 deficit to retain the Ryder Cup with a 14 ½ -13 ½ win. Beyond this, four of the top five players in the World Golf Rankings are Europeans.

This shouldn’t be the case. Europe has the population advantage, with roughly 700 million inhabitants, but golf is virtually nonexistent outside the European Union. And former Eastern Bloc countries inside the EU like Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland, aren’t exactly golf hotbeds. That essentially levels the participation gap.

Another mystery: The members of Team Europe mostly hail from Great Britain, Ireland, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Scandinavian countries—places that, climate-wise, aren’t exactly Florida, California or Arizona, to say nothing of Texas, Georgia, the Carolinas or the rest of the Sun Belt. The U.S. should have an advantage there, too.

While Europe has had a nice run since 1985, the US dominated Ryder Cup play before then, winning 22 of  25 matches since the Cup’s first match in 1927.   However, before there was team Europe, the US was pitted against team Britain or team Britain and Irleland from 1927 until 1977.  That’s a much, much smaller population from which to draw world-class golfers compared to the whole of Europe.   But what explains the recent success of the Europeans?

One difference is that the 12 Americans on the Ryder Cup team all attended college. Just two members of Europe’s team, Graeme McDowell and Luke Donald, spent those crucial, formative years of development playing collegiate golf.

…Here’s what happens when top golfers, tennis and soccer players attend college: They subject themselves to rules about how often they can compete and practice. They throw themselves at the mercy of coaching that is not always world-class. They live in housing filled with…let’s call them distractions. And in order to play, they have to pass classes in biology and political science.

Compared with the experience of Rory McIlroy or other European golfers, who turn pro as teenagers, then do little else but practice and compete (sometimes for their next meal or train ticket), the college life is pretty appealing.

But it’s also a safety net. It’s not crazy to think that the European approach creates athletes who work a bit harder and perhaps become just a wee bit tougher.

It’s an interesting hypothesis and there may be something to it. But it still doesn’t mean that college is a bad choice for golfers with an eye on the PGA circuit.

3 Responses
  1. Ken D. permalink
    October 5, 2012

    28 matches. 64 player-rounds. About 1,000 holes. Around 4,000 strokes. The result: 14 1/2 to 13 1/2. It could have been reversed by just two of those 4,000 strokes, dozens of which teetered in or out on the rim of the cup. And that result proves erases any doubt as to which grouping of elite golfers is more elite? Hey, it was a close competition and a fun show; let’s not go nuts.

  2. October 15, 2012

    I think the reason why this event qualifies as shocking is that most fans don’t perceive events through a statistical lens, but rather through a narrative one. If one team blows a big lead, then it’s a shock, regardless of the statistical probabilities. After all, improbable or unlikely events are shocking, aren’t they?

    I think the human need to put things into a narrative context is often at odds with the a statistical context, and in a contest between the two perspectives the narrative one wins out more often when it comes to how people perceive sports events. Perhaps some room for collaboration between the Economics Dept. and the Humanities here?

  3. October 17, 2012

    Yes, thank you! So many things in sports happen at the rate of random chance, and yet they end up being called “miraculous,” or my pet peeve, “destiny.” And Ken is right, it again came down to a putting contest. It would not be difficult to find two putts that almost stayed out, but went in, or almost went in, but stayed out, and there’s your difference.

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