PGA Tour: No fans equals lower scores

CROMWELL, CONNECTICUT - JUNE 28: Dustin Johnson of the United States walks on the fifth hole during the final round of the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands on June 28, 2020 in Cromwell, Connecticut. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
CROMWELL, CONNECTICUT - JUNE 28: Dustin Johnson of the United States walks on the fifth hole during the final round of the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands on June 28, 2020 in Cromwell, Connecticut. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

It’s a phenomenon of the first three weeks of the resumed PGA Tour, but does it mean anything?

Three tournaments into the resumed 2020 season, it may not be too early to ask a provocative question. Do on-course fans hinder performance?

Instinctively it seems unlikely. Players – in golf and in all sports – routinely credit loudly cheering galleries for providing adrenaline rushes at critical moments Fans lining a hole and green also provide a sort of human wall against the kinds of disasters that can befell a ball rolling otherwise unimpeded off course.

Yet three tournaments into a fanless June, the data is beginning to accumulate at least making the question a plausible one. You can see it most starkly in the field scoring averages for the first three non-fan events compared with the same three tournaments player on the same three courses one season ago. The data below includes the average 18-hole score for each tournament in 2019 and 2020, along with the course par (in parenthesis):

 Event                                    2019       2020       Difference      

Schwab Challenge (70)    69.03       69.05       +0.02

RBC Heritage (71)             71.16       69.18       -2.02

Travelers (70)                     69.72       68.65       -1.07

Particularly during the last two tournaments, the fan-less Tour pros have – relatively speaking – just torched the layouts presented to them. They beat their 2019 group performance by more than two full strokes at the RBC, and this week shot more than a full stroke lower at TPC River Highlands than they did one summer ago in the presence of witnesses.

Obviously, three weeks worth of data is hardly conclusive….although it does encompass an imposing-sounding 1,328 player rounds. There are any number of reasons why a field average might fluctuate from year to year: course setup, weather, differing field strengths among them.

One theory is that, following the enforced three-month layoff, the game’s best players have simply been more likely to show up at these events than in seasons past. Rory Mcilroy did not play in any of these events last year; he played all three in 2020.

One admittedly imperfect way to test the theory of fan impact on performance would be to look at the scores of competitors who did play in the same event both seasons. While hardly  conclusive, the findings might at least be considered suggestive.

At the RBC Heritage, there were 87 repeat entrants. They completed a total of 278 rounds in 2019, and 260 in this season’s event.

The average score among the 87 fell by a stroke and a half – from 69.96 to 68.40 – from last year’s playing to this year’s. That’s a 2.3 percent improvement per player, an absolute chasm-crossing by modern PGA Tour standards. Of the 87, 53 – that’s 61 percent – improved their performance in 2020, and two others matched their 2019 results.

That left only 22 of the 87 who fared worse without fans in 2020 than with fans in 2019.

The RBC was not unusual. At the Charles Schwab Challenge, 73 players teed it up during both the 2019 and 2020 competitions. Those 73 completed 220 rounds in 2020, 242 in 2019. Their average score declined from 70.60 last year to 69.43 this year.

The decline amounts to more than a full stroke per player, or 1.7 percent. In just one season. Of the 73,  47 improved their performance from year-to-year, and three others turned in matching numbers. That left just 23 who fared worse without crowds than with them.

At the just-concluded Travelers, the story was consistent. Of 82 players who competed both years, 53 improved their scoring average and three others produced identical averages. That leaves only 26 who played worse without crowds in 2020 than with crowds in 2019.

The average improvement among the 82 repeat players at the Travelers was nearly a full stroke, from 69.29 to 68.46. That’s a 1 percent improvement across the board.

For the three post-return events, the average season-to-season improvement in scoring average among players who competed both years was 1.28 strokes, or 1.7 percent. Any decent Tour player would kill for half that level of season-to-season improvement

Perhaps Tour players are simply better this year. That can’t be ruled out; they had a lot of extra time this spring to practice. But in that context it’s worth nothing that through the 2020 Arnold Palmer Invitational – the last pre-COVID tournament conducted to completion – the seasonal Tour scoring average was 71.16. That was effectively indistinguishable from the 71.25 scoring average through the same calendar point one season earlier.

In March, then, the Tour field was doing pretty much what it usually did. Something has changed in a big way this month

The figures don’t establish anything, but they do suggest that a change is afoot on tour. That change is reflected in a correlation between the absence of fans and player performance.

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A hard fast rule in statistics is that correlation does not necessarily establish causation. Other factors certainly could be in play. One strong argument against the “fans hurt scoring” argument is as follows: If fans are a detriment, how? Do they impair focus? Are they in some way intimidating (that seems unlikely). In fact I can’t think of a good reason why the presence of fans would hamper performance, which is why skepticism about this idea remains valid.

But the data is, if nothing else, intriguing. If we see an upward spike in scores when fans do return, even that wouldn’t be proof of concept…but it would be a fascinating trend.