Over the next couple of weeks, as the build-up to the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National intensifies, you’re going to hear a lot of clichés.
“Anything can happen in matchplay.”
“It’s largely a putting competition."
“Form goes out of the window.”
Stuff like that.
You will, in all likelihood, also be told that “the rookies hold the key to victory”.
It is an expression that has been casually trotted out for years – but just how reckless is the abandon with which it is used? Is there, in fact, an aphoristic quality to this little soundbite? Or is just a lazy line with little substance?
There’s only one way to be sure: some good, old-fashioned number-crunching…
The Ryder Cup has been contested by Europe and the USA since 1979, so we’ve looked at data going back to then.
Europe has used a total of 71 rookies in that time, as compared with the 80 blooded by the US.
Europe’s 71 rookies have played in a combined 221 matches with a Won-Lost-Halved record of 75-107-38, delivering 94 points in the process (a points percentage return of 38.9%).
Now contrast that with America’s 80 rookies. They have played in a combined 270 matches, with a W-L-H record of 112-118-41, returning 132.5 points (46.6% points percentage).
European rookies have won 33.9% of their matches, as compared with the United States’ debutants, who have won 41.5% of theirs.
So, American rookies demonstrably take quicker to the match than their Euro equivalents - but what does that mean in the overall context of the match?
Do rookies make that much of a difference?
The best way to answer this question is to compare how rookies have performed on a team-by-team, match-by-match basis.
Going back again to 1979, we compared the performance the rookies in each side to see if we could establish proof of a pattern between a strong rookie performance and overall victory.
We worked out their overall contribution to each match and compared it against the rookies on the opposition team.
For example, in 1979, the European team had five rookies, who contributed a total of 3.5 points out of 17 – a points percentage rate of 20.59%. By comparison, the eight rookies on the American side contributed a combined 15 points out of 27 - 55.56%.
For the cliché to hold true, the Americans should have won the match that year… which they did, 17-11 the score.
In fact, on 11 of the 19 occasions in which one side’s rookies outscored the other, that team went on to win – a success rate of 57.9%. That’s also not allowing for some statistical anomalies, such as 1989, when the match ended in a draw, and 1999 and 2012, when David Duval and Nicolas Colsaerts were the only rookies on their respective sides. Even proportionately, Duval was always going to struggle to outscore seven European rookies that year, with four American rookies proving equally too much for Colsaerts.
It is by no means an absolute truth nor an exact science but the stats appear to demonstrate that the rookies do indeed have a significant bearing on the outcome of the Ryder Cup.
There are eight first-timers involved this year: Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood, Alex Noren, Jon Rahm and Thorbjorn Olesen for Europe, and Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau for the USA. Captains Thomas Bjorn and Jim Furyk will be hoping they get their Ryder Cup careers off to a fast start, lest the famous gold trophy end up in the wrong hands.