How important is a hot start at the PGA Championship?

Published on
How important is a hot start at the PGA Championship?

At the 2016 PGA Championship, Jimmy Walker finished Round 1 peering down at the rest of the leaderboard. And he never relented.

Walker finished all four days of last year’s tournament either tied for the lead or owning it outright. That’s uncommon. Before Walker, no PGA champion had led after both Thursday and Sunday since Phil Mickelson in 2005. That’s surprising when you see some of the players who’ve won in between: Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, to name a few.

After this year's first round, Kevin Kisner and Thorbjorn Olesen shared the lead. But how important is that hot start in the final major of the season? 

We dove into data from the last 30 years of PGA Championships to figure it out.

Here’s what we found.

Want to know how PGA Tour winners fared during the first round of events they won during the 2016-17 season? We took a look at that as well here.

You can’t win the PGA Championship on Thursday. But in almost all cases, you can lose it

Of the last 30 PGA Championship winners, 29 have finished 44th or higher on Day 1. The lone exception: Payne Stewart, who stumbled out to a 77th place start in 1989 before catching fire the next three days en route to victory.

In general, you don’t need to be leading or tied for the lead after Thursday in order to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy — though five of the last 30 winners have done so. They are: Walker in 2016, Mickelson in 2005, Woods in 2000, Davis Love III in 1997 and Nick Price in 1994.

But you almost always have to be in contention after the first round. Since 1987, the average first round position for eventual winners is 14.5. Eleven of the past 30 champions have placed in the top five on Thursday; more than half of them (16) have landed in the top 10.

Again, Stewart is the only player to finish lower than 44th and win. It’s fine if a golfer doesn’t have his best stuff on Thursday. But in a field as consistently stacked as the PGA Championship’s, you need to be decent at worst after the first 18 to maintain a shot at winning.

Lately, hot starts have resulted in Sunday success

So, about that 14.5 number referenced above: shrink the sample size to the last five years, and the figure is way, way lower.

Excluding Jason Dufner in 2013, who registered an 11th place Thursday finish, the most recent quintet of PGA winners each has finished Round 1 no lower than fourth place. Walker led in 2016, Day was third in 2015, while McIlroy was fourth in 2014 and second in 2012.

Is that a blip on the radar, or a sign of things to come? At this point, it’s hard to say; five years isn’t a big enough sample size to draw grand conclusions. But it’s worth keeping in mind as Quail Hollow looms.

Before 2012, there was a weird three-year stretch where winners struggled in the first round

Between 2009 and 2011, winners Y.E. Yang, Martin Kaymer and Keegan Bradley finished Thursday in 44th, 44th and 36th place, respectively. Excluding Stewart, in the past 30 years, these are the three worst first-round marks of any PGA champion.

What that means: Had this piece been written going into the 2012 PGA Championship, we may have thought Thursday finishes weren’t particularly important. The last five years have tilted the scales.

RELATED: What winning the Open means for the PGA Championship

Now, we know how winners have fared in Round 1. But how about the inverse? So, you have the lead after Thursday — great. Historically, what does it mean?

We crunched those numbers, too.

It’s still very possible for the wheels to fall off

Of the 48 players (due to ties) who’ve led after Round 1 since 1987, 10 have finished outside of the top 40 — including two sub-70 finishes from Stephen Ames and Rory Sabbatini in 2005.

PGA Championship winners have an average Thursday finish of 14.5. On the other side of the coin, Thursday leaders sport an average tournament finish of 19.9. Again, the theory holds firm: you can’t win a tournament in the first round, but you can lose it. Hot starts are meaningless without playing quality golf the rest of the way.

A third of Thursday winners proceed to finish in the top five overall

Sixteen of the past 48 first-round leaders have registered top-five finishes since 1987. Half of the Thursday leaders have proceeded to place in the top 10.

While these are significant figures, a 50-50 shot at a top-10 finish after winning the first day might not be as high as you’d expect. The lesson: Plenty of guys can catch fire for 18 holes. But when that number creeps toward 54 and 72, lesser players are exposed. Consistency isn’t a sexy skill, but it’s an incredibly important one.

Six Thursday leaders have finished second overall

Interpret this how you want, but for whatever reason, more first-round leaders have gone on to take second in the PGA Championship than win it outright. The runners-up: Jim Furyk in 2013, Woods in 2009, Sergio Garcia in 1999, Kenny Perry in 1996, Gene Sauers in 1992 and Mike Reid in 1989. In the last 30 years, leading the pack after the first round has produced a 23 percent chance at a top-two finish.

You’re far more likely to start hot and fade than start slow and gain steam

Why? Because the PGA Championship is so competitive — there’s usually no time for major slip-ups. And if you do post a real clunker of a round, you better go scorched earth on the field for the remainder of the tournament.

Stewart is the only sub-45 Thursday finisher to win the Wanamaker Trophy in the last 30 years. On the flip side, several Thursday leaders have plummeted to sub-50 finishes in the remaining days — Graeme Storm in 2007, Lucas Glover in 2006, Ames and Sabbatini in 2005, Grant Waite in 2001, Michael Bradley in 1995, Craig Sadler in 1992, Ian Woosnam in 1991 and Bobby Wadkins in 1990.

MORE: Full PGA Championship field

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that all four rounds are important. On that note, it also doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a major championship can’t be won on the first day.

But if this data tells you anything, it’s this: a fast start guarantees you nothing. But in most cases, it is a prerequisite for success. If your favorite player is in pole position on Thursday evening in Quail Hollow, great. Like a baseball pitcher who posts quality start after quality start, he’s giving himself a chance to win.

A great first round is no sure thing when it comes to winning. But it’s better than nothing.