Monday, 22 September 2008

Unlucky, Captain? Part 2

Following the US’s victory in the Ryder Cup, there has apparently been much speculation in the press regarding the decisions of Europe’s captain Nick Faldo in relation to the ordering of his team for the final days’ singles matches…

I say “apparently” because I’m not a great follower of golf (catching a few moments at a relative’s house over the weekend, I was certain I’d misheard when the Sky Sports announcer confidently asserted the match was coming from “Valhalla”. Surely that’s unlikely, I thought, what with it being fictional and everything…)

Anyway, the controversy seemed to revolve around whether Faldo had committed an egregious blunder or excellent blinder by leaving Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, and Porridge Harrington for the final three matches…

Now, the balancing act of course, concerns the following:

1] Do you put your strongest players out first (to boost the morale of the weaker players following)?; or

2] Is putting out your strongest players first a waste? (E.g. if you’re the US Captain, you’d want your best player to be up against (and beat) the best European player, not thrash the worst European player by a margin, a task which could legitimately be left (you'd hope) to one of the other fellows…)

A complicating factor is of course the state of the match when the time comes to announce the final day’s order for the singles matches…

To have a look at this, let’s assume that, as they won, the US has a slightly stronger team, so that they have the 1st, 3rd, 5th, etc. best players, and Europe has the 2nd, 4th, 6th, etc.

One possible set of parings would therefore be (giving the US player first):

1 v 2; 3 v 4; 5 v 6; 7 v 8; 9 v 10; 11 v 12;
13 v 14; 15 v 16; 17 v 18;19 v 20; 21 v 22; 23 v 24

Or another might be:

1 v 24; 3 v 22; 5 v 20; 7 v 18; 9 v 16; 11 v 14;
13 v 12; 15 v 10; 17 v 8; 19 v 6; 21 v 4; 23 v 2.

Or a third:

1 v 24; 3 v 2; 5 v 4; 7 v 6; 9 v 8; 11 v 10
13 v 12; 15 v 14; 17 v 16; 19 v 18; 21 v 20; 23 v 22.

What’s going on here? Not much, in fact. In each of the permutations above, given that the US are (as we’ve assumed) slightly better, they are likely to end up ahead in any one of these combinations (on the singles matches considered here, at least), but the range of likely outcomes is wider with the first draw, where all the matches are closer…

Of course, if Europe are well behind, the latter draw, where Europe has the highest ranked player in all except one of the matches would suit them better…

But, what can the Captains do? Well, since neither the US or Europe has a concrete historical policy of always putting out their best players first (or vice versa), the only way to prevent your opponent having any influence over the pairings at all is to simply draw the names out of the proverbial hat in a completely random fashion…

So, whoever takes over from Nick Faldo as European captain next time – just make it up, man! No, seriously, just make it up....


Rune said...

Should Nick Faldo get another chance at the captaincy after being such a blatant liar?

He said that his players were sandwiches!!!!!!

Who fell for that?

Mark, I urge you to watch Jonanthan Meades Middlebrow-on-Tee. It's a fantastic commentary on the artificial world of golf.

Watch anything by Jonathan Meades for he is GOD.

Well actually Clive James is GOD, but so is Jonathan Meades.

Lee said...

So, whoever takes over from Nick Faldo as European captain next time – just make it up, man! No, seriously, just make it up....

I like that idea...

Mark_W said...


Indeed, and I expect the players were cheesed off at being referred to as food, too. (Sorry) :-)

I must confess I'm not familiar with the works of Jonathan Meades, I shall try and seek some out...


If the match is still reasonably close, there really isn't any reason not to just pick the names out of a hat...It would be good if the next skipper did that...

Rune said...

You can find them all on youtube.

Nice Batman outfit by the way. ;)

Billy said...

Never realised that before. It one of those things that seems counter intuitive (to me ant way)

Mark_W said...


Nice Batman outfit by the way. ;)

Thank you, sir! The Batmobile is parked just out of shot to my left, and my hands are behind my back as I'm holding a can of Shark Repellant Bat-Spray... :-)


Never realised that before. It one of those things that seems counter intuitive (to me any way)

I've glossed over the maths (which are necessarily a more or less crude approximation in any case), for once, but this "just make it up" theory, though I like it, and it genuinely has merit, doesn't take account of things like individual players' preference for where they play in the order (a happy player is a better player, &c.), or things like a player that has played in all the foursomes and fourballs matches over the prededing two days wanting to play lower down the order in the singles so he has more of a rest and so on...

Having said all that, if things are close and you therefore can't predict with any confidence when the crucial singles matches that will ultimately decide the contest might occur, go on skipper - make it up, man! :-)


Rune said...

All joking apart, it's a well thought out post.

Can I just say that I've always thought that it's best to throw your best players in first? If you can pull away, it usually has a demoralising effect on your opponent.

I didn't watch the match but I reckon that's what happened here.

You're not playing to compete, you're playing to win.

Keeping your best players in reserve is pointless, it seems like a defeatist attitude.

I just found out that Brett Favre has never won a game from more than 14 points down. I would never have believed this but I think it adds a bit to my point.

So I'd go for strategy over chance, if you don't mind me saying, Batman.

Mark_W said...

Batman and Rune, I wonder would that work???


Can I just say that I've always thought that it's best to throw your best players in first?

I think you're right, to some (or a greater) extent: if we assume, in the example parings from the original post, that, if the difference in rankings is 1, 2, or 3, the chance that the higher ranked player wins the match is 55%, and if the difference is 4, 5 or 6, the chance is 60% and so on (ignoring halved matches for the moment) then Europe (by this admittedly crude measure) does best in the third set of pairings where their best players go out in matches 2, 3, and 4...

However, the positive thing with the "random" theory is that if (as in a close match) you can't predict where the crucial matches are likely to occur, then you really might as well pick the order in an entirely random fashion...

If I was ever captain of the Ryder Cup team, I'd like to think I'd trust the maths and go for the "out of a hat" method, though I think, were it actually to happen (which it won't, of course), the temptation to pack the best players in early doors may well indeed be overwhelming...

I just found out that Brett Favre has never won a game from more than 14 points down.

Really? That's seems almost genuinely unbelievable, but as you quite rightly say, it highlights the place where maths and the "real world" (in the case of sports) start to diverge...

It's still interesting, though! :-)


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