Last week saw Nick Faldo knighted at Buckingham Palace. The knighthood coincided with the publication of an article by Capgemini consultants Stefan Sadnicki and Shilpa Shah entitled Faldo’s Folly or Monty’s Carlo in which the authors argue that the press criticism of Faldo after the 2008 Ryder Cup was unfair. The article is based on a Monte Carlo simulation of the Ryder Cup singles matches and suggests that Faldo’s strategy was certainly justifiable and potentially even optimal. Nick Faldo said last week: “It was amazing. I had dreams as a young boy of being a golfer and winning tournaments, but you don’t dream of this.” It was unclear whether he was referring to the article in the house-hold journal OR Insight or becoming a knight of the realm.

The Ryder Cup, arguably the most prestigious and exciting golf tournament in the world, is a team event contested once every two years between 12 golfers from Europe and 12 golfers from the USA. The paper considers the decisions facing each captain going into the final day’s singles matches when they have to select the order in which their players tee off. The analysis focuses on a number of strategies including:

  • ‘Front loading’ the best players at the start of the line up to ‘turn the scoreboard blue’ and create unstoppable momentum for the later matches;
  • Attempting to sacrifice weaker players against, for example, Tiger Woods to gain a greater advantage in other matches; and
  • Saving the players who play well under pressure for the critical matches at the end of the day when the ‘sphincter factor’ is high and the Ryder Cup can either be won or lost.

The sporting press, with a short memory of historic tournaments and without proper analysis, claimed a front loading strategy would have been better. However, as the US won due to the impressive victories gained in the middle 4 matches and with Europe actually winning 2½ of the first 4 matches, the ‘momentum’ argument holds very little weight. Another option is trying to second guess your opponent’s selection. Given that, prior to the official team announcements, it was widely reported in the media that the Americans were going to front-load their line-up, this potentially gave Faldo some extra information. However, our model shows that very little benefit can be gained from matching off differently ranked players against a known opponent selection. Another critic (and, incidentally, the incoming European captain for the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles next year) was Colin ‘Monty’ Montgomerie who said: “It would have occurred to me that unfortunately Poulter, Westwood and Harrington are our three strongest players and putting them out 10, 11, 12 would mean they might not – might, but might not – be involved in the final shake-up. If they had been playing higher up they absolutely would have been involved.” With Europe trailing 9-7 going into the final day, the critical matches (yellow bars) were most likely to be 10, 11 or 12 with Europe most likely to win the cup (blue bars) in the 12th match and lose it on the 10th (red bars).

If Faldo believed these players were those that played best under pressure, the analysis vindicates his decision. It shows that a considerable benefit can be gained by saving these pressure players for the critical matches. In conclusion, Sir Nick’s gamble was certainly justifiable and potentially optimal. The model uses a technique called Monte Carlo simulation – an extremely powerful tool as it enables the evaluation of a large number of scenarios, with varying uncertainties in relatively little time – perfect for analysing a lot of client problems to do with risk. In fact, the Ryder Cup example has direct applications to project scheduling risk. For example, in large, complex projects with lots of interdependent activities with varying length it soon becomes difficult to determine which are the truly key activities warranting extra attention.

The project manager, like Faldo, needs to decide how to maximise his chances of a successful outcome. On which activities should the best workers be resourced? Or where should the workers that work well under pressure be placed? Our article is not the first sporting application of OR to appear in the journals of the Operational Research Society. A more famous example, relating to the outcome of one-day cricket matches, was published by Duckworth and Lewis – this will no doubt to be considered on a rainy day in a future Figure It Out. The one question we can not answer is whether the article influenced the Queen’s decision. Unfortunately, Buckingham Palace was unavailable to comment last night when asked if the Queen indeed had a subscription to OR Insight… For the full paper please see the OR Insight journal: Faldo’s Folly or Monty’s Carlo