Whenever sports books in Vegas list the home team as three-point favorites in a football game, it generally means two things: 1) the sports books believe the two teams are in fact evenly matched, and 2) the three-point edge for the home side accounts for the fact that they will be playing in their own stadium in front of their own fans.
(This might seem like a huge amount, but considering football’s propensity for having games decided by a field goal, it actually makes a great deal of sense.)
According to Bet Firm, a similar sort of home-field advantage exists in baseball, with the home team prevailing 55 percent of the time, and an even more dramatic home-court advantage has been found in NBA games. And so, with the Ryder Cup set to begin tomorrow, I decided to explore whether a similar sort of home-course advantage exists in the Ryder Cup.
This is a difficult discussion to have for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the home-course advantage that is implied here is not the same as the one the weekend eight-handicap hacker might enjoy over his out-of-town buddy if they were to play at the eight-handicapper’s home track. The players on both teams travel on a weekly basis, playing courses all across the world, so whatever local knowledge they might enjoy over one another is limited to the courses they played as a kid or in whatever gated community area they now reside.
Therefore, whatever home-course advantage a side is likely to enjoy is due in most part to the support they will receive from the crowd on-hand. (According to the book Scorecasting, not only are the crowd and field of play responsible for the home team triumphing, but the game officials unconsciously tend to favor the home team, thus increasing the likelihood that they will win. However, rules officials in golf play a minuscule role in the outcome of a match compared to the home-plate umpire in baseball.)
Secondly, there is the drawback of a small sample size. While the record books will tell you that the Ryder Cup has been decided on 38 different occasions, the reality is that the main storyline heading into the first 22 Ryder Cups was “Just how much will the United States win by this time?” with the Americans racking up 18 victories in that time.
That all changed in 1979, when Europe’s top stars, such as Seve Ballesteros and Bernard Langer, were allowed to participate for the first time, shifting the Ryder Cup from a biennial American walkover to the competitive event that it is today. This leaves us with only 16 different Ryder Cups from which to draw our conclusions from, particularly troublesome when we consider that the home-field advantage that has been shown to be present in other sports had thousands of games take place each year as opposed to one match every two years, as is the case with the Ryder Cup.
Both of those percentages support the popular notion that the Ryder Cup is tightly contested and usually comes right down to the wire (much to NBC’s delight). What is of particular interest here, though, is the impact that is felt by playing the matches in the United States versus across the pond in Europe. That is, is there a difference in the number of points each team accumulates based on where the matches are played?
The answer is, in fact, yes. The Americans have historically scored 14.125 points when the event is held on American soil as opposed to when it is held over in Europe, where they have only scored on average 13.5 points.
That might not sound like much, but that difference would have been enough to swing no less than seven of the 16 matches we are looking at.
Before we go any further, let’s do a little thought experiment. Let’s imagine that Alabama decides to put a low-end D2 football program on their schedule. What’s likely to happen? That D2 school is, in all likelihood, going to get creamed, no matter if they play the Crimson Tide at home or at Paul Bryant Stadium in Tuscaloosa. Now that D2 school might only get drubbed by 84 points at home, as opposed to 90 on the road, but really, it does not matter. The gap in talent is simply too great to overcome in a meaningful way.
The same could be said in Ryder Cup blowouts. While it might seem unfair to compare world-class golfers on either side to a low-end D2 football team, we can reasonably conclude that a side that gets waxed by three points or more (a monumental beat-down considering there are only 28 points at stake) would have lost the Ryder Cup no matter if the match was played in the United States, Europe or for that matter, the moon.
For our purposes, the data from those contests offer about as much value to us as the Twilight series books do for non-tween girls: meaningless.
In Ryder Cups decided by three points or less, the home team’s record is 6-3-1, with the one tie actually looking more like a win when you consider that Europe actually retained the cup by tying the Americans at The Belfry in 1989. This record might seem to imply that the home side does enjoy an advantage, but first we must ask if this is due to simple random chance or if it this is in fact significant.
Using a binomial distribution, with a p value of .5 (a fair assumption given that Europe has only prevailed one more time in 16 tries), a n value of 10 (representing our 10 tightly contested Cups) and a k value of 7 (representing the seven times the home side prevailed, including the tie that helped Europe retain the cup at home at the Belfry).
Without boring you with the formulae, the likelihood of the home side winning seven of the 10 contests comes out to roughly 11 percent. This small percentage might seem to suggest that our p value ought to be titled to account for some small form of home-course advantage. (Translation: Maybe we ought to favor the home side.)
However, we again run into the problem of a small sample size. After all, if you flip a coin 10 times and it comes up heads seven times, you don’t assume that the coin is in any way tricked-up; if it were to land that way 700 times out of 1,000, though, chances are: 1) that coin has been tampered with and 2) you just got hustled.
So is there evidence to support the idea that there is a home-course advantage involved in the Ryder Cup? The short answer is yes, there is. The more appropriate answer however is yes, though not nearly on the same scale as has been shown to exist in other sports. But if it’s a dogfight and comes down to the last few singles matches this Sunday at Medinah, don’t bet against the United States.