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Better to be consistent or occasionally brilliant?

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Prior to the first week of this PGA Tour season, I asked a handful of players – granted, those coming off varying degrees of success last year, since the Hyundai Tournament of Champions is a winners-only event – about their goals for 2013.

By and large, the universal response wasn’t about victory totals or world ranking prowess. It was about consistency, just continuing to progress and improve with every week.

That thought stuck with me as I watched Brian Gay close out Charles Howell III on the second playoff hole at the Humana Challenge in a classic case of the opportunistic once again overcoming the consistent. After all, Gay now has four career victories – twice as many as Howell – though you could easily argue that Howell has been twice the player over the span of their careers.

The entire notion of consistency over streakiness may sound like a good talking point, but the bottom line is that golf rewards brief moments of brilliance over long bouts of respectability. So I started crunching some numbers to back up that point.

The first statistic I found didn’t require any heavy lifting as far as calculations, but may be the most surprising number to come out of this past week.

Since 2008, Gay has more PGA Tour victories than Matt Kuchar, Jim Furyk or Luke Donald.

If that sounds implausible, it should. Despite his four career victories, Gay is hardly a household name while the other three are toeing the line on superstar status.

And there’s good reason for it. Over the last five-plus seasons, Gay has posted 19 top-10 finishes, half as many as any of the other three, with Kuchar (41), Furyk (39) and Donald (38) the leaders in that category during this time.

What it means is that each of the three superstars has a conversion rate in the single-digits when in contention (for the sake of this debate, a top-10 will be considered as “in contention”), whereas Gay finds the winner’s circle more than a fifth of the time that he’s in the mix.

All of which got me to thinking: Gay, who also won the 2008 Mayakoba Golf Classic and Verizon Heritage and St. Jude Classic one year later, must own one of the better conversion rates for any player who has won this much over that period.

After further crunching, I found that he is one of 16 players to have won at least four times since the beginning of the 2008 season. Many of them are players you would think are on such a list, from Tiger Woods to Phil Mickelson to Rory McIlroy to Ernie Els; some are consistent performers, such as Dustin Johnson, Zach Johnson and Hunter Mahan; others remain on the list from wins early in that time, like Geoff Ogilvy and Kenny Perry; and then there are a few under-the-radar winners, basically limited to Mark Wilson and, yes, Brian Gay.

Break down all the stats, though, and you’ll find that Gay’s 21.1 percent conversion rate is actually only in the middle of the pack for this group (all numbers since the beginning 2008):

Player Top-10s Wins Conversion rate
Tiger Woods 33 13 39.4
Kenny Perry 16 5 31.3
Rory McIlroy 22 6 27.3
Zach Johnson 25 6 24
Mark Wilson 17 4 23.5
Phil Mickelson 35 8 22.9
Geoff Ogilvy 18 4 22.2
Steve Stricker 38 8 21.1
Bubba Watson 19 4 21.1
Brian Gay 19 4 21.1
Dustin Johnson 30 6 20
Bill Haas 20 4 20
Justin Rose 21 4 19
Ernie Els 23 4 17.4
Nick Watney 28 4 14.3
Hunter Mahan 28 4 14.3

What can we take from this? Well, quite frankly, I wouldn’t read all that much into it. Sure, maybe players such as Woods and McIlroy are able to step on the gas pedal and turn title contentions into titles more often than others, but that doesn’t conversely mean that the likes of Watney and Mahan curl up and wilt from the pressure on Sunday afternoons.

For that, we would have to look at players who haven’t won as much over this time period. Then again, it would be difficult to criticize the last half-decade for Kuchar, Furyk and Donald. Obviously each has faltered at times when contending down the stretch, but so have most of the players on the four-win list, as well.

Still, it’s interesting that most pros preach consistency over everything else – and maybe it does make sense. After all, ask yourself this question: Would you rather have the career of Gay over the past five-plus years or that of Kuchar, Furyk or Donald? It’s an interesting question, no matter the answer.