Parity and Order Statistics: Why Tiger Woods May Not Break Jack Nicklaus’ Record in Majors

When Ben Curtis won the Valero Texas Open on Sunday he became the 17th different winner in the first 18 PGA tournaments this season.  In addition there have been 14 different winners of the past 14 major tournaments in professional golf.  The only other time, in professional golf history, with similarity parity among the world’s best golfers was when 15 different golfers won 15 major tournaments between Nick Price’s PGA Championship in 1994 and Lee Janzen’s U.S. Open victory in 1998.  There are more top young golfers capable of winning major tournaments than at any time in golf history, and this will lower Tiger Woods’ chances of setting the record for most major championship victories.

Tiger Woods won 14 of the 50 major tournaments he entered between 1997 and 2009.  No one in the history of golf had a similar run, winning 28% of majors entered.  In order to win each major tournament Tiger had to shoot a lower score than the best score among the rest of the field.  The best score among a group of golfers is an extreme value or order statistic.

About 25% of the variation in golf scores in a major championship is attributable to the golf course and the day’s playing conditions.  After removing the common component of his residual score Tiger Woods, in his prime, had a standard deviation of 6.5 shots per major tournament.  Tiger’s 28% win percentage is equivalent to playing against six rival golfers who are each expected to score four shots worse than Tiger, on average.

Can Tiger tie or break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships?  If so, how long will that take?  If Tiger returns to previous form, and maintains a one shot per round lead over the six top rivals who have a chance to beat him, he would break the record in late 2016.  But Tiger’s top rivals are better than they were a decade ago and there are more of them.

If Tiger faces twice as many top rivals his win rate falls by 35%.  If his edge over his rivals is cut in half, so that his advantage is two strokes per four rounds, his win rate falls by more than 25%.  If both occur he will win 56% less often or about one major championship every two years.  The last scenario is the most likely and means that even if Tiger returns to his old form, the large field of top young golfers he now faces will delay his 19th major championship victory for at least another decade.


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