Waiting for the Next Tom Watson

At the U.S. Open in San Francisco, Tiger Woods appears to be regaining the form that made him one of the best golfers in history.  Comparing great golfers across generations is complicated by improvements in equipment, an increase in the number of professional tournaments per season, and differences in the strength and depth of competition on the PGA Tour.  My comparison uses the World Golf Rankings methodology applied to the four major golf championships.  Tiger Woods may never be as dominant as he was a decade ago, but he is capable of winning several major championships over the next decade.  At this point in Jack Nicklaus’ career he was challenged by a young Tom Watson, who eventually won eight major championships.  Watson was Nicklaus’ primary rival after the careers of Arnold Palmer and Gary Player faded.  Tiger’s game, and his quest for the major championship record, could benefit from the emergence of a young rival who will win multiple major championships.

Jack Nicklaus won his first major at the 1962 U.S. Open.  The following chart compares Nicklaus’ performance in majors over the next 24 years to his main rivals: Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Tom Watson.  Palmer was dominant in the early 1960s.  Watson was the world’s best player in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Player was Nicklaus’ primary rival in between.

Tiger Woods won his first major at the 1997 Masters.  The following chart compares Woods’ performance in majors over the next 15 years to his major rivals: Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, and Vijay Singh.  Mickelson will celebrate his 42nd birthday tomorrow, Els is already 42 and Singh is 49.  These golfers’ best years of championship play are behind them.  Tiger dominated his competition between 2000 and 2003, and again between 2006 and 2009.  In between, Mickelson, Els, and Singh, a late bloomer, were playing at about the same level.  Woods, at age 36, needs a younger rival to continue to push him to reclaim the title of the world’s top player.

There are probably more young golfers, from around the world, capable of winning major tournaments than at any time in golf history.  There have been 14 different winners of the past 14 major tournaments.  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 1994 and 1998.  What Tiger may need to break Jack Nicklaus’ record is the emergence of a single great rival, such as Rory McIlroy or Charl Schwartzel, who can play the role of Tom Watson and be near the top of the leaderboard at the next 20 major championships.  It’s unclear whether such a rival will emerge from the pack.  Until then it’s Tiger vs. “the field.”

Technical Note: The World Golf Rankings award 100 points to a golfer who wins a major tournament, 60 points for second place, 40 for third, 30 for fourth and 24 and 20 points for fifth and sixth place finishes.  The points drop steeply with rank order finish with 1.5 points awarded to any golfer who made the cut and finished 60th or lower in the tournament.

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