Is Tiger Woods Half As Good As He Used To Be?


How much lower are Tiger Woods’ chances of winning a Major Championship than they were in his prime?  The statistical evidence indicates that Tiger’s chance of winning this week’s Open Championship are substantially lower than they were in 2008.  The evidence is not yet conclusive that his chance of winning a Major has dropped by more than 50%, however.

During Tiger’s prime (1997-2008) he won an incredible 30% of the Majors he entered (14 out of 46) but has not won any of the last 16 Majors in which he has competed.  Tiger in his prime would have experienced a 16 Major drought about once every 83 years.  Even if Tiger’s chance of winning a Major were half as much as in his prime, he would still be expected to win 3 Majors every 5 years – an accomplishment over an extended career surpassed only by Jack Nicklaus.

Tiger’s drought in Majors is inconclusive evidence so far that his odds of winning a major have dropped by half – but it is getting close.  A golfer with a 15% winning percentage in Majors has a 7.4% chance of not winning 16 consecutive Majors.  It would, however, be a significant departure from the norm for a golfer with a winning percentage of 15% to go 5 years without a Major Championship.

Fifteen for Fifteen

Adam Scott’s collapse today over the last four holes at the British Open allowed Ernie Els to win his fourth major championship.  Els’ win means that fifteen different golfers have won the past fifteen major championships, tying the record set from 1994 to 1998.  This remarkable string of different winners in each of the major championships over the past four years reflects the parity among top professional golfers.

Els victory indicates how changes in conditioning and equipment have extended the period over which top players can remain competitive in major championships.  Tom Watson nearly won the British Open three years ago (he tied for first and lost in a playoff), 34 years after his first major championship.  Els has won major championships over an eighteen year span.  In the past ninety years only Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player have won major championships over a longer time span. 


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.

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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