2019 PGA Championship: Why Tiger Woods vs. the field is no longer a storyline at majors
The 15-time major winner will go for another at Bethpage next week
The inevitable fallout from the 2019 Masters was always going to go one of two ways. The sports world was going to crown Tiger Woods for finally being back -- he was even asked if he believed he was back in his post-Masters press conference -- or it was going to chalk this up to a one-off, Halley's Comet-like performance. Jack Nicklaus in 1986 et al. The truth, as with most things, is somewhere in the middle.
So let's field some hypothetical questions (that I created) about who Tiger Woods is right now in 2019 and what he's going to do at future major championships into his 40s. The basis for my answers are mostly statistical and historical evidence, but as you know by now, the problem with statistical and historical evidence is that Tiger has built a career on blowing past both. So we are left at a fascinating impasse. Let's jump right in.
Is Tiger vs. the field a thing?
No, absolutely not. It is unequivocally not a thing, and it never will be again. Woods is currently having an incredible season, even without the Masters win. His 1.7 strokes gained per round on the field ranks No. 7 on the PGA Tour, and he's 6 for 6 on top-30 finishes. But these are the numbers of a really great golfer, not an historically transcendent one.
We can all agree that it clicked for Woods at some point after the U.S. Open last season. Since missing the cut at Shinnecock, Woods has played in 14 events and won two of them. That's a winning percentage of 14 percent -- which is terrific -- but not all that different from Dustin Johnson (11 percent) and worse than Bryson DeChambeau (17 percent). To have a legitimate superstar vs. the field argument, Tiger has to be winning at closer to a 25-percent clip (which will never, ever happen again).
Is Tiger the best golfer in the world right now?
This question is more complicated. The strokes gained numbers say that Rory McIlroy is, but the strokes gained numbers don't include data from the Masters. Brandel Chamblee recently posited that Woods might in fact be the best player in the world, and that D.J. and McIlroy are the only two who can keep pace with the Big Cat.
I'm still leaning toward McIlroy because of the full body of 2019 work (2.7 strokes gained per round, eight top 10s in nine events), but the Sagarin rankings tell a fascinating story. Woods has played the No. 1 schedule in the world over the last 52 weeks, and he currently ranks No. 3 in those rankings behind Johnson and Rickie Fowler. Based on those numbers, you have to more heavily weigh the Masters win because it was more recent and the simple fact that Woods hasn't been at his best for a full 52 weeks yet, I think there is -- I cannot believe I'm saying this -- a pretty good case to make for Tiger as the best player on the planet right now.
What is Tiger doing as well as he was in his prime?
Let's take this back to 2006 because it gives us the opportunity to compare apples to apples (strokes gained data doesn't go back to 2000). Like I mentioned earlier, Woods is gaining 1.7 strokes per round this season compared to -- are you ready for this? -- 3.4 per round in 2006. However, if you look at his short game, it's amazingly just as sharp. In 2006, he gained about two strokes on the field per tournament with his putter and short game (part of the reason is that he hit every approach shot to, like, 3 feet so there's not a lot of strokes to be gained with the putter). This season it's closer to three per tournament. The biggest difference between the two Tigers is that 2006 Tiger, the greatest iron player of all time, gained over two strokes per round on the field in 2006 on his approach shots. This year he's gaining just over two per tournament.
Should he be the favorite at the 2019 majors?
Bettors always have to pay a bit of a Tiger tax, and Woods will be the favorite at the rest of 2019's majors. The question, though, is not will he be but should he be. Here's the crazy thing: I think he should! He's won at Bethpage, site of this year's PGA Championship. He's won (historically) at Pebble Beach, site of this year's U.S. Open. And he's probably going to be good at Open Championships for as long as his spine stays straight. Nobody has been better over the last three majors -- Woods is averaging a third-place finish, Francesco Molinari is averaging fourth and nobody else is averaging a top 10 -- and he's smartly not burning himself out by playing too much. He won't ever be a 4-1 or 2-1 favorite again, but there's no reason for him not to be 9-1 or 10-1 for the rest of this season.
Why Tiger won't win more majors in his 40s
Golf is better now than the last time Tiger won a major. We can talk all we want about how golfers used to be better shot-makers or smarter or more determined, but the sheer reality here is that there has never been an industry in the history of capitalism that hasn't gotten more competitive with the influx of more money. The first time Woods won at Bethpage (2002 U.S. Open) the purse was nearly half of what it will be at this month's PGA Championship. Follow the money. Blame the fact that nobody shapes shots like they used to on course design, setup and equipment, but remember that the competition at the top is nastier than ever, and Woods will labor just to put himself in position once again to win one of these. Tiger has probably (hopefully!) 25 more major starts. He'll apparently be involved in a lot of them, but what if the winning percentage is more like Dustin Johnson (3 percent) than Jordan Spieth (13 percent)? Tiger isn't significantly better than either golfer has been the way he use to be, so it will come down to breaks and bounces at individual events.
Why Tiger will win more majors in his 40s
The war for Tiger's soul has always been a two-front battle. There is the body and the hands on one side and the most gifted, most clever mind maybe in golf history on the other. For the most part they worked in synchronicity to produce one of the greatest artistic careers in sports history. But now that the body has faded a little bit, the mind is taking over. Remember when Woods was criticized at The Open last year for his conservative game plan in the first few rounds? Then remember when he took the lead on the back nine of that Open? Then remember when he played a mentally flawless final round at Augusta in April for his fifth green jacket? Woods has all the books in all the libraries already downloaded. It's the one thing you don't lose even when you lose your body, and even though that body won't overwhelm the world with what it can do anymore, the mind has seemingly gotten wiser with age.
That's how, when there have only been eight major wins by golfers older than Woods' 43 -- and one of them was Old Tom Morris taking a Claret Jug at Prestwick in 1867! -- that Tiger can continue to roll with the youngest guns.
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