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Woods’ miracle shot serves notice that he’s back

June 4th, 2012 · 8 Comments

On Sunday Tiger Woods put on a finishing kick on the final four holes, playing them in three under to shoot past Rory Sabbatini to win his fifth Memorial Tournament.

The signature shot, which you may have seen a dozen times by now, was an incredible flop shot on the water guarded par 3 sixteenth that, on its dying gasp, snuck into the far right side of the cup. According to Jack Nicklaus, the tournament host, “…he had one place to land the ball, he’s playing a shot that if he leaves it short, he’s going to leave himself again a very difficult shot, if he hits it long, he’s going to probably lose the tournament.  He lands the ball exactly where it has to land. I don’t think under the circumstances I’ve ever seen a better shot.”

This bit of heroics led to a vintage Woods fistpump, a vicious uppercut that was his most emphatic in years. Though the flop the big shot, Woods positioned himself for the win with a superb day of ball striking – he hit 13 of 14 fairways and 14 greens. For the week he hit 53 greens, 12 better than the field’s average of only 41. That type of quality ball striking that was the hallmark of Woods at his best, and it issues an ominous warning to his peers that he now ready to contend for majors again. But can he win them? That’s the last part of the process that Woods knows he must complete.

Following the win, the press dutifully gloated over Woods’ 73rd win PGA Tour victory, which tied him for second with Nicklaus on the all-time list. Even Tiger got into the act, saying he was surprised that he had done it “at such an early age.” So, 36 is an early age – well, I suppose so compared to Nicklaus, who won his 73rd at age 46.

Now let’s put their records in perspective. After 16 seasons, Nicklaus had won 64 times on the PGA Tour, nine fewer than Woods. The biggest reason he had not won as many as Woods is his superior competition. For example, at this point Nicklaus had finished second 50 times (counting seconds in the British Open) to Woods’ 28.

Nine of these seconds came at the hands of superstars in the majors including Arnold Palmer (2), Gary Player (1), Tom Watson (2), and Lee Trevino (4). Another big factor that’s inflated Woods’ total is the number of small field events that he’s won (22). In Nicklaus’ day, the only small field event was the Tournament of Champions. And finally, Woods returns year after year to his pet courses. As a result 31 of his wins have come on just five courses that are well suited to his game.

Woods’ win catapulted him from ninth to fourth in the World Golf Rankings, and he is now the betting favorite for the U.S. Open according to Ladbrokes.com, which has him at 6-1. Next is Rory McIlroy at 10-1. It is worth noting that Rory has missed three cuts in a row.

So, it would seem that all has returned to normal in golf’s kingdom – Nike is running a new commercial featuring Woods, he is the defacto best player, he’s won multiple times this season going into a major, and he is the favorite. And the intimidation factor is back – just ask poor Rickie Fowler, who shot an 84 in Woods’ company to Tiger’s 67.

To complete the picture, Woods needs only to win a major. He’s got three chances to do so in 2012. I’ve made my reservation with my couch for June 14-17. How about you?

Tags: PGA Tour · Tiger vs. Jack

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8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 BD // Jun 4, 2012 at 9:10 am

    The fact that Nicklaus had 50 second-place finishes to Tiger’s 28 doesn’t change the fact that they are tied in WINS. That’s the record being discussed, not the record for runner-up finishes or wins-plus-runner-up finishes.

    As for the idea that Jack finished second so often because of “superior competition,” according to what you wrote, Palmer, Player, Watson, and Trevino only accounted for 9 of his 50 second-place finishes (to age 36). So 41 of those 50 (82%) came against more “ordinary” players. That doesn’t strike me as particularly impressive.

    By comparison, looking at a list of Tiger’s 26 second-place finishes (not sure why they have 26 and not 28 as you stated), it appears that fully 12 of the 26 (46%) were to multiple-majors winners, and another 11 were to one-time major winners (if we’re forced to count Rory McIlroy as a one-time major winner despite the fact he’ll probably win 10+ in his career). Therefore, Tiger has only finished second three times to a player who HASN’T won a major (Bart Bryant, Billy Mayfair, and Heath Slocum).

    Here’s the link, btw:
    http://www.pgatour.com/r/tiger.victoryroom.seconds/index.html

    As far as trying to do a direct comparison of the competition Jack and Tiger have faced, I just don’t see how it’s possible to state definitively that Jack faced tougher competition week in and week out. First, just as a general proposition, players today (regardless of sport) are bigger, stronger, faster, better nourished, etc., as compared to their historical counterparts. The level of athletic competition just goes up and up as the years go by. Golf is no exception.

    Second, the game is hugely more international than it was when Nicklaus was in his prime. Jack rarely had to tee it up against the best players in Europe or Asia.

    Third, because the incentives to become a pro golfer are much greater today than 50 years ago, it’s much more likely a potential championship-caliber player is in fact playing professional golf as opposed to, say, selling insurance (which I believe Nicklaus himself did for a living just before his golf career took off). This is just another reason we can be fairly certain the talent pool is deeper now than it was in 1960.

    Fourth, although you frequently reference Palmer, Watson, and Player as guys who exemplified the competition Nicklaus faced during his prime, it doesn’t follow that because these particular guys managed to win a lot of majors that the OVERALL level of competition was greater for Jack than it has been for Tiger. The truly stiff competition in golf changes from week to week and month to month. It only takes one player out of 150 playing lights-out golf to cost a Nicklaus or a Woods a win. It only takes 10 such players to cost them a top-10 finish. Whether it’s the same 10 guys or 10 different guys from one year to the next isn’t a reflection on how good Nicklaus or Woods are. However, your argument seems to be that because Trevino won 6 majors over 16 years, he counts as a greater competition for Jack than the combination of six DIFFERENT guys who each won one major each during Tiger’s 16-year reign. I just don’t think that follows logically. For all we know, Zach Johnson was actually a better golfer at the 2007 Masters than Trevino was at the 1984 PGA Championship — even though Trevino obviously had the “greater” career. What difference does it make to Tiger if Johnson only wins 1 major in his career, if someone just as good as Johnson was in 2007 comes along and wins a major in 2013? The fact that more of Jack’s rivals won more majors than Tiger’s rivals have won (so far) simply doesn’t tell us anything about the overall level of competition either Jack or Tiger have faced. (In fact, if anything, it would seem to imply Tiger is facing deeper fields.)

    The point is, although Jack may have had to face more “legendary” players than Tiger, it’s not the star power of the names that define the level of competition. It’s the quality of play AT THE TIME that define the level of competition. And there are simply more players likely to show up at a given tournament and play great golf today than there in the 1960s-80s.

  • 2 Phil // Jun 4, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    Hi BD, Wow, what a dissertation! Yes, they are tied, but my point was that Tiger played a schedule of favored events and small field events (which did not exist in Nicklaus’ day) that elevated his chances of winning.
    Nicklaus’ nine seconds were, as I stated, in the majors only. There were another five that came to those players in other events. For his entire career, 36 of Nicklaus 66 seconds came at the hands of members of the Hall of Fame. These included Miller (4), Casper (2), Floyd (2), and Littler (2), not to mention Weiskopf (4), who should be in the HOF
    As for competition, there are more good players today, but those players don’t get enough experience on the leaderboard, so they are weak down the stretch – like Sabbatini was on Sunday. The part of the leaderboard where competition matters is at the top – where Nicklaus faced stiffer competition from the greats that I, for good reason, make a habit of mentioning. Today, more players may play good golf, but at the top where champions excel, it can be argued that the legendary players had greater mental strength than today’s players.
    As for your Trevino argument, he does represent more competition because he cost Nicklaus 4 majors, and 15 others cost him 15 more, whereas Tiger’s competitors cost him only 6 majors (his seconds). The competition otherwise doesn’t matter when it doesn’t directly cost a player a major.

  • 3 BD // Jun 4, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    I’m under the impression that the limited field events are generally limited to the better players, so I’m not sure they’re as big a factor in running up Tiger’s win totals as you think they are.

    Overall, Tiger has won something like 25% of all the official PGA events he has played in. Even if some fraction of those events “only” had 30-35 players in them, that’s pretty dominant.

    As for the fact that a lot of Jack’s competitors are in the HoF, it helps that all of his contemporaries are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. I’m sure a lot more of Tiger’s contemporaries will be in the HoF thirty years from now than are in there currently.

    Your point about how many of Tigers rivals don’t get into the Sunday mix often enough to stand up to the pressure is an interesting one — and I don’t necessarily disagree. But, on the other, many of the guys who COULD stand up to Jack during th elast round of a final — Watson comes to mind — in fact beat him. The argument would be stronger if, in the face of such unwavering competition, Nicklaus always came out on top. But he didn’t.

    I think where Tiger can ultimately make his case for greatest ever is the fact that, with today’s equipment, it’s simply a lot harder to dominate the field than it was in the persimmon-balata era. There is no question that Jack was the best golfer during the era in which he played; but in that era, a player who WAS in fact the best could count on winning a lot more often than the rest of the field.

    Today, the equipment (not to mention overall know-how, training, etc.) is such that even if a player isn’t the best ball-striker, he can still get in a position to win a given event through a few lucky bounces and by having a hot putter. Mis-hits just aren’t penalized to nearly the same degree as they were when the sweet spot was only the size of a dime. So, the very best players today have a harder time separating themselves from the field than Nicklaus had in the 1960s. Equipment improvements mean there is much more parity in terms of overall scoring.

    That being the case, Tiger’s ability to win a quarter of the events he has played during the period 1996-present represents a greater feat of dominance than Jack’s winning percentage from 1960-86, when being the best ball-striker was more of a guarantee of a better finish.

  • 4 Phil Capelle // Jun 5, 2012 at 3:41 am

    Hi BD, Just had my coffee, so here goes…The equipment makes everyone equal is one of the greatest fallacies of today. Just look at Tiger vs. Tiger. He was missing fairways by a mile, and his GIR suffered. Then his swing improved and now he is hitting the ball great. As I mentioned in the post, he won because he beat the field by hitting 53 greens to their average of 41. If everyone was so close to one another the field might have averaged 50, which then would have given him little advantage. Another example: Luke Donald has separated himself from the rest with his short game and putting. His average is 67.94 versus the tour average of 56.54. That’s about five shots per 72 holes saved versus the average pro. I could go down the list of stats and show big differences in all categories among pros that are supposedly so tightly bunched because of the equipment. Skill still matters.
    I looked at the list of players Woods’ has finished second to and have estimated that, when all get into the HOF that probably will (including Rory), he will have finished second about half the time to player’s who have finished second. Nicklaus number of seconds to HOF members could go up if deserving players like Weiskopf (3 seconds to him) and Sanders (1) are inducted.
    As for the small field seconds, through 2010, Woods won over 40% of the small field events, which elevated his overall average greatly. It is too bad Nicklaus couldn’t have padded his average with this kind of event. Your period for Nicklaus’ winning percentage should be shortened to his prime, 1962-1980 to make it a fair comparison with Woods’. We’ve seen that Woods can go through average dropping dry spells, and he may enter one permanently as Nicklaus did also when he enters his 40s. One of the biggest mistakes in golf analysis is to include starts past a player’s prime in calculating and then comparing a player’s winning percentage to those like Woods who are still in their high percentage years.
    Nicklaus’ competition beat him because they did not fold in the final rounds, unlike players like Fowler, for example, who shot 84 in his debut with Woods. My stats have shown that players paired with Woods in the final round of a major typically shot 2.5 shots worse than they did in the first three rounds. So, one big reason why he was 14 for 14 in closing majors was because his “competition” choked. Trevino and Watson didn’t. As for putting, I have a theory that players who use the belly can get hotter than the rest. If true, this would be an argument for equipment producing winners from the field, thereby increasing competition.

  • 5 BD // Jun 5, 2012 at 7:57 am

    I wouldn’t say the equipment makes everyone equal, just that it makes everyone MORE equal in terms of results. There shouldn’t be any dispute as to the fact that, with today’s drivers, off-center hits tend to wind up more playable then the same quality hit would have been off of a little persimmon head. Hogan was the best ball-striker in history, but it should be obvious, and no insult to him, to suggest he was lucky to play in an era where it would have been more difficult for a POOR ball-striker to beat him.

    Equipment and training/athleticism/nutrition changes have ushered in the whole era of bomb-and-gouge golf. These factors have made it relatively less important to be accurate and consistent on full-swing shots, while placing a premium on the ability to hit recovery shots, get-up-and down from off the green, and to putt on the glassy surfaces they now call greens.

    BTW, all of this points out why the game Tiger is playing is very different from what we see on “Big Three Golf” reruns.

    If we were being completely fair about it, we would probably have to admit that Jack was the greatest at the style of golf being played in his era, and Tiger is the greatest at the style of golf being played now. If Tiger had been born 30 years earlier, perhaps he would have been as good as or even better than Nicklaus playing on 1960s-1980s courses with that era’s equipment. Likewise, if Nicklaus had been born 30 years later, we could speculate as to whether or not he would have been as successful as Tiger playing the modern game. We just don’t know, because they played in different times, on different courses, with different courses, and against different opponents.

    If we’re forced to decide which one was ultimately better than the other, then there are a couple of factors that I think lean pretty heavily in Tiger’s favor. First, the overall talent pool is bigger and better today than it was 50 years ago.

    Second, Tiger is clearly superior to Jack in certain rather important skills. One of them is the short game — which Jack supposedly didn’t “need” because he was such a consistent ball-striker. Another is putting — especially “pressure” putting. A third is recovery shots.

    Jack was the better overall ball-striker, but he probably wasn’t any longer than Tiger, all things held equal. To me, it adds up to Tiger having an overall stronger skill-set than Jack.

    A few other points (since I’ve long since abandoned any pretense of brevity):

    (a) Although we’re debating Tiger’s 73 vs. Jack’s, Tiger already has a 9-(?) win lead over Jack based on your earlier post, and I believe he still has the rest of this year to build on that age-36 lead. Of course, he also has the next decade or so to improve his tally of 73 wins.

    (b) As for the fact that Tiger has won 40% of the limited-field events:
    (i) Those limited-field events account for 22 out of 73 of his wins, which is only 30% of his total. (Not sure why the 40% calculation is the relevant figure.)
    (ii) Jack won the Tournament of Champions 5 times, and that’s a VERY small field. (Jack also won the World Series of Golf in 1976, so that’s a total of 6 small-field events for him.)
    (iii) The WGC and FedEx Cup events (BMW) where Tiger has romped all include stellar fields of 64-70 of the best golfers in the world according to WGR, money lists, etc.). These tournments don’t belong in the same category as the Tournament of Champions, let alone silly season events. The lack of a cut might make it easier to finish in the top-20, but it doesn’t really make it any easier to win — which is what we’re talking about.

    (c) Question: What percentage of tournaments DID Nicklaus win during his “prime”? (I honestly don’t know the answer, but I’m curious to find out.)

    (d) Tiger holds or shares scoring records in 3/4 majors (and had all 4 before Rory came along). He also had the Tiger Slam. I don’t believe Nicklaus holds any scoring records (or at least I’m not aware of any).

    (e) Related to (d), Tiger has had some incredible flashes of brilliance in his career, along with a few periods of “meh” — which corresponded to his efforts to rebuild his swing, spates of injuries, and/or “personal problems.” Nicklaus was more steady. As a result, it seems safe to say that, during those time when Tiger was at his very best (say 2000), he was better than when Jack was at HIS best. In fact, there seems to be something close to a consensus among players that Tiger, at his very best, outshone even Nicklaus. But he hasn’t always maintained that level, obviously.

  • 6 Phil Capelle // Jun 6, 2012 at 3:53 am

    2000 has distorted all discussion about Woods. Forgotten in all of the talk about that season is that he derived a huge competitive advantage in the last three majors from using Nike’s next generation golf ball while his peers were using soon to be outdated two piece balls. As for their games, Nicklaus would be superior in his era and possibly Woods’ as well.

    Nicklaus was the best putter of his era, and he accomplished this even though he much preferred fast greens, which is all he would have seen today. His long and accurate driving would have given him an advantage today over Woods on the holes where Woods lays up, or drives it in the trees. Woods in the Nicklaus Era would have had to hit the driver far more often because the courses played longer (more mid and long irons were played into par 4s). His wild tee shots would have been far worse with persimmon and balata balls. Woods is a fast green putter who hates slow greens, and putts poorly on them. As a result, he would have been a mediocre putter in the Nicklaus Era. The conclusion: Nicklaus would have been a dominant player in the Woods Era. Woods would have been one of the pack in the Nicklaus Era.

  • 7 BD // Jun 6, 2012 at 4:55 am

    You’re making a lot of assumptions about Tiger’s inability to hit more accurate drives or putt on slow greens. If he had grown up in an era where he needed to hit more accurate drives and putt on slower greens, there is no reason to think he wouldn’t have adapted to those conditions. It’s silly to assert that, with all of Tiger’s inherent physical and mental advantages, he would only have been a “middle of the pack” golfer a couple of generations ago.

    As for 2000, I have never heard any player, past or present, suggest that Tiger’s achievements that year were due to the Nike ball. Honestly, if you think Tiger is such a “middle of the pack” golfer whose brilliance is only due to having unique access to superior equipment and the fact that course conditions are so much easier now than they were in 1960, then why do you even have him as your second-greatest golfer of all time? Sounds like he should be top-10 at best.

    If you would, I’d still be interested in finding out what Jack’s winning percentage was during his prime. Also, although you don’t seem very impressed with Tiger’s performance in 2000, please tell me what one or two-year span you consider to be Jack’s high-water mark as a golfer.

  • 8 Phil Capelle // Jun 7, 2012 at 5:07 am

    Hi BD, Who is making assumptions? I did not say I wasn’t “very impressed” with Woods’ 2000 – it will always be his best season. I am just not as impressed as everyone else is. Without the super ball, he does not win the PGA, there is no Tiger Slam, and his major’s count drops to 13. Thank you again for your many long and thoughtful comments – our debates spur us on to more creative and deep thinking on golf, and that is always a good thing.

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