Sports Nut

Into the Woods

An in-depth statistical investigation into Tiger Woods’ struggles on the golf course.

We are a little more than three months into the Tiger Woods experiment: How long would it take the world’s most dominant golfer to re-establish his dominance? The answer: longer than three months. While Tiger still holds the No. 1 ranking, he has not won in seven starts. In the beginning of the year, the problem seemed to be his erratic driving. Now, consensus seems to be forming around his putting. This clip from last week’s British Open says it all:

The press has been quick to point out Tiger’s woes: “Without hot putter, nothing special about Tiger.” I’ve been working on an upcoming Slate series on golf statistics, and I can say with confidence that such a headline is ridiculous. Tiger is exceptional in all aspects of the game. That all-around excellence is what makes him an order of magnitude better than his peers. But how exactly does Tiger win? While he’s historically been an excellent putter, it’s his long-iron game where he gains the most advantage over other players. He can consistently hit shots from 150-250 yards closer to the hole, which turns out to be a powerful scoring boost.

It is clear, though, that Tiger has lost ground this year. I took a deeper look at Tiger’s 2010 stats to try to understand why. Is it really just the putting? Is his long-iron play no longer the force it used to be?

We can assess each part of Tiger’s game because the PGA Tour keeps track of every shot at standard PGA events through a system called ShotLink. Though Tiger has not played enough rounds this year to appear in all the ShotLink stats that you’ll find on the PGA site, I was able to obtain Tiger’s previously unpublished 2010 numbers. So far this year, Tiger has played 13.5 rounds (he withdrew from the Players Championship during the fourth round) in PGA Tour events and another 12 rounds in three major championships (the Masters, the U.S. Open, and the British Open). During those PGA Tour events, ShotLink’s lasers track every shot, giving us precise measurements. The majors, which aren’t fully incorporated into ShotLink, give us less exact data but are included in counting stats like driving accuracy and greens in regulation.

Though we don’t want to extrapolate too much from this limited data, we have enough to compile a rough guide to the state of Tiger’s game.

Tiger’s average driving distance this year is 297.3, good enough for 12th on tour and only a yard short of his 2009 average. His driving accuracy is 60 percent, meaning that he’s hitting six out of 10 fairways. Again, that’s about the same as 2009. Driving accuracy isn’t the most useful stat out there, since a drive that misses by 30 feet counts the same as a drive that misses by a foot. (Often, it’s better to miss the fairway by a wide margin, because your ball lands in the tamped-down grass where the spectators have been walking.) I’m going to grade Tiger’s driving as “just fine.” He’s not the longest hitter on tour anymore, but he hits it plenty far enough, and he’s not losing ground to other players off the tee.

Greens in Regulation
This stat essentially records how many birdie opportunities you’re getting. Hitting a green in regulation on a par 4 means reaching it in two strokes; on a par 3, it means landing your tee shot on the green. In 2009, Tiger’s GIR was 68.46 percent, 16th on tour. In 2010, he’s at 65.56 percent, 91st on tour. So Tiger has had slightly fewer birdie chances. More telling is a related stat called “proximity to the hole,” which is an average of how close to the pin a player has been landing the ball. In 2010, Tiger has been landing the ball, on average, 2.5 feet farther from the hole. That may not seem like much, but it’s enough to drop Tiger from a 2009 ranking of 55th to a 2010 ranking of 141st.

The proximity stat gives you a sense of how close in skill PGA Tour players are. Being 2.5 feet farther from the hole, week in and week out, is an enormous disadvantage. That’s because the statistics on putting are pretty simple: The closer you are to the hole, the more putts you make.

Approaches from 175-225 Yards
Tiger has been excellent from these distances in 2010. He would be ranked first on tour if he’d played enough rounds to make the official rankings. His remarkable ball striking from this range is what keeps him in tournaments when other departments of his game are lagging. It’s Tiger’s approach shots from closer in that have been dragging him down. From shorter distances, he’s landing it farther away from the pin, and his ranks have dropped 40 or so places from 2009.

Just as GIR is a rough measure of your ability to make birdies, scrambling is a rough measure of your ability to avoid bogeys. A successful scramble is when you get up-and-down after missing the green—you chip and then you sink the putt. This is where Tiger’s game has deteriorated the most in 2010. Last year, Tiger was ranked first in scrambling—he got up-and-down 68 percent of the time. This year, he’s at 53 percent, which would rank him 170th.

Scrambling is a statistic that combines two skills, chipping and putting. So it could be that Tiger’s chipping has been subpar, or maybe his chips have been just fine, and he’s just not putting well.

So is the putter the villain after all? To give you a benchmark, the research shows that pros make 50 percent of their putts from precisely eight feet. Last year, Tiger made 54 percent of his putts from eight feet—better than average but not amazing. Where the stats get crazy is when you start moving closer to the hole. Tiger made 85 percent of his putts from six feet (ranking: one), 89 percent from five feet (ranking: seven), 96 percent from four feet (ranking: six), and 99 percent from three feet (ranking: tied for 13th). In 2009, he was ranked first on tour in all putts less than 10 feet—he just doesn’t miss the short ones. While Tiger hasn’t taken enough putts in 2010 to break down his percentages by specific distances, his ranking has fallen to 129th on all putts less than 10 feet. The foundation of his great putting is in danger of eroding.

Putts from 10 to 15 feet are putts that you would like to make. One tour coach described that distance to me as the typical birdie range. If you are sinking 12-footers and 15-footers, you are likely picking up strokes on the field. Tiger has also fallen off in this distance, but it’s also true that this has never been his biggest strength. We’ve all watched Tiger seemingly will in a birdie putt when he needed it, but it’s Tiger’s putting from short range that has been his bedrock skill.

The final piece of Tiger’s putting ability is his lag putting—the ability to knock it close to the hole from long distances. The average pro is not expecting to sink many putts from more than 20 feet (nor do they—they average about one per tournament). The goal is to knock the ball close to the hole and avoid the three-putt. This is yet another area where Tiger has traditionally been the best on Tour. But a ShotLink stat called “3-putt avoidance” shows that Tiger’s long putts have been substandard this year. He’s dropped from 18th to 182nd. He’s not doing as tidy housekeeping on the green.

Again, the 2010 ShotLink numbers represent a limited data set, but they do indicate that Tiger’s problems are indeed centered on the green. A return to form is not just a matter of mysteriously getting “hot” with the putter. Rather, Tiger needs to re-find the core putting skills that have distinguished him: the ability to concentrate on the short ones so that you almost never miss, and the ability to lag the long ones close so that you rarely three-putt.

That kind of putting excellence under tournament conditions requires a staggering focus over the ball. And we all know that Tiger has been distracted lately.

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