Sports Nut

The Return of the King

The stats show that Tiger Woods is getting his game back.

Tiger Woods

It’s the 75th year for the Masters, the 25th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus’ historic win at age 46, and the first anniversary of “The Perfect Shot” by Phil Mickelson. But here’s what’s getting most of the attention in the run-up to Augusta: Tiger Woods has not won a professional golf tournament in 1 year, 6 months, and 25 days.

Tiger has a new swing coach, a new home, and a new iPhone app. With only one top 10 finish this year, he also has lots of new detractors. Many golf cognoscenti, including Arnold Palmer, have questioned why Tiger is embarking on yet another overhaul of his swing. There’s also a more serious strain of Tiger declinism, put forth by Joe Posnanski at Sports Illustrated .*  The fans and media, the thinking goes, are foolish to keep supposing that Tiger has the best chance to win every major. This has less to do with Tiger’s personal turmoil than his age. “Since 1970, the average age of major championship winners is 32,” Posnanski writes, “and things tumble off for golfers after age 35.” Tiger turned 35 last December.

So who is right, the Tiger declinists or Tiger himself, who told ESPN’s Tom * Rinaldi this week that he’s the best player in the world “when I get my swing dialed in.” Mark Broadie, a professor at Columbia who I wrote about in my series last year on the quest for better, more accurate golf statistics, has analyzed Tiger’s shots from 2009 through 2011. He assessed how many strokes Tiger gained or lost on the field with each putt, chip, and drive captured in the tour’s ShotLink database. The numbers suggest that Tiger is starting to turn his game around.

 For perspective, let’s compare Tiger’s 2009 season, in which he won six tournaments, with his 2010 season, in which he fell from Olympus. Here is a chart that gives an overview of Tiger’s two years:

We can dissect the drop in performance by looking at a new stat: “strokes gained.” It’s simple: Some shots are better than others, and strokes gained allow us to quantify how much better they are. The classic example is a 7-foot, 10-inch putt. The average number of putts to hole out from this location for a pro golfer is 1.5. In other words, pros make this putt 50 percent of the time. If a golfer misses the putt, he loses a half-stroke to the tour average. If he makes the putt, he gains half a stroke. This measure of strokes gained can also be applied to shots off the green. An approach shot that lands 2 feet from the hole gains more strokes on the tour average than one that lands 30 feet away. If you add up all of the “strokes gained” by a player, you know how they performed—on average—compared to their peers. In 2009, Tiger was ranked No. 1 on tour in the “strokes gained” statistic. He gained 3.7 strokes per round versus the field, or nearly 15 strokes per tournament. That kind of consistent excellence delivered six wins and 14 top 10 finishes.

In 2010, Tiger fell to 48th in the strokes-gained statistic. He went from domination to playing at the same level as Angel Cabrera, Anthony Kim, and other merely very good tour golfers. His game earned him 0.7 strokes per round better than the field, or only about three strokes per tournament. That’s not news, but how did Tiger lose those three strokes? What aspects of his game were lacking? His caddie, Steve Williams, said: “The one part of Tiger’s game this year that has been very substandard is his putting. He hasn’t putted well in any of his events.” Others put the blame on his erratic driving. The numbers, though, reveal that Tiger lost strokes in all departments.

Here is a chart that summarizes Tiger’s performance according to the strokes gained measure:

The biggest fall-off was in the long game—shots more than 100 yards from the hole—where Tiger was 1.2 strokes worse per round than the tour average.While he didn’t lose any distance, his driving became significantly wilder, turning that part of his game from an asset to a liability. The long game wasn’t all bad news for Tiger, though. Historically,  he’s gained the most ground on other pros with his long approach shots. The high point of his 2010 season was this shot from 273 yards back that he hit on the 18th at the U.S. Open. Woods was still sharp on shots from 150 to 200 yards from the hole (ranking second on tour), and he showed just slight declines from longer distances.

Tiger’s short game has always been lauded as the most instinctual part of his game, the place where he gets away from the latest swing theory and relies on his natural talent and creativity (c.f. 2005, 16th hole, Augusta National.) He lost almost a stroke per round here, too. His chips and short approach shots were landing farther from the hole, which in turn put more pressure on his putting. In 2010, Tiger made 4 percent fewer putts from between 3 and 15 feet. That tiny difference was enough to drop him from a putting rank of second to 91st and cost him about a stroke per round against the PGA Tour average. The golf green is a mental crucible: A fractional falloff in putting results took Tiger from being one of the best putters to being in the middle of the pack.

While Tiger has yet to set the golf world on fire in 2011, the numbers do show some encouraging signs—the first azalea blooms in Tiger’s long winter, perhaps. Despite glaring screw-ups like a blocked drive on the first playoff hole in the Match Play Championship, Tiger’s driving, measured by strokes gained, is back to slightly better than average. On approach shots, he’s legitimately “dialed in” from 100-150 yards. (He’s also slightly above average from other distances.) Compared with 2010, his long putting has improved a lot. And most significantly for the Masters, the numbers show that his chipping touch is returning. That’s an encouraging sign for the Tiger faithful, since golf wisdom holds that winning at Augusta requires a world-class short game.

The major caveat is that Tiger has played only 11 measurable rounds this year. But let’s try to skip one across the pond and consider what it would take for Tiger to become the “old” Tiger. As Broadie has shown in his previous work, the long game is more important than the short game for professional golfers. The best golfers tend to be the longer hitters who have good short games and putting. The golfers with the best short games and putting, but who lack the long game to match, have a higher hill to climb and don’t win as often. According to Broadie, the golfers with the best long games in 2010 were Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, Vijay Singh, and Dustin Johnson. They gained between 1.4 and 2 strokes per round against the tour average. The golfers with the best short games in 2010 were Mike Weir, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, and Padraig Harrington. They gained between 0.6 and 0.9 strokes per round against the tour average.

For Tiger to return to the form he had in 2009, he needs to control his drives and stay out of trouble. An improvement there would net him a half-stroke advantage per round, or two strokes a tournament. He can also pick up two strokes a tournament by dialing in those long approach shots again. The long game gives Tiger the greatest opportunity to improve against the tour average. The question here is what Tiger can reasonably ask of his body at this point. With age you lose the flexibility and torque to bomb it off the tee and send those long-iron shots on nice high trajectories. The Tiger declinists have a point. He’s in a match against a player who never loses.

In the past, Tiger’s excellent putting earned him about a stroke per round against the tour average. To win again, he needs to make more putts in the 7- to 21-foot range, a distance from which you are often shooting for birdie or desperately trying to save par. Tiger also needs to once again become freakishly consistent on putts within 6 feet. The falloff there—from .47 strokes gained in 2009 to .11 in 2010 to .17 so far in 2011—is perhaps one signal of his mental state. The line on Tiger has always been that he never gives up, never loses focus. We’ve now seen him falter on those short ones, and the numbers reflect that.

So Tiger needs to get better at driving, long approach shots, and short putting. Great insights! Though it sounds like I’m stating the obvious, the strokes-gained stat refines our understanding of how to win a golf tournament. Tiger dominated because he did everything better than everyone else—he put his ball in the best places on a golf course more than the other players. This baseline of performance established his dominance, and he won because of an unquantifiable mix of luck, clutch shots, and the performance of his opponents—the so-called “intangibles.” Tiger keeps telling us that his game is “a process,” and maybe we should listen. He’s not going to have some magical new swing or breakthrough mind-set. He’s going to continue to grind away at the edges of golf, to seek those fractional advantages that put him in a position to beat Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. Finding those advantages is going to get harder, but it’s not out of reach.

Correction, April 7, 2011: The article originally misspelled the name of the writer Joe Posnanski. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, April 8, 2011: The article originally misnamed ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi as “Tim” Rinaldi. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)