Monday, May 07, 2007

Why Tiger Woods deserves more attention

Tiger Woods is in the middle of one of the best stretches his career will likely see, but the press's response is tepid, and I think it's because his performance of the last year has been dominantly consistent, but not consistently dominant--everyone thirsts for the 12 and 15 shot victories he showed us at the Masters in 1997, and the U.S. Open in 2000, while few have yet fully appreciated his consistency of the past year. ESPN, for instance, buried this summary at the bottom of their recap of his win today:
"Woods wound up with the 57th victory of his career, and he is winning at an astounding rate. He is 3-of-6 this year and was asked if his game was as good as it could be.
"It's three short of where I wanted to be," he said with a laugh. "It's been good, just one little negative there."
Woods, who, oh by the way, set a tournament scoring record this weekend, is essentially saying his game is nearly as good as it could be, and that he's almost as unbeatable as a golfer can get. The best golfer of all time is saying that he is playing some of the best golf of his life right now, and everyone yawns.
In the ten years since his awesome power and skill stunned the PGA status quo, the players have, I think, responded and shaped up to a large extent. They started conditioning, honed their skills more diligently and more intelligently, and to their credit, improved their games. In 1996, golf remained a gentleman's game, devoid of the sophisticated training we then only expected from basketball, football, even tennis players. When Tiger arrived, the PGA's players possessed considerable talent, but Woods quickly exposed slack in even the most talented player's game when he won the most competitive tournaments by dazzling margins. Woods of the '90s played against great talent hindered by a lack serious training; today, Woods plays against great talent enhanced by serious training. The slack is largely gone, as is the reasonable expectation of double-digit victory. The terms of our appreciation must change, too. Our previous wide-eyed fascination with margins of victory are outmoded and lead us to believe, wrongly, that he isn't what he used to be, that he improbably peaked at 24 or 25. Let's take a quick step back and consider a brief history of what happened between 1996 and 2001: Tiger Woods arrives and dominates, but he's young and inconsistent; the field meanwhile is bewildered and slowly adjusts, though some don't as the third-place paycheck has suddenly become pretty fat; many mistakenly think Tiger's drop-off of '98 hinted that the world had caught up to him--it hadn't; Tiger changes his swing and gets even better against a field that still hasn't responded adequately, in part because it doesn't know how; Tiger absolutely kills the competition from 1999 to 2001, displaying the most impressive play the sport has ever seen.
Tiger's play of '99-'01 was unsustainable, however, and the competition finally began to catch up five years after he joined the tour. He continued to win from 2002 to 2004, but was once again plagued by inconsistency, as he had not yet, it's worth repeating, reached the typical peak years of a professional golfer. 
Tiger just turned 31 last December and is only now approaching his peak years, reflected in, among other things, his mature game management last year. At the same time, his competition has had ten years to process what hit them in 1996 and April of 1997. He is approaching his best, but so are they, chipping at his margins by emulating his model of training and composure.
The new mode of appreciation, then, should no longer focus on margin of victory but on consistency: how consistently does he win against a vastly improved field? Astonishingly so. He has won 3-of-6 tournaments this year, and 9-of-12 going back to last year, when he won 9-of-18 official events.
In short, Woods is still doing something special every time he plays; we just need to look at him with fresh eyes--eyes that consider his better-than-ever competition--to fully appreciate his performance as he enters the second-half of his unparalled career.


Wake_Up_Everybody said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wake_Up_Everybody said...

One more thing that makes it pretty scary for Tiger's competition: they're starting to play majors on courses he's already won on (or at least played). Peep the 2008-2010 US Open venues: Torrey Pines (won there like 85 times on tour), Bethpage (2002 US Open Champ), Pebble Beach (2000 US Open win that was best golf ever played at any tournament ever ever ever). I think he'll win 3 Opens in a row. That would be unprecedented in the modern era I think. And then check out the British Open: Carnoustie this year (T7 in 1999), then Birkdale (played before pretty well) and then The Old Course (his favorite in the world and one where he's at his scariest). I think we'll see more consistency and he may even maintain is ungodly 30% winning percentage in majors.

Wake_Up_Everybody said...

By the way, Tiger has led the PGA Tour "All Around" statistical category several times. He led in 2000 with 113, which is the sum of his rankings in 8 statistical categories. The only other player anywhere close to that recently was Tiger himself, with 120 in 1999. Pretty amazing stuff.

Stats in golf often don't tell you that much. However, I think it's pretty awesome that Tiger is the best all around statistically. It means that he's very good in all phases of the game. And even his (sometimes) poor driving doesn't knock him off that top all around spot.

David Archer said...

Thanks for the comments. 3 Opens in a row! Bold prediction, but plausible, too.
Does Tiger match up well with Oakmont?
I just read this funny bit of history about the course: "In the 1973 U.S. Open, Johnny Miller came from nowhere in the final round with a stunning 63 on a soaked course, a record for a major. Miller thus triggered the Massacre at Winged Foot in the '74 Open. He'd violated the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not shoot 63 in a U.S. Open."

Christopher Tassava said...

I'm not a big golf fan, but I do follow the big sports at least in passing, and this is a great, counterintuitive post - very Freakonomics-like. Well done.

Wake_Up_Everybody said...

Originally, I didn't think that Oakmont was going to be good for Tiger. But then the latest edition of Golf Digest arrived at my door (the US Open preview). They were talking about how Oakmont has taken out some ungodly number of trees (in the thousands, I think--you can check me) to get the course back to how it played decades ago. The upshot of this is that even though the fairways will be as narrow as they were at Winged Foot, there won't be many trees in play. This sounds to me a bit like Bethpage Black (which I play all the time). I think it will favor those players who have the strength to get the ball out of the thick rough. Those with that strength will be able to go for the greens a bit more where at Winged Foot they had no chance because the trees were in the way. So look for Tiger and Vijay to do well. I could also see someone like Angel Cabrera doing well. Also Charles Howell III.

Strength (more than straight-driving), short game (chopping out of thick rough around the greens) and putting (Oakmont has crazy-sloped greens) will be the three keys. Tell me if this sounds like Tiger's game or not.

Joe said...

Good post David.

Another way to get a sense of Tiger's current dominance is to look at the World Golf Rankings. Right now, Tiger is basically lapping the field. You could combine the ranking points of Jim Furyk (World #2), Phil Mickelson (#3), and Luke Donald (#10) and they would almost equal what Tiger has.

Or put another way, Tiger > Furyk + Lefty + Luke. Now that's some new math!

Maybe we should be yelling "You da men!" instead?

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