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Thursday, June 23, 2011

What Makes Tiger So Good?

I can't give you a definitive answer to any of today's burning debates like "is Rory better than Tiger?" or "is Tiger better than Jack?" I won't even try.

But I think I can shed some light on other important questions, such as why the young golfers of 2011 don't dominate the way Tiger did in 2000 despite being longer than Tiger was. After all, didn't "Tiger-proofing" a course basically mean you made it three times longer the Texas panhandle? And why has Phil been the only player able to mount anything resembling a sustained challenge to the Big Cat?

In other words, what does it take to become the dominant golfer on Tour?

I spent a little time digging around's Player section comparing stats. If you call up any player's listing from this page, then choose "Complete Stats" from the choices in the right column, you can look at that player's statistics from any year they've been on Tour. Bear in mind that this information is limited as you go back; apparently the Tour didn't keep as complete a list of stats back in, say, 2000 as they do now. Because of this, it's harder to compare Tiger circa 2000 to his modern counterparts than I'd like.

Still, we can learn quite a bit. From mid-2005 until the end of 2006, Tiger won 3 majors and Phil 2. They were #1 and #2 on the OWGR during this time. In addition, we can compare these stats to the current stats of the "young guns" and other prominent players, so we can learn a lot about what it takes to become the big gun on Tour.

Rather than reprint all the relevant stats here (booooring), I'll just give you links to some relevant pages and summarize what I found.

I've been a big proponent of what I call Route 67 -- getting where you hit at least 67% each in Fairway Accuracy, GIR, and Scrambling. I still believe that's the best route to improvement for most weekend golfers, since it doesn't require a huge investment of time to get there. Route 67 is more about consistency in your ball striking, which is well within the reach of most of you. It's mostly about simplifying your swing -- eliminating unnecessary manipulations of the club that aren't natural to you anyway -- and hitting the ball more solidly.

But for the pros, the story is a bit different. Driving distance, driving accuracy, short game, putting prowess -- none of these seem to be the determining factor for attaining what we'll call "predator status." You can bust it like J.B. Holmes; you can hit fairways like Brian Gay; you can scramble like Mark Wilson; or you can putt light's-out like Greg Chalmers. These are the current leaders in these categories, and Luke Donald leads the scoring average stat. Some of these guys are in the Top 5 in more than one stat. But you certainly can't say any of them "dominate" on Tour.

GIR does matter, but not on its own. Bubba Watson is currently leading the GIR stat at 72.79%, and is 2nd in Driving Distance; most commentators seem to agree that he's the best American player right now. But Bubba doesn't dominate either.

The real key -- at least, the thing that Tiger and Phil (when he's been at his most dominant) have both had in common -- are that they were ranked highly in both GIR and a stat called "Proximity to the Hole" (I'll abbreviate it PTH). This stat measures how close your approach shot (the one that you hope also counts as GIR) is to the hole, and you can find it on this PTH stat page. It apparently wasn't tracked in 2000, but it was in 2006. Tiger was 1st in GIR (74.15%) and T1 in PTH (31' 7"). Yeah, I know he ranked high in a lot of stats, but think about this:
  • He was 1st in GIR. This means he didn't waste a lot of strokes on bad chips and pitches. He hit nearly 3 out of 4 greens, so he didn't put a lot of stress on his short game.
  • He was T1 in PTH. (Btw, he was tied with Steve Stricker.) Maybe I'm stating the obvious, but your best putters tend to be the folks with shorter putts.
One thing you may not have considered is how misleading the number of putts you take per round can be. If you miss a lot of greens, you spend a lot of shots chipping on and you need to one-putt a lot just to make par. For the guy who misses a lot of greens, 28 putts may translate to only 2-under while the guy who hits 100% of his GIR can shoot 4-under with a less impressive 32 putts.

Phil was ranked 21st in GIR (68.28%) and T49 in PTH (34' 8")in 2006. This may seem counter-intuitive; why should Phil have been so dominant during this year when so many others seem to have been better? Trot on over to Phil's stat page, choose the 2006 stat listing from the dropdown list, and skim down to "Distance Stats." Lo and behold, not all approach shots are created equal! Phil was 2nd in PTH from over 200 yards. (Yes, Tiger was 1st.) But if you go to Tiger's stat page and compare the stats, you'll see that Tiger outplayed Phil by quite a margin at the 150-175 and 175-200 yard distances. Since both were driving around 300 yards, this would put Tiger 5-6 feet closer on approaches to long par-4s.

But not all GIR are created equal either. This same section gives you the GIR from different distances, and you can see that while Phil wasn't bad, a quick comparision shows that Tiger decimated Phil (75.49% vs 48.70%) at the 175-200 yard distance. Tiger was hitting 3 out of 4 of the long par-4s in regulation, while Phil hit about 2 out of 4.

Putting both stats together, that means Tiger hit about 50% more of those GIRs, and was noticeably closer even if they both hit. That's why Phil could never grab the #1 spot. If the typical course had 4 long par-4s, between missing greens and having longer putts Phil was giving up at least 1-2 shots per round on them.

Now let's compare Bubba Watson circa 2011 against the 2006 Tiger. From Bubba's stat page we can see that his GIR of 72.79% compares pretty well with Tiger's, but he's ranked 108 (36' 11") in PTH. (Remember, this PTH stat comes from another page that I referenced earlier.) If you check Bubba's stats at the individual distances, you'll see that while his GIRs look good, his PTHs don't. Tiger was often 10 or more feet closer to the hole after an approach!

Is it any wonder no one seems to dominate the Tour the way Tiger has?

It seems that Tiger's real strength has been the quality of his approach shots -- not just his accuracy at hitting greens, but in terms of how close he puts those shots to the hole -- on the long par-4s.

Don't misunderstand me -- I'm NOT saying that none of the other stats matter. Driving Accuracy, Scrambling, and Putting are all important, and while Tiger often leads those, he's just as often fairly ordinary in them. What I was looking for was what made Tiger dominate the Tour, what gave him that edge that no one seemed to be able to overcome. And his ability to attack the pins on long par-4s often meant he was tapping in for par while others were scrambling for par. Over the course of a tournament, that could easily be 3 or 4 shots over the field.

But these stats aren't showy, and they're easily overshadowed when his competitors are trying to discover his edge. What drew everyone's attention were the long drives and dramatic recovery shots, and I think that's what most of today's young guns believe will make them the next Tiger. But they're wrong, and until they realize it we're going to be stuck in a period of "parity."

Let me answer one other obvious question: If this is how Tiger dominated the Tour, does that mean a short knocker can't dominate? No, but they'll have to play a different type of game to rise to the top. Luke Donald, as good as he is, doesn't hit nearly enough greens (66.18%) to separate himself from the pack. And to do that, he'll have to hit more fairways than he does (66.39%) so he doesn't waste distance in the rough. At the very least, the short knockers have to rank solidly in the traditional stats -- fairways, greens, and putts.

But the bombers better brush up on those long approaches. Otherwise Tiger just might have time to heal up, and there's this Northern Irish kid I'm sure is giving him all the motivation he needs...


  1. One stat that amazes me about Tiger is that he has only missed 6 cuts in his PGA Tour career

  2. People can say what they want, but Tiger is so amazing that it's dangerous to write him off, no matter what you're talking about.