Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 14, 2010

A Winless Year Marks The End Of An Era

With Tiger Woods’ 4th place finish at the Australian Masters earlier today, the preeminent golfer in the world for the last decade and a half officially went 0 for 2010. He had already recorded a winless year on the PGA Tour one week earlier, when he finished 12 shots off the pace at the HSBC Champions event in Shanghai. Because the HSBC is one of the World Golf Championship events (the only one played outside of the U.S.), the PGA Tour recognizes it as an official event.

Whatever the future may hold for Woods, that 6th place finish at the HSBC means that there is one professional record that he will almost certainly not break. Both Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus recorded at least one Tour victory in 17 consecutive seasons. Woods’ streak of years with at least one victory now ends at 14. Since he will turn 35 before next season, the odds of him breaking a record that once seemed a given are now prohibitively long.

Of course there are plenty of records that Woods already owns, and other important ones that he remains likely, though no longer certain, to break. First among these is Nicklaus’s mark of 18 professional major championships. Woods has been stuck on 14 majors since his epic performance at Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open.

A look at the winners of the ten majors played since then offers Woods both hope and a warning. Six of the ten have been won by golfers older than Woods will be next season. However, none has been won by a golfer in his 40’s. The last 40-something to win a major tournament was Vijay Singh at the 2004 PGA Championship. Before that one has to go all the way back to Mark O’Meara’s double-major year of 1998 to find a major victor in his forties. And both Singh and O’Meara were all of 41 when they won. In short, Woods still has time; but perhaps not unlimited time to catch Nicklaus.

I still believe he will find a way to win some combination of at least five more major championships. It is the goal that has explicitly been most important to him since turning pro. Even in this lost season, two of his better performances were 4th place finishes at The Masters and the U.S. Open.

But whether or not Woods ever surpasses Nicklaus’s major mark, here in the month in which he assured himself a winless 2010 and fell out of the number one spot in the World Golf Rankings for the first time since his 2005 win at The Masters, I think it’s reasonable to ask whether the Tiger Woods era in men’s professional golf is over. No, I don’t think Tiger is washed up, not by a long shot. He’ll win plenty of tournaments in the years to come. As I’ve already said, I still think he’ll eventually get to 19 or more major wins. And he’s likely to vie for the top spot in the World Rankings for some time to come.

But it is those rankings that reveal just how dominant Woods has been since first ascending to the top spot in mid-June, 1997; and also show just how far he has fallen in coming back to earth.

The Official World Golf Rankings are a complex system of ranking professionals against one another. Points are awarded for tournaments on all of the major professional tours around the world, plus the two principal developmental tours, the Nationwide in the U.S. and the Challenge Tour in Europe. The number of points awarded at any event depends on the strength of the field; so Francesco Molinari’s win against a strong field including the top four golfers in the world at the HSBC last week was worth considerably more than Chris Kirk’s win at the Nationwide Tour’s Fort Smith Classic last June. Winners of a typical PGA Tour event will likely earn 45 to 50 points, with fewer and fewer points awarded to the players on down the leader board. Points are accumulated over a running two year period; however only points won in the most recent thirteen weeks are given full value. Results older than that are gradually reduced in value in order to give the greatest weight to a golfer’s current form. Each golfer’s adjusted two-year point total is then divided by the number of tournaments played to yield a per event average.

From the time he first ascended to World #1 until Westwood replaced him at the beginning of this month, Woods held the top spot for a phenomenal 623 weeks. The golfer with the next most weeks as #1 in the nearly quarter-century since the rankings were introduced is Greg Norman, at 331 weeks. During the Woods era, only Ernie Els, David Duval and Vijay Singh ever supplanted him at the top. The first two did so for brief periods early in Woods’ reign; and Singh was #1 for a total of about eight months in 2004 and 2005, when Woods was in the midst of a major swing reconstruction.

But it isn’t just the length of time that Woods has spent at the top that is telling. It’s also the fact that he holds the record for the highest points total, at 32.44 in June, 2001. That came just two weeks after he set the record for the largest lead, when runner-up Phil Mickelson was 19.4 points behind him.

Since reclaiming the top spot from Singh during the 2005 season, Woods remained #1 for 281 consecutive weeks until this month. In the year-end rankings for 2005 through 2009, Woods’ averaged 16.77 points, 8.02 points more than the average second place total. Think about it; Woods was averaging almost twice as many points per event as whoever happened to be #2! And those averages include 2008, when Woods remained #1 despite not playing at all in the second half of the season as he recovered from knee surgery.

Now Lee Westwood sits atop the rankings with 8.84 points. Going down the current rankings 8.02 points takes one all the way to Alex Prugh at #226. So more than two hundred golfers now fill the space behind Westwood that, on average, was nothing but empty space behind Woods over the past five years. Woods now sits in second with 8.21 points. It’s not that the rest of golf has caught up; Tiger has come back to the field.

It’s easy to point to the distraction of Woods’ self-inflicted image implosion and marital breakup as the reasons for his decline. No doubt that had a lot to do with his erratic and often uninspired play this year. But I think assuming that’s all there is to the story misses two key elements.

The first is Woods’ growing struggles with the putter. This week in Australia he changed flat sticks mid-tournament, though without discernable improvement. Over the years we’ve all watched Woods stand over countless five footers; and we’ve all known that the Nike ball was going to disappear into the hole. That is no longer the case. New coach Sean Foley can tinker with Woods’ swing all he wants; but any golfer who struggles on the green will struggle to win tournaments.

The second is the piercing of Woods’ air of invincibility. Throughout the Tiger era, we all knew that he was going to win; and it usually seemed like the rest of the field did as well. Players paired with Woods for a crucial round would seemingly blow up with regularity, and watch helplessly as he steamrolled past them. But in August of last year, before the Thanksgiving car crash, something happened that had never happened before. Woods went into the final round of a major, the 2009 PGA Championship, with the lead. Woods had been in that position 14 times before. And 14 times, he’d won a major championship. But on that August Sunday afternoon, he lost to his unheralded playing partner, Y. E. Yang. I think that was the day an era ended.

Tiger Woods will certainly win again, and likely do so often. He’ll probably be #1 again from time to time, as he and several other players vie for the top ranking week to week. But Tiger has come back to the pack; and the pack is no longer in awe. For golf fans wanting to see great competition, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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Responses

  1. I think you underestimate Tiger’s ability to come back. When Tiger focuses, he wins. If he is able to restore his focus, he will win.


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