A couple of weeks ago I wrote that Tiger Woods should be the overwhelming favorite at the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. With the championship beginning Thursday, come Sunday afternoon Tiger could have finally silenced his critics and captured his 15th major championship – leaving him only 3 majors short of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championship victories.
I have always been one firmly in the “Tiger will reach Jack” camp – both before and after the scandal broke. Winning 4 more majors to tie Jack (and 5 to pass him) is no small feat – 5 majors in an entire career makes you an instant Hall of Famer. That said, Tiger has never been dealing the with same deck of cards as the rest of his mere mortal peers. While there are clear signs that dangers will continue to lurk during Tiger’s ascent of Mt. Nicklaus, no matter how I look at this thing it seems clear to me that Tiger will end up ahead of Jack. But how many majors will Tiger Woods retire with? Let’s tackle this question from a few different angles.
The basic, mathematical explanation – This formula is relatively simple, and perhaps the most accurate. To date, Tiger has played 64 major championships in his career, winning 14. This indicates a remarkable 21% winning percentage throughout his career. At this rate Tiger would need 23 more majors to win number 19, thus breaking Nicklaus’ record at the 2018 Masters.
Especially post-scandal, many will scoff at this. Here are a few of the most frequently cited reasons why this may seem unreasonable:
- Tiger is now 36 years old. For someone who first won a major in 1997, his “prime” is simply behind him.
- Tiger’s run of majors early in his career, at one point capturing 7 of 11 major titles, simply can’t be replicated.
- Tiger’s lost his advantage over other players, especially in terms of driving distance. Technology, age, and the fitness boom Tiger single-handedly created have since leveled the playing field.
- Tiger used to play a 43.5 inch Titleist 975D driver with a 43.5-inch steel shaft. He was considered long and straight. He now fears the “big miss” and doesn’t find the fairway as often having moved to a 45-inch graphite shafted driver.
- Tiger’s knee, which he’s had drained and operated on multiple times, will continue to inhibit his swing and keep him from playing or practicing as often.
- Tiger’s mental strength isn’t what it used to be. His time in a Mississippi clinic, as well as the scandal itself, broke him down. Doubt has crept into his psyche for maybe the first time.
- He’s tired and has lost of his drive. After what he’s been through in the past few years, how could be not be?
- Tiger’s feeling the pressure. The weight of the absurd expectations on him is beginning to wear him thin, and will only increase as he approaches Jack’s record. This was evidenced recently in his comments that he’s “only going to play for himself” – not Elin, not Nike, not Butch, not Stevie, not his foundation.
While I believe it’s true that all of these issues will affect Tiger to differing degrees, my counter argument is very simple – these issues have already had a massive influence on Tiger’s career, and I think they’ve mostly run their course. We’ve seen the knee and scandal-related issues in particular influence Tiger as of late – he hasn’t captured a major in his last 16 tries. Having finally returned to winning form this season, Tiger seems closer to being “back” than he has been in a few years. Think of it this way – before his recent 0-for-16 streak, Tiger had won 14 or 48 majors – an amazing 29% conversion rate. Given all he’s been through, I think assuming he can continue to convert at 21% is more than fair. Afterall, that means he doesn’t even average a major championship per year.
The length of a golfer’s career explanation – There’s no doubt about it – none – that golfers are playing better later in their careers in this day and age. It’s a combination of technology and fitness. Fred Couples seems to almost win the Master’s every year at 50+, Tom Watson threw away a British Open at 59, and Vijay Singh won 9 times in a season and reached #1 in the world for the first time well after turning 40. Jack Nicklaus won 14 majors before his 37th birthday, and Tiger’s sitting on 14 with two majors to play before he’ll turn 37. He’s on pace, and will undoubtedly be a serious contender for longer than Nicklaus’ was.
I think that realistically, Tiger has 10 more years that he’ll be able to play at an exceptionally high level. Jack Nicklaus last won a major at 46, and trust me, Tiger at 46 will be a far superior physical specimen to Nicklaus at the same age. Assuming he misses a similar number of majors as he’s missed thus far throughout his career due to injury and other distractions (he’s missed 6 of 70 majors since 1995, or 8.57%) over the next 10 years, Tiger will play in 38 of the next 42 majors. If he continues to win at his 21% rate, Tiger will win 8 more majors in the next decade. That’d leave him with 22, well surpassing Nicklaus’ mark.
The focus explanation – For a long time now, I’ve made excuses for Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Just as both have been known to be “the best ever” at their respective sports, both have also received their share of criticism for some generally poor, selfish behavior. I am truly a believer in the school of thought that says to be the absolute best you need to be somewhat cocky, somewhat selfish, and able to put up blinders when need be in an effort to self-motivate yourself to the absolute highest level of performance. This is an argument for another day, but I think it’s one that’s shown itself with pretty significant regularity throughout history. Nick Faldo immediately comes to mind – his insularity, focus, and superiority over other players was striking similar to Tiger’s while he was golf’s undisputed best player in the late 80′s and early 90′s.
I think Tiger’s scandal will ultimately help him narrow his focus. He’s made it clear that his commitment to his sponsors and his marriage are not going to be what they once were. I think that once the immediate effects of the scandal are in his rear view, Tiger’s focus will narrow that much more – he’ll care about his kids and his golf game and little else. For Tiger, Jack Nicklaus’ record is a life long journey that he set out on at shortly after birth. Frankly, you just can’t say the same about any of his sponsorship deals or his marriage. His eyes are now on the prize more than ever before, and I don’t think they’ll waiver much in any direction (cue the waitress in the little back dress jokes).
So how can Tiger’s narrowed focus answer the how many majors question? It can’t in any way that’s highly measurable, but I think that it’s important in dispelling the critics who will cite outside distractions at the cause of Tiger’s derailment on his quest towards 19 majors.
The in-the-hunt explanation – Every golf fan knows that Tiger is the greatest closer in golf history – give him a lead in a major after three rounds, and he almost always gets the job done. That said, even the casual golf fans also knows that Tiger’s proven to have some issues with both his putter and especially his driver as of late. Going forward, Tiger’s swing needs to be good enough to consistently put himself in contention in the majors.
Of players with 3 or more majors, most tend to win about 1/3 of the time that they find themselves in the hunt. Nicklaus won 18 majors, but finished in the top 3 a total of 45 times – a conversion rate of 40%. Tiger has won 14 majors but only finished in the top 3 a total of 23 times – good for a 60% conversion rate. That said, Tiger’s going to need to put himself in the hunt at least 9 more times to win 5 additional majors, and it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to keep converting when he’s in serious contention as efficiently as he has to date. With 64 starts at majors and 23 top 3 finishes, Tiger finds himself in serious contention about 35% of the time. Assuming he plays 42 more majors in his career, he’d be in contention 15 more times in his career. If he maintains his current conversion percentage, he’d capture 9 more majors. If he ended up closer to the 33% we’ve seen out of major champions with 3+ major victories, he’d win 5 more majors. So by this recipe conservatively we’re looking at 19 majors, and at his current rate of winning we’re looking closer to 23 titles.
With the insights gained from all of these explanations, deciding on a final number of majors for Tiger is as much an art as it is a science. While the explanations above suggest that Tiger will end with a major total somewhere in the lower 20′s, I do think that in some cases we’re being a bit optimistic with regards to Tiger’s health and his ability to keep winning such a high percentage of the time. But more importantly, I worry about the amount of gas left in the tank. Why? Because after he wins his 19th he’ll have no higher mountain to climb. His life goal will have been achieved, as I think we’ll see his desire wane whether he likes it or not. This will conveniently happen as his children are in their teens, and his attention will be needed elsewhere.
Nick Faldo, a champion with whom I’ve already compared Tiger, speaks very candidly about losing the drive to practice to the extent that he needed to in order to be the best after winning his final major. Hank Haney, Tiger’s former coach, even wondered aloud about Tiger losing some degree of drive following his monumental win one leg at the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines.
At the end of his career, I think Tiger will have accumulated 20 major championships. So why 20 and not 19? Because the closest comparison to Tiger that I can make is the very man whose record he’s chasing, Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus famously captured his final major at 46, years after his best game had left him. I’m predicting Tiger’s game will putter out (no pun intended) after he wins his 19th, but he’ll similarly give us one last glimpse of greatness well into the twilight of his career. One final fist pump, one final roar if you will. 20 majors is a good round number, and if Tiger gets there he’s undoubtedly the best in the history of the game.
The next great storyline in golf may be identifying the heir to Tiger’s throne. Inevitably another great one will rise, but I bet you Tiger’s record of 20 major championships lasts longer than I do.