Tiger: what the stats say

We’re being bombarded by theories and notions about Tiger Woods’ decline, but what do the stats say? Matt Cooper finds out.

Tiger Woods is currently a shadow of the golfer we once knew: that much is obvious from watching him and observing his results.
The reasons for his decline is a matter of conjecture and much of the debate in the newspapers, on television and around the internet is heated and contradictory.
It’s because of his personal life. Or his professional life. It’s because of Hank Haney. Or Sean Foley. It’s because of stack and tilt. Or a flat follow-through. It’s because of his long game. Or maybe his short game. It’s because of his head. Or perhaps his swing. He’s gone for good. It’s a short term blip.
Rumour, speculation, guesswork, supposition and theories abound. Rather than further muddying the water, let’s take a look at the facts. Let’s ignore, for now, the question ‘Why is Tiger Woods struggling?’ and instead ask: ‘What do the stats say about the extent of his decline?’
The answer, it turns out, is that the stats tell us quite a bit. It is one thing to argue about theories; the numbers are more decisive.
If we take the obvious turning point in his career as the collapse of his marriage in the final weeks of 2009 (and the extended break from the game that followed) what do the stats say of Tiger before and after that defining moment of his life and career?
He returned to competition at the 2010 Masters and since (and including) that tournament he has played 16 times. We’ve compared his stats for those 16 events with the 16 events prior to his enforced break from the game (from the 2009 Masters to his win in the JBWere Masters in November 2009). As further comparison, we’ve also looked at the 16 tournaments before that (from the 2007 Open to the 2009 Arnold Palmer Invitational).
Putting the stats for the three periods together reveals the full extent of his current plight. The first period shows Woods at his imperious best, winning 10 of those 16 starts. In the second period he remains incredibly consistent (in both those timeframes he failed to make the top 10 on only two occasions) but he won “only” six out of the 16. His last 16 starts are a very marked contrast: no wins and just four top ten finishes.
His Adjusted Scoring Average in this period is equally telling. In the three stages it has risen from 67.92 to 68.22 to 69.67, which equates to an increase of seven shots per completed tournament (his final round average has also inflated from 67.54 to 69.65). The ascent of his average finishing position is no less humbling: from 4th to 8th to 29th.
Looking more closely at the various aspects of his game, what is striking is that in the first two periods his stats and field ranking averages were remarkably consistent, before drifting alarmingly since he resumed play at Augusta in 2010.
Driving Distance is the least reliable of the measured stats, but for what it is worth he last lost five yards, from 301.2 yards to 296.1 yards. More salient is the increased waywardness of his ball-striking. From the tee he was never an accurate driver – and he did actually improve in the second period – but he has dropped away considerably in recent times: from 61.2% to 66% to 54.1%. That 66% in the period before his break represented an average ranking of 26th in the field; his average since the break is 52nd. His Greens in Regulation stats have slumped too, from 70.1% (ranked 12th) to 69.6% (16th) to 65.1% (34th).
Looking at the summary statistics it becomes even more abundantly clear how his game has begun to malfunction. The pattern noted above continues, with his average rankings markedly alike in the first two periods before dropping away since his return to tournament golf:
Total Driving (a combination of Distance and Accuracy): 16th – 15th – 36th.
Total Accuracy (combined Driving Accuracy and Greens in Regulation): 20th – 17th – 45th.
Ball Striking (combined Total Driving and Greens in Regulation): 12th – 12th – 32nd.
All-Round (a combination of the key stats): 5th – 7th – 24th.
On first glance at the stats, Woods’ putting seems the least affected part of his game: his Total Putting Average ranking rose, but only slightly, from 20th to 21st to 24th. The same for his Putting Average (from 1.69 to 1.72). But look closer: he averaged 28.06 putts per round when imperious, a figure that rose by half a putt per round (28.58) prior to his marriage collapse and added yet another half stroke since (29.18). In the first period he averaged 30 or more putts per round just once, in the last 16 events he has done so five times.
Perhaps more importantly, his scrambling is suffering. Ostensibly a measure of the ability to save par when missing the green (to get up and down), to some extent it also reflects the ability to hole out for par when it matters. In other words: to putt well under pressure. This has been one of Woods’ greatest strengths throughout his career and yet his Scrambling success rate has gone: 65.2% (ranked 10th) to 61.7% (ranked 16th) to 47% (ranked 38th).
The conclusion from these stats is clear: this is a deep rooted problem.
But stats can also remind us why his fall from grace fascinates us: it is because he is an extraordinary golfer who has smashed records and posted astonishing numbers. Here’s an example:
Martin Kaymer is currently wowing the world with his ability to win tournaments – he has nine victories in his last 100 professional starts. Phil Mickelson can win too – he has 11 in his last 100 starts. What of the rest of the world’s top 10? Steve Stricker has six. Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowell and Paul Casey have five, Jim Furyk four, Rory McIlroy (in 99 starts) two and Luke Donald one.
What about Tiger Woods? How many has he won in his last 100 starts? (And remember: we’ve already established that he’s won nothing in the last 16 of those 100 starts).
The answer explains why we analyse his stats so nerdily, why we theorise about his decline so avidly, why we feed on Tiger Woods stories so greedily. Because when he was good, he was great: Tiger Woods hasn’t got three wins, or five wins; he’s got 35.

  • Note: the following stats do not include Woods’ own 12-player-field Chevron World Challenge. He played the event twice during the three periods, winning it in 2007 and finishing second in 2010.
    Tiger Woods – from the 2007 Open to 2009 Palmer Invitational (16 starts)
    10 wins
    13 top five finishes
    14 top ten finishes
    Average finishing position 4th
    Adjusted Scoring Average: 67.92
    Final round Adjusted Scoring Average: 67.54
    Tiger Woods – from the 2009 Masters to the 2009 JBWere Australian Masters (16 starts)
    6 wins
    10 top five finishes
    14 top ten finishes
    Average finishing position 8th
    Adjusted Scoring Average: 68.22
    Final round Adjusted Scoring Average: 67.38
    Tiger Woods – from the 2010 Masters to date (16 starts)
    0 wins
    3 top five finishes
    4 top ten finishes
    Average finishing position 29th
    Adjusted Scoring Average: 69.67
    Final round Adjusted

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