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18 July 2010

Another No-Name Wins a Major

OK so S. African Louis Oooooooslkdhzzn has won the British Open. It seems that the major winners these days, particularly with Woods in a distracted state, are often not exactly household names. But even when Woods was on fire he wasn't winning every major, yet no other big guns ever seemed ready to really take on the champion's role (other than Mickelson, with limited success).

I've felt that Woods has benefited from there being a less than gutsy pack of challengers, compared with Nicklaus. Jack had to contend with Arnie and Player when he started, then he had to battle the likes of Trevino and Watson in his thirties. Tiger's competitors just seemed to wilt away. While one might attribute that to his intimidating play in tournaments, that doesn't explain what happens in those tournaments where he didn't dominate.

So has the game become less dominated by elite players, or is it just my the-older-days-had-more-heroes prejudice? Here's a chart that shows the combined number of career major wins for each major winner by year. The way this works is if four players with 3 career major wins won the four majors one year, that would count for 12. If all four winners had only one career win, then that would be 4. It's intended to measure how much the game is dominated in one year by accomplished players.

There is a slight downward slope, but pretty much it's all over the place with an insignificant correlation. But these are dominated by two super-outliers - Woods and Nicklaus. So let's look at it by excluding Woods and Nicklaus (which is what we're really trying to get to, anyway - the prevalence of tour studs other than those two). To avoid undercounting the years in which Nicklaus or Woods won, I substituted the average # of career major wins, 2, for their totals (18 and 14) in each of their winning majors. Here we see a clearer trend:
Here the r-squared is a more robust 0.26, suggesting a definite trend in the sport of less dominance by by a cadre of elite players. It also supports the notion that Woods has had less of a challenging field during his run of dominance than Nicklaus had in his heyday. Put another way, Nicklaus seems to have faced much gutsier challengers than has Tiger.

These are relative comparisons, of course - golfers on the whole are no doubt superior today - bigger, better-conditioned, better-equipped - so the trend of less dominance by a few top players is probably an expected result of more, better players entering the field. Looked at that way, you could make the argument that Woods's dominance is all the more remarkable given the generally higher standard of overall play. Still, there just seems to be an element of toughness missing in the game today.

UPDATE: Steve Sailer has some interesting comments below, as well as on iSteve.

Here's the basic data in spreadsheet form if you'd like to play with it yourself.

UPDATE: It occurred to me that this analysis is potentially flawed: there is built-in bias against later tournament winners as they haven't had time to build up wins. For example, when Watson beat Nicklaus in 1975, that was his first tournament. Perhaps Graeme McDonald will go on to win a whole bunch more tournaments before all is said and done.

So to address this, I compared Woods and Nicklaus at similar points in their careers. There have been 55 majors starting with Woods's victory at Augusta in 1997. So I've compared them to the 55 majors for Nicklaus beginning with his U.S. Open victory in 1962, again counting only 2 for the majors where Jack or Tiger won. I've also limited the # of career wins from the Nicklaus eras to those won prior to 1976. That means, for example, that Tom Watson and Ray Floyd are only credited with 1 career major. These results still suggest stiffer competition for Nicklaus - other major winners had a combined 135 career major wins by 1975, while Tiger's only had 79. By the way, through this period The Golden Bear had 14 major wins - the same as Woods.


Blogger Steve Sailer said...


My impression is that in major tournaments, Nicklaus was extremely psychologically intimidating to most of his top competitors, such as Palmer (although Trevino and later Watson held up well), but that Nicklaus himself had certain self-limiting traits.

Oddly enough, it was precisely the kind of thing that Nicklaus did that was least effective at making him win that contributed to his aura of being being smarter and more in control. Nicklaus made a fetish of doing things that seemed really smart, but actually weren't, but intimidated competitors who thought they must be smart.

For example, compare tee-shot arcs.

In contrast, Nicklaus's teeshots were awe-inspiring to behold. Forty yards off the tee they still be sizzling along at ankle-height, making a woosh sound as the passage of the ball echoed off the grass. Then they'd climb majestically to vast height, while fading slightly to the right to minimize roll, then drop down, down, down from the sky, take one hop and stop, 270 yards from the tee. Considering how strong Nicklaus was, he probably could have averaged an extra 20 yards off the tee if he hadn't insisted on fading the ball like Hogan did and didn't use an teeshot arc that used up so much energy in vertical movement.

But, he looked great.

Woods' teeshots are basically launched at the most effective angle for maximum difference, and he's discovered that it doesn't really matter if they are superstraight. He has lots of fans to bounce bad shots off of and trample down the grass in the rough.

Also, Nicklaus would intimidate rivals by switching from driver to one-iron for teeshots in the closing holes. The announcers would go crazy talking about how Nicklaus was making the Smart Play. And then he'd hit the one-iron in the rough. Always happened. Not even God can hit a one-iron, as Trevino said about how he intended to avoid getting hit by lighting in the future by holding a one-iron straight up in the air.

Woods uses a two-iron for this purpose, not a one-iron.

July 19, 2010 5:33 PM  
Blogger Steve Sailer said...

My impression is that Nicklaus tended to outsmart himself in major tournaments by coming in with an over-conservative strategy. Sometimes, he'd wake up on Sunday morning, realizing he needed a low score to win, so he'd switch to hitting driver on every hole and shoot a 66, but sometimes Trevino would slip in ahead of him.

In contrast, Woods' major victories tend to see him do well the first two days, pull away from the field on Saturday, and cruise on Sunday.

I believe Nicklaus won 18 major championships and finished second or tied for second 19 times. With Woods, it's 14 and 6. He's finished third three times and fourth twice, and fifth through ninth seven times.

So, Woods wins a huge fraction of the time that he's close, more than Nicklaus. Perhaps Nicklaus had gnarlier competitors, although some (e.g., Weiskopf) struck me as emotionally fragile. But I think Nicklaus worried more about looking smart than actually playing smart.

July 19, 2010 5:45 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

Thanks, Steve - very interesting. I get the sense that Nicklaus might be a more interesting personality than he seems.

July 19, 2010 7:49 PM  
Anonymous Here Come The Judge said...

First of all, let me say I LOVE Jack Nicklaus.

However, today golf is a more global game. How many South Africans won majors during Jack's reign of 1962-1986?

All this shows is that there are more "eligible" major winners today than in the '60s-'70s.

Steve, do me a favor and run this same graph of Stanley Cup winners. I'll bet you see a very similar trend.

July 19, 2010 8:21 PM  
Blogger Steve Sailer said...

Another statistic is PGA Tour Titles. Snead is first, Nicklaus second at 73 over the years 1962-1986, Woods third at 71 since 1996. That's really an astonishing number for Woods, so he's doing better proportionally in regular tournaments than in majors relative to Nicklaus, where he trails 14 to 18. That suggests that Woods' winning 14 out of 20 majors when he was tied for second or better is not a fluke. That compares to 18 out of 37 majors for Nicklaus. Up through 2008, at least, the guy just won and won and won.

I suspect that the reason Woods wins even more regular events than majors relative to Nicklaus is that the growth of the European Tour since Nicklaus's heyday means that the U.S. Tour doesn't have as much of a monopoly on the world's best players week in and week out like it did in Nicklaus's day. That doesn't mean the PGA Tour is worse in an objective sense, just that Majors are tougher to win relative to regular Tour events than 40 years ago because everybody who is anybody in the world shows up for them, but not as high a proportion of the worlds top players for, say, the Doral or the Hope tournaments.

Granted, Nicklaus concentrated on Majors during the second half of his career, but Woods doesn't play in that many regular Tour events either, and yet he wins a huge fraction of the various warm-up tournaments and Buick Opens that he deigns to appear in.

July 19, 2010 10:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think because of other factors in the game of golf, Nicklaus and Tiger have faced a completely different era. People always assume Nicklaus played against harder competition than Tiger, but I doubt that's true. Consider that in 1980 the 150th person on the money list made around $12,000 dollars which converts into about $33,000 today. That's not much considering the amount of travel and other expenses that goes into playing on a golf tour.

I think the fact that there are so many "great" players in Nicklaus era is a result of the fact you had to be good to make a living on the PGA Tour. The journeyman pro's would be better off getting a real job. As a result, there were probably 15-20 full time pros that could make a nice living and were legitimate threats but the field is no where near as deep.

Compare that to 2009, where the 150th person on the moneylist made $455,000. That's not to mention the improved fitness, technology, and a new approach to the game inspired by people who watched how hard Tiger worked when he came along. Whereas in 1970, there might have been 20 players that could legitimately win a major, now almost anyone in the field can. This not only makes it harder for Tiger, but the second tier like Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, how almost assuredly are as good if not better than Jack's challengers.

July 20, 2010 10:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure this analysis really tells us anything about the strength or nature of the competition presented by Jack's and Tiger's respective contemporaries. It's just not clear to me that Jack's having had a handful of contemporaries who were (like him) winning a majors in bunches means that he was facing overall stiffer competition or a qualitatively different sort of competition. Jack's competition MAY have been stronger and MAY have been of a different makeup; but this just doesn't make that case for me. All it really says is that Nicklaus dominated golf in an era when fewer players were able to win majors while Tiger dominated in an era when more players were able to win majors.

As dominant as Jack was, Tiger has outshone him up to this point in their careers. Skills-wise, Tiger clearly has Jack beat in the short game and putting -- which together comprise a huge part of the game --whereas Jack's main edge over Tiger was in keeping his drives in the fairway. However, whereas Tiger misses a lot more fairways, he also has shown incredible skill and imagination in getting out of trouble (at least ON the course).

I realize that a direct comparison between Tiger's and Jack's golf skills is beyond the scope of your OP, but I think it's a more useful way to approach the question of who was better -- Jack or Tiger --than an approach that focuses on the accomplishments of players other than those two.

Also, just because I happened to see these stats and found them interesting: Tiger actually ranks no. 3 in career European Tour wins as well as holding down that spot in the regular PGA Tour record book. And Tiger is 14-1 in tournaments decided by a playoff (PGA and European PGA events combined).

July 20, 2010 10:45 AM  
Blogger Steve Sailer said...

14 out of 15 in playoffs, wow.

One way to compare eras would be to look how well stars of one era aged. For example, the advent of Bill Russell in the NBA made some rival centers irrelevant almost immediately at title contenders -- Neill Johnston is a name I vaguely recall as a guy with a sidearm hook shot that wasn't effective anymore after Russell joined the league.

One example of this in golf is Peter Thomson, who won five British Opens, but four of them were before Arnold Palmer made it customary for American stars to jet over for The Open. But Thomson did win one last time in 1965 against a bunch of Americans, so he was pretty good.

In golf, Sam Snead, who became a star in 1937 had a T2 and a 3 (in a major) in 1974, suggesting that the Snead-Hogan-Nelson guys from the late 1930s were pretty good. On the other hand, the Postwar generation, between Snead-Hogan-Nelson and Arnold Palmer like, uh (Google break) Cary Middlecoff didn't produce that many enduring superstars. Perhaps the Depression/War caused a lower number of young men to take up golf (including as caddies) than the pre 1929 youths?

It's hard to do this kind of analysis though because of all the noise in the data. Like Trevino got hit by lighting in 1975, when he had already won 5 majors. He won one more, but he wasn't as good after the lightning. Would he have won five more in 1975-1985 or was he too small for the new era? Can't really say...

Weiskopf and Miller were only great for a few years, which is kind of weird because they were big guys, like most modern stars.

July 21, 2010 1:05 AM  
Blogger Figgy said...

Geeze, these graphs are even harder to read on a laptop at the shore than on my desktop at home.

Palmer, Player, Watson, Trevino, Miller, and even Raymond Floyd, were GREAT players. Arnie would have won two more US Opens (62 and 67) if not for Jack's great play. If Watson had not gotten a tragic case of the "yips" with the putter when he was still in his prime, he might have won 6 or 7 more majors. The best players during Tiger's era have been Mickelson, Els and Singh. I don't see any of them being as tough as the players I mentioned above. They've won 4,3 and 3 majors respectively, and I think that's about what they should have won given their capabilities. And it's not like Tiger stopped them from winning more - they were in contention without Tiger in the picture and couldn't seal the deal (Mickelson at the Open in 99, 04, 06, and 09 comes immediately to mind).

I was in awe of Tiger's abilities from 97 through 2008. There was no question in my mind he was a better player than Nicklaus, and I've had plenty of chances to watch Jack over the years (Steve's description of the trajectory of his drives is accurate although I think some of it has to do with equipment as well as intent). But I now see many players who are able to do what Tiger does, in fact Tiger is commonly outdriven by the likes of Phil, Dustin Johnson and a host of others. So I'm starting to doubt that Tiger will ever return to the level of dominance he once occupied. We'll still have to wait and see if he does indeed transcend Jack's career.

Bottom line is I think Palmer, Player, Trevino, Watson, etc were indeed tougher competitors than what Tiger has faced. I can definitely picture Watson facing him down on a Sunday afternoon and taking the major trophy from him. Same goes for the others. Those guys did not back down.

As to the comment about Tiger being a better putter than Jack - I'm not so sure about that; Jack was a great putter.

And finally, it's probably true that Graeme McDonald won't win a major going forward. However, Graeme McDowell might have a slight chance. Isn't it funny how quickly these one time winners fade into obscurity?

July 22, 2010 10:39 AM  
Blogger ziel said...

One thing about today's players - they all have perfect swings - you don't see "funny" swings anymore, like Arnie and Trevino - I think Julius Boros was known then for a having a "beautiful swing" - who ever talks about that anymore?

And the improvement in equipment has to have had an impact. Steve and Figgy's comments about the trajectory of Jack's drives and how equipment might have had something to do with that. The older players might have had to finesse things a bit more, or at least had more of a facultative approach to each shot. This might have bred a more flexible, tougher player - one who had to be able to make each and every shot work, as opposed to just the occassional rescue shot, which they practice regularly anyway.

Interesting discussion - thanks to all for the insightful comments. I'd like to hear even more.

July 23, 2010 7:51 AM  
Blogger Figgy said...

I remember my father, who wasn't a very good golfer, occasionally hitting drives that started off on a very low trajectory and rose to a great height before the ball finally landed at around the 250 yard mark. This was in the 60s. You never see that kind of trajectory anymore. I thought maybe the progress in ball technology might explain why but the golf ball didn't change all that much from the 60s through the late 90s. However, I did find in my searching that drivers back in the 60s had a loft of about 7.5 degrees whereas drivers today average around 9.5 degrees. That might have something to do with the "low to high" path of drives back then, which we just don't see in these days of the long, high 330 yard bombs.

As for Nicklaus and the 1 iron; he DID have that one great shot with that club on the 18th at Baltusrol in 1967. A plaque now sits in the fairway, commemmorating the historic (but not meaningful to the competition at the time) shot. Phil Mickelson tapped it for good luck just before hitting his fairway metal next to the green in 2005 to secure his second major at the PGA Championship. Of course, Phil was hitting his 2nd while Jack's "plaque-worthy" shot was his 3rd (drove into the tangled rough on his drive).

August 02, 2010 12:14 AM  

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