Tiger Woods: Hunt for the career major record renewed with victory at The Masters

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 14: Tiger Woods of the United States celebrates after sinking his putt on the 18th green to win during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 14, 2019 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 14: Tiger Woods of the United States celebrates after sinking his putt on the 18th green to win during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 14, 2019 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Tiger Woods became a major champion once again with his triumph at the Masters. After an 11-year gap, he now has 15 major titles to his name, and the question is renewed: does he have enough left to catch Jack Nicklaus and his record of 18 majors?

For the third straight major tournament, Tiger Woods demonstrated at the Masters that he’s back.

He did more than that, winning his 15th major championship and fifth Masters with a score of 13-under par 275. That was one better than Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele, who tied for second.

With the victory, Woods moves within three majors of equaling Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record of 18. It was Tiger’s first major title since the 2008 U.S. Open.

It also resuscitates a question that seemed to have died a slow death over the past decade: Can Tiger actually catch Jack?

As recently as a year ago, the question seemed fantastical. Woods was recovering – fitfully – from back surgeries that cost him two full tour seasons. He not only had not won a major title in more than a decade, he hadn’t played particularly well when he did compete.

Tiger’s missed cut at the 2018 U.S. Open was his fifth such failure in his eight major appearances since 2014. His best finish in those majors? It was a tie for 17th at the 2015 Masters. He didn’t look like the same old Tiger; he just looked like an old Tiger.

But something fused in his game following that U.S. Open missed cut. Tiger played well at the Quicken Loans, followed that with a tie for sixth at The Open Championship, and continued with a serious run at the PGA Championship title, eventually finishing second, two strokes behind Koepka.

Since then Woods has put together a series of generally strong performances, including his victory at last September’s Tour Championship. He tied for 10th at this spring’s WGC Mexico.

In short, his Masters victory caps a stretch in which Woods has played his most consistent golf since winning five times in 2013. This consistency shows up loud and clear in Woods’ positive performance in each of the four major Strokes Gained categories.

A table comparing Woods’ Strokes Gained performances (entering the 2019 Masters) for 2019, 2013 and 2005 – the year the Strokes Gained formula was introduced – shows that while Woods isn’t yet quite back to his once-dominant form, he’s gaining on that performance level.

                                      SG Off Tee          SG Approach      SG Around          SG Putting           SG Total

  • 2019                       .216                        .700                      .564                      .191                   1.671
  • 2013                     -.142                      1.533                     .247                       .426                   2.064
  • 2005                       .896                        .860                    -.015                      .659                    2.400

Today’s Woods is a more balanced player whose game displays none of the unevenness that used to be his hallmark. In 2013, his exceptional iron play made up for an erratic driving game. In his prime, in 2005, Woods was an indifferent chipper. The 2019 version of Woods is a more balanced player whose weakest area – putting – is still, relatively speaking, a strength.

Can Tiger pick up those three additional major titles he needs to catch Jack? Assuming his play since the U.S. Open reflects a lasting change in his  performance pattern — and on the PGA Tour consistency is a rare commodity — he will be in the running to do so.

The most accurate measurement of a player’s ability to compete with the best PGA Tour players is the week-in and week-out standard deviation of his performance.  Unlike a player’s raw score, which can be influenced by course setups, weather, equipment adjustments and other factors, standard deviation is a measure of relative superiority. It tells us how well a player performed in any given tournament compared with all others in that same tournament, thus neutralizing week-to-week variants.

A player with a standard deviation of 0.00 would be considered average, the better players gravitating toward a negative standard deviation. A player reaching the -1.0 standard deviation level would be consistently performing better than about two-thirds of all PGA Tour players: in other words, he would be a threat to win any tournament he entered.

Since last summer’s Quicken Loans – Woods’ first start following the U.S. Open –the average standard deviation of his 13 starts through his Augusta win is -0.98. He has, in other words, performed well enough to be viewed once again as a contender in any event he plays.

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He’s done better than that, of course, having won both the Tour Championship and now The Masters.

Every player  is going to have his bad weeks. And since those bad weeks will drag down a season-long average, in assessing Tiger’s potential to win and win and win again it’s also valuable to look at his recent “peak” performances.

In his 13 starts beginning with the Quicken and continuing through The Masters, Woods has finished among the top 10 – which is to say he more or less seriously contended – seven times. The average standard deviation of his performance in just those seven events is -1.59, a performance level that would project him into serious title contention.

Let me sum it up:

  • Since last June, Woods has seriously contended in about half the events he has entered, winning two of them.
  • Assuming his health holds up, between now and his 50th birthday, Woods can expect to make 27 more major appearances.  If he can maintain something approximating his present performance level, he can expect to seriously compete in about half of those 27, possibly winning up to one-quarter of that half in which he contends.
  • That would give him on the order of three more major titles, which happens to be precisely the number he needs to catch Nicklaus’ record.

Obviously his fellow PGA Tour players will have something to say about it. Winning a major isn’t as simple as doing a statistical projection. One need only think back to Sunday morning to consider how many first-rate players – Brooks Koepka, Francesco Molinari, Xander Schauffele, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day,, Webb Simpson, Tony Finau, Patrick Cantlay – might have denied Woods this Masters title if they had  dropped one more putt or avoided one more creek.

Next. Tiger Woods completes the comeback of a lifetime with win at The Masters. dark

So the point isn’t that Tiger Woods will catch Jack; there are too many variables to guarantee even one more major win. The point is that for the first time in several years, it’s fair to consider the possibility.