(For the greatest sporting event on the planet, we’re eschewing our traditional format of previews and doing them piece by piece. We’re going to get our Tiger one out of the way first.)
I get it. It’s exhausting. It’s the biggest (and only) debate in golf until he passes him. Everyone has an opinion on it, every tour player has been asked about it, and every writer has written about it at some point. Nicklaus has been asked about it more times than he’s referred to himself during an interview (which is saying something). While I acknowledge it is tiresome, I still consider it a fascinating debate because of all of the different elements that should be considered, how the game has evolved, how the man himself has evolved, as well as the weekly fluctuations as to whether or not he’s “back”. Of course, the debate is whether or not Tiger Woods will break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major wins.
Here is a list of things that have happened since Tiger Woods won his last major championship at the 2008 US Open:
- We discovered Tiger was playing on a broken leg.
- Tiger had yet another knee surgery
- Someone named Y.E. Yang became the first player to beat Tiger in come-from-behind fashion on a Sunday of a major.
- Jim Nantz gave the most predictable and most Jim Nantz ever call of the clinching putt (“Y-E-S!”)
- That scandal thing.
- Sex rehab.
- Tiger and Hank Haney parted ways.
- Tiger and Elin got divorced.
- Tiger began working with Sean Foley, overhauling his swing for a 3rd time.
- Battling injuries and inconsistent play, he dropped to 51st in the world rankings.
- He went two plus years without wins.
Since then he has regained some semblance of form, winning 8 times over the 2012-2013 seasons, and returning to the top of the OWGR. His form and health have been awful in 2014, seemingly negating any goodwill he had built up over the 8 wins the previous two years. To many, none of those wins matter until he wins a major. Part of me even thinks Tiger agrees with that sentiment. Make no mistake, while Tiger enjoys winning the same tournaments every year, the only thing he truly cares about are the major championships. So how is it possible that a guy who won 25% of the majors he’d played in (through 2008) can go 5 full seasons without a major?
First, we’re going to breakdown Tiger’s overall game, not specific to the Masters. He’s evolved, and it’s not for the better. Then, we’re going to breakdown the changes that have been made to Augusta National, and how they relate to Tiger’s game, and modern day equipment.
Tiger Woods is no longer “Tiger Woods”, and he never will be again.
One thing that works against Tiger, and likely always will, is his unprecedented previous success. He is often unfairly compared to what he did in the early to mid 2000’s, the likes of which have never been seen before in golf, and never will be again. His injuries have caused him to revamp his swing yet again to a tighter, more robotic version than the long, languid motion of his prime. Let’s take a look at the results of those changes (these charts were taken from a thread on GolfWRX and are a bit outdated, but best illustrate my point):
Conclusion: Tiger no longer has an advantage on the field off the tee in terms of raw distance.
Tiger lived inside the top-10 in driving distance with Butch Harmon and Hank Haney. He now sits in the mid-30’s. While driving distance can be a very misleading stat (only 2 holes per round are measured; some players are hitting 3-woods compared to drivers for others; wind environments; schedules; etc.), it’s not a stretch to say that current-Tiger is not the bomber that old-Tiger was. The foundation of Tiger’s burst onto the scene was his incredible prowess off the tee. He was hitting sand wedges into par 5’s at Augusta, and this was before the latest technology boom. His advantage on the field was being able to hit wedges into holes where other guys were hitting 7-irons. Or in the case of the 2005 Masters against Chris DiMarco (RIP, moment of silence):
Dimarco: “And I hit a great shot on 9 with a 4-iron out of the rough. He hit pitching wedge in there, I hit 4-iron”
Over 72 holes, that advantage on the field really added up, and so did the wins. With his more controlled swing (i.e. less lag), and reluctance to reach for the driver, he has completely lost this advantage on the field. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that there are simply more guys on today’s tour that generate more club head speed than he does. In 2013, he ranked 28th on tour with a speed of 118.30. In 2008, he ranked 2nd at a speed of 124.63.
Greens in Regulation:
Again, we see a very steep decline in his greens in regulation rank compared to his prime. Laying further back off the tee typically leads to more missed greens. The graphs above suggest it’s not a coincidence that Tiger won 7 major titles from 1999-2002, and 6 majors from 2005-2008. Throw in 1997 (where Tiger ranked 4th on tour in GIR%), and you can easily see Tiger’s consistent ability to put the ball on the green directly correlates to all 14 of his major titles. Tiger finished 2013 26th on the tour in GIR%, which gives us more evidence that Tiger’s gap over the field is diminishing in an area that he once dominated.
Rank in Strokes Gained Putting on Tour:
Conclusion: He went from basically the best putter on tour, to simply above average (at least by tour standards).
Outside of 2006, the last 4 years have been Tiger’s worst 4 years since the strokes gained putting statistic has been tracked. It’s a bit counter intuitive to how you think a golfer would age, but putting is usually what hampers older players more than ball striking does. The biggest indication to me that Tiger had completely lost his edge on the green was when he switched away from the putter he had won 13 majors with. Hank Haney mentioned in The Big Miss that Tiger was not practicing putting nearly as much as he used to.
The Turning Point?
It’s hard to believe the guy who once won four Masters in nine years has failed to win any of his last eight starts. This coming April will mark nine years since he outlasted Chris DiMarco in a playoff, and overcame a devastating high-five catastrophe to win the 2005 Masters:
Tiger’s swagger at Augusta has not been the same since that celebration malfunction. I’m not kidding when I say that whiff is the only thing that partially ruined the greatest golf moment of my lifetime. That, and the fact that I leapt out of my chair when the ball teetered over the edge of the cup, landed on a book on my dorm room floor, and legitimately rolled my ankle. My roommate (not a golf fan and not watching, likely lost quite a bit of respect for me). But that was the kind of excitement that Tiger Woods added to the Masters. There is a laundry list of reasons to dislike Tiger. But no one can argue the fact that golf is infinitely more exciting when Tiger is competing down the stretch of a major, whether you’re rooting for him or against him.
It’s so easy to forget that Tiger bogeyed the last two holes in the most un-Tiger like fashion after that high-five whiff (the exact kind of thing he never used to do), and needed OT to top DiMarco. Which brings me to my theory: It’s clear to me that he hasn’t gotten that horrifying high five fail out of his head! You can’t watch this and tell me this doesn’t ruin the moment:
Sidebar: Similar theory. Coincidence that Bubba Watson has only won once since the 2012 Masters? Check out this epic handshake fail from the Butler Cabin:
While Tiger is 0 for his last 8 at Augusta, that doesn’t mean he’s played poorly here. His results since his win in 2005 are as follows: T3, T2, 2, T6, T4, T4, T40, T4. Crazy good results for the rest of humanity, it never felt he was ever really THAT close to winning in any of those years (of course, if he doesn’t hit the flag with a perfect wedge in the 2013 Masters, he probably wins it). Besides that moment at #15, has Tiger produced a single memory at Augusta that sticks out in your mind? This is the only moment that jumps out to me, (other than him missing a 5-foot eagle putt on #15 a few hours later), complete with the awkward Stevie high five. Tiger has won every other major since his last Masters win (U.S. Open in 2008, British Open in 2005 and 2006, and the PGA Championship in 2006 and 2007).
The Augusta You See Now is Not the Augusta Tiger Conquered
We highlighted above how Tiger’s game has changed, but it’s also very much worth noting how much Augusta National has changed over the past decade or so (even after original ‘Tiger-proofing’). (Here is an incredible graphic that summarizes changes to Augusta over the years, but please do not click this unless you have several hours to spare).
In 2002, Augusta went through its first Tiger-proofing attempt. Why? Here’s how Tim Rosaforte described Tiger Woods’ performance in 1997:
“Woods reduced this once mighty track to an executive course. He was reaching the par-5’s with wedges and driving it pin-high at the 360-yard third. All he did was go 18-under, set the tournament record, win by 12 strokes and turn Augusta into Indian Wells.”
We all remember watching the 1997 Masters. It’s my first real professional golf memory. I was 10 years old, and even then I remember being amazed by a 21 year-old absolutely demolishing the field by 12 shots. In all of the years that Augusta had been hosting the Masters, he was hitting tee shots in places that no one had reached before. It was a level of dominance that will never be replicated. And he did it using THESE golf clubs:
Courtesy of www.persimmongolftoday.com
After Woods won another Masters in 2001, yardage was added to half (!) of the holes in 2002. The course was lengthened to 7,270 yards (up from 6,925 during Woods’ rout in 1997). When that didn’t work (Tiger repeated as champ), holes 1, 4, 7, 11, and 15 were all lengthened in 2006. Landing areas and fairways were narrowed, and a course that used to be known as a bombers paradise required much more precision off the tee, something Tiger has never been known for. The golf course that Tiger blitzed in 1997 ceased to exist completely. Although Augusta is well known among true golf fans for its constant tweaking and tinkering, the significance of the changes over the last 12 years can not be understated.
Two holes that were amongst the most significantly altered were holes 7 and 11. Forty yards were added in 2002 to number 7, and another 40 yards added in 2006. Large pines were planted on both sides of the fairway. What was once an easy drive, pitch and putt has turned into a demanding par 4 from tee to green. Woods has played the 7th hole a combined 3 over par in his 32 competitive rounds since the 2006 changes.
On #11 the changes are even more dramatic. In 2002, the downhill par-4 was lengthened from 455 yards to 490. However, the most significant change occurred in 2004 with the planting of 36 mature pines that narrowed the landing area considerably, and limited players’ ability to cut the corner on the dogleg. The hole now plays 505 yards, and is one of the most difficult holes on the course. Tiger has played the 11th hole in 9-over par over the last 8 years. Both #7 and #11 were holes that he used to dominate with his prodigious length.
Many theorized that making Augusta longer was only going to increase Tiger’s advantage. But despite the length that has been added to Augusta over the years, they’ve managed to emphasize precision off the tee more than distance. What used to be a playground for Tiger to bomb it, find it, wedge it, and fist pump his way into a green jacket, is now much more punishing and demanding. Since then, with the exception of hole #2, the landing area on every single par-4 or par-5 has been tightened, or a new hazard has been brought into play. So Tiger’s not the bomber he once was relative everyone else, and additionally, his proclivity for wildness off the tee gets him into a lot more trouble at Augusta than it once did.
So we have a devolving superstar challenging an ever-evolving golf course. The next question is how does present-day Tiger match-up vs. present day Augusta? We’ve seen the Tiger-Foley combo for the last 3 years (T4-T40-T4). A common opinion you’ll hear about Augusta is that it’s built for those with a natural right to left shot shape. I decided to test this theory by tracking hole by hole what I consider to be the ideal shot shape for both the tee shot and the approach shot. To call it unscientific is an understatement, but I decided upon the following point system. If a shot requires a hard draw, I subtracted 2 points. For a soft draw, I subtracted 1 point. Neutral shots were assigned 0 points, soft fade 1 point, and a hard fade 2 points. Here are the results.
This would lead me to conclude that there is some validity to the point that Augusta favors a right-to-left ball flight. In his younger days, Tiger was famous for a natural right to left ball flight. As technology evolved, with the ball going further and spinning less, Tiger found that his right-to-left ball flight was more difficult to control. As such, and especially under Sean Foley, Tiger tends to favor the left-to-right shot heavily. As Hank Haney famously pointed in the The Big Miss, it is likely not a coincidence that left-handers have won 5 of the last 11 Masters, and several of the right-handers to win in the last 6 years (Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel and Zach Johnson) have natural right-to-left ball flights.
In conclusion, Tiger ain’t the same, and Augusta ain’t the same. And the combination of the two has resulted in a nine-year green jacket drought for the Big Cat. More so, it seems the days where Tiger is the odds-on favorite to win it have passed us by. Which is crazy to think.