The number that Tiger Woods has to defy in third act
Tiger Woods is four majors behind all-time record-holder Jack Nicklaus, and to crown his comeback with glory, he has to defy a biological number: age
A genial Italian won his country’s first golfing major at the 2018 British Open last Sunday, but the story was the golfer in red playing alongside him who chased, caught up and collapsed. Francesco Molinari won the title, Tiger Woods the narrative.
Golf, today, has many exciting storylines but it was missing one that—like, say, men’s tennis—weaves into the arc of history. It’s got that now. Act III of Tiger Woods is in play. If Act I was about smashing stereotypes and records, and Act II a fall from pedestals and grace, Act III is shaping to be about resurrection. But to go from contending to winning, Woods, 42, has to defy one number: age.
Looking back, Woods won so much ahead of his time. Looking ahead, to win more, he has to do it on borrowed time.
Woods last won a tournament in 2013. He last won a major—the ultimate marker in golf—in 2008. Woods says he’s happy just playing golf at the highest level again. But how does one turn away from the numbers, that arc of history? Woods is three behind Sam Snead’s all-time record of 82 titles on the PGA tour. More importantly, he’s four short of Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors. Ten years ago, the money would probably have been on Woods being four majors over Nicklaus. That was 2008, when Woods played only seven tournaments, the shorter schedule— the result of needing a knee surgery. He finished in the top 10 in all seven, winning five of them, including his 14th major. Now, in his resumed chase for history, he is up against history itself. (see Chart 1).
At the highest level, even for long-career players, the 40s did not reward them the same way as the 20s and the 30s did. Of the top 5 major winners of all time, only Nicklaus won thrice in his 40s: twice at 40 and once at 46. Beyond him, Gary Player and Ben Hogan won once apiece, at 43 and 41 respectively. Also, those wins came in older eras. Nicklaus won his last major in 1986 (see Chart 2).
Woods won his first major in 1997, at the age of 22. Of his 14 majors, eight came in his 20s and six in his 30s. He was 33 when he last won a major. Now, he’s 42. Since his first major win in 1997, 81 majors have been played. Only eight of those have been won by players above the age of 40. The oldest winners, Phil Mickelson and Darren Clarke, won at the age of 43. And only two golfers, Mickelson and Mark O’Meara, won it twice in their 40s (see Chart 3).
Woods turned professional in 1996, at the age of 21. He’s now in his 22nd year on the tour, 12 of which he finished as the world number one. He carries a body that bears the workload of those years of top-flight golf. His is a creaking body held together, with his back recovering from another phase of long and intensive rehabilitation. In 2016, he tried to come back, but aborted after one tournament. In 2017, after three.
In 2018, he’s gone through 12 trouble-free tournaments so far. He doesn’t have a win, but he has four top-10 finishes. He’s clawed back in rankings from 656 to 50. This year, he is ranked 35 in driving distance: 305 metres, against the best of 320 metres. He’s ranked 11 in scoring average: 69.6 shots per round, against the best of 68.8. However, he is inconsistent in reaching the greens in regulation: he’s achieving that only 66.5% of the time, against 74.4% for the best. As a result, he has to play catch-up—a telling factor between contending and winning. As it was last Sunday.
For years, Sundays on a major weekend were defined by red—the “power colour” of the T-shirts Woods chose for the last round of a tournament. Last Sunday, as he joined the lead with eight holes to play, it was rewind time. But, going forward, to go from defining the narrative to winning titles, Woods has to defy history.
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