Wednesday, July 25, 2012

How Close is Tiger Woods to Actually Passing Jack Nicklaus - We Rank Golf's Greats

Tiger Woods, with his 14 majors has been chasing the iconic Jack Nicklaus for quite some time. Only four back from Jack's 18 major wins, the feat seems so close to achievement, if only Tiger can get back to his former level. This record is what Tiger strives for, the only thing left he has yet to conquer in competitive golf.

Did you realize that Jack Nicklaus took second place at Majors 19 times? So Jack won 18, placed second 19, and third an amazing 9 times. Tiger Woods has only 6 such second place finishes in Majors, and 4 third-place finishes.

I tried to develop a fair way of measuring a golfers career. This lead me to do a lot of research on golf, a sport I have not spent much time following. The major championships started 1860, with The Open Championship in Scotland. Over the course of professional golf's history, much has changed. Today, one could use career earnings - but I sincerely doubt that the purses have stayed constant with inflation. In older times, the majority of the "tour" was exhibition matches. Also, I found a very real lack of historical data. This might be due to my lack of familiarity with the sport, but I just don't think there is much interest in golf statistics. Don't worry, that didn't stop me from staying up until 3am several nights in a row, playing with golf statistics!

I decided that measuring success in golf's major championships would be the truest measurement of career success. The majors have been the only constant in golf's history (except of course, for the years the tournaments were cancelled in wartime). I declined to rank the great women golfers: it would be purely a judgement call and I couldn't find the function in Excel.

I decided on a 1/x function for the Major Points statistic. I toyed with more complicated formulas, but found them wholly dissatisfying. I agree that this might seem more heavily weighted towards rewarding the Golden Bear, with his record of top 3 finishes - but its more than fair. Consider the purses: the 2012 US Open rewards second place with 60% of the winners take, and 37% of the winners take for third place. My simple 1/x formula gives 50% and 33%, respectively. So I don't think this is too-heavily favoring Jack's career over Tiger's . (I could have, for example, awarded points based on the percentage of the total prize money available at major tournaments every year, although this system would have been too daunting a task for me to justify).

First, I painstakingly extracted the data from wikipedia, where they have tabulated  major tournament results timelines for all of golf's greats. I decided the "cutoff" to be considered in this ranking was to have won four majors. For several reasons: firstly, I started this task trying to compare Tiger Woods to Jack Nicklaus; second, I wanted to deal with a manageable amount of data; and thirdly I only wanted to compare great with great and four majors is a pretty exclusive bunch. (Note: Billy Casper was ranked near the top 10 of male golfers by which was my original group I was using, while only having won 3 majors.)

Then, I ranked the golfers from the best (Jack Nicklaus) to the "worst" - but make no mistake, all of these golfers were among the best in their eras. I highly encourage you all to read the wikipedia articles on these players. Some (most!) of their lives were fascinating. It seems the golfer's today keep their lives so private we don't get the fascinating stories that the older golfers left for us. (I didn't write this as a jab at Tiger, but I'm totally leaving it here as a jab at Tiger). The early eras were dominated by locals, since it was a new sport. But still ranked them in their top 20 (which included several women). There were fewer players playing and there were fewer majors - so less points to go around. I think this gives a natural "curving" to the rankings, allowing us to respect the history of the game (no one thinks Old Tom Morris would be competitive in today's game) while still giving today's amazing athletes their proper dues.

A summary of "Major Points" - earned for finishes at major championships, 1/finish, so...
1st: 1 point = 1.00
2nd: 1/2 points = .5
3rd: 1/3 points = .333
20th: 1/20 points = .05

The first interesting result besides the rankings of players (nerdy stuff below, see bottom of page) I found was by finding how many Major Points were won by year of competition.

The chart below is a composite performance by every golfer in our rankings - the 28 people who have won 4 majors or were ranked by to be a top 20 golfer. The horizontal axis is their year of playing in a major. The columns represent the sum of the "major points" that all of the players earned during that year of their career. Don't worry about matching each individual with their performance in this chart - a full collection of individual performances is below.

Then, I overlayed this "average career" over each of our 28 golf great's actual careers and saw how they all compared.

The scale on these plots were chosen by Excel, matching the peaks of the bar chart with the peak of the average career plot. Its amazing how closeley the individual careers can follow the average. I did not include Tiger Woods in the average career since he is so near his prime career still. Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els are both 4-5 years further along than Tiger, and were included.

So, does Tiger have a chance to catch Jack? No, simply put. He is already second, and there have been impressive careers before him. He will put significant distance between him and the pack that is close behind him. I do not doubt his ability to match Jack's significant mark of 18 majors, but while Tiger has 78% of the major titles Jack has, he has only 58% of the Major Points that Jack accrued.

Tiger is my favorite golfer - growing up casually following professional golf, Tiger was golf. I liked him - who didn't? I never idolized him though, so his fall was easy for me to get over. I'll be cheering for him, but I know I won't see the day where he is ever number one.

Here are some timelines of golf, broken down into readable sections by era. It's interesting to see how much competition Jack had, but who knows who will go on to win more majors in Tiger's era.

(1)This curve, as you can see, gives a very nice competing exponentials model (see: this, this, and this for examples) - the increase in talent with age and experience, and the subsequent decrease from getting older. I just used a fourth-order polynomial to approximate this, since I only need a good curve, not a scientifically rigorous result.

1 comment:

  1. How do you adjust points for Jack's claim that the fields of today are deeper than the ones he faced.

    Below. is from the 2005 Updated edition of "Golf My Way" by Jack Nicklaus:


    When I started out, there were probably twenty or so guys who could win in any given week, of whom you'd really look at maybe five. Today there are probably a hundred or so possible winners of any PGA Tour event, with about twenty you'd favor. It's simply a matter of more players playing better.

    So if fields are really 4 times deeper as Jack claims.. shouldn't Jack get the points you say above and shouldn't Tiger get 4 times the amount or:

    Win = 4.0 point .
    2nd = 2.0 (1/2)
    3rd = 1.33 (1/3)
    4th = 1.0 (1/4)
    5th = 0.80 (1/5)