What Is Greatness in the Post-Tiger Age?

(published August 11, 2011)

It is said that a prominent naturalist, upon having his first look at a platypus – that duck-billed, beaver-tailed, venomous, egg-laying, furry aquatic mammal – exclaimed “That’s impossible!”

That’s what I think about the career of Tiger Woods.

Tournament golf is defined by periods of dominance.  First there was Tom Morris (Old and Young); then the Great Triumvirate (Vardon, Taylor, and Braid); then Hagen and Jones and Sarazen; Nelson and Hogan and Snead; Palmer and Nicklaus and Player; Nicklaus and Miller and Watson; and then…

And then the world changed.

It changed in a number of ways, financial and technological.   As detailed in Adam Schupak’s excellent book, Deane Beman: Golf’s Driving Force, the PGA Tour changed its economic model in the 1970s to make it more profitable, more marketable, and lucrative for the players.  In Hogan’s and Snead’s day, tournament success for most professionals was a temporary road to a good job at a country club.  Even Nicklaus gave serious consideration to competing as a lifelong amateur; after he won his second U.S. Amateur title in 1961, Palmer’s agent Mark McCormack advised Jack he could easily top $100,000 in endorsements alone, and that money was too good to pass up.

In the 1970s, an amateur champion might reasonably judge that he would do better financially as a lawyer than on Tour, unless he was a sure superstar.  By the early 1980s this was no longer true, with purses rising into the high six figures and “middle-class” Tour pros earning $100,000 or more in prize money alone.  That kind of money led more young players to concentrate on the game, with a concurrent rise in college golf programs to help them develop.

The technological advancement was improved jet travel, which made it easier for foreign golfers like Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, and others to come play in America when they liked.  Gary Player had paved the way, and Boeing made it easier to follow.

These factors greatly expanded the universe of golfers competing for major championships and the upper echelons of the PGA Tour.  The bigger the universe, the less likely it is that anyone will be able to dominate.

From 1930 to 1980, there were 39 seasons in which the leading winner on the PGA Tour won at least 5 tournaments.  Between 1981 and 1998, only one player won that many in a year: Nick Price in 1994, when he won 6 times.

Since 1999, Tiger Woods has won at least five PGA Tour events in a season nine times.  Vijay Singh did it once.  No one else.  (And even if Tiger did not exist, and the second-place finisher in his victories became the winner, there are just three other seasons that would be added: Phil Mickelson, 2005, and Vijay Singh, 2003, four wins and a second each; and Ernie Els, 2000, one win and four seconds behind Woods.  This gives too much credit to Els for the 2000 U.S. Open, when he finished 15 shots back at Pebble Beach.)

As we enter the PGA Championship in Atlanta on Thursday, the last twelve major championships have been won by twelve different golfers.  Such streaks of twelve majors or longer have happened six times since the Masters came into being in 1934; three of them were between 1983 and 1998.  (J Michael Kenyon posted a list of streaks of 11 or more on GeoffShackelford.com.  He missed the longest of them all, from the 1983 U.S. Open to the 1987 PGA, a run of 18 different winners; details of that one are available in the comments section at the link.  He also understated the most recent prior streak, which ran 12 majors, from the 2002 British Open to the 2005 U.S. Open.)

We are in a period of relative parity at the top of the game, something that is not unprecedented.  The golf world continues to grow and spread, with more players developing in more countries around the globe, and Olympic golf coming in 2016.  What are, or should be, the standards for greatness?

Forget about Nicklaus’s 18 majors.  Or, for that matter, Woods’s 14.  Of the eighteen golfers with five or more major championships, only Woods, Tom Watson (4 of 8), Nick Faldo (6), and Seve Ballesteros (3 of 5) won more than one after 1980.  If Rory McIlroy wins four or five in his career, he’ll have done very, very well.

Consider, too, the all-time Tour winning list.  Thirty-seven golfers have won at least 20 PGA Tour events.  Only five have won 20 or more since 1980: Woods (71), Mickelson (39), Singh (34), Norman (20), and Davis Love III (20).

Changes in the global game may render the number of U.S. PGA Tour victories less relevant in judging an international career; winning what the European Tour used to call the Order of Merit year after year is at least as important as a handful of U.S. victories, no matter what we may think of Colin Montgomerie personally.

Nonetheless, 20 Tour wins is a very strict benchmark in the modern game, and sets a pretty high bar for the Rickie Fowlers and Dustin Johnsons and Jason Days and the even younger guns who will come after them.  The numbers also give credence to those who list Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh among the all-time greats.

In Jack Nicklaus’s time, he knew which fifteen or twenty golfers could possibly win a given tournament.  In our time, the number is more like eighty to a hundred.  Golf is not necessarily harder than it used to be, but winning in golf definitely is.

No one will ever dominate golf like Tiger again. I’d feel more comfortable with that statement if it hadn’t been just as true before Tiger did it.  Once you’ve seen a platypus, it’s tough to say they’re impossible.






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