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Tiger Woods and the 2000 PGA and End-of-the-Year Comments

Dear Readers:
As promised and as requested, here are some end-of-the-year comments on what is widely regarded as one of the greatest individual performances in all of sports over a single year. As all of the other observers, Dr. Putt is gratified to have been alive to have witnessed what young Mr. Woods has accomplished. Those of us who saw it all may well be telling those of future generations about this year in decades to come.

First let us briefly consider the PGA tournament. Of his three majors, the PGA was the most dramatic. Tiger was pressed to the limit in a playoff with Bob May, who shot three consecutive 66's. Tiger had to birdie five of the last nine holes for a 31 on Sunday to get to a playoff. The three hole playoff came down to Tiger saving par from the sand on the last hole to preserve the one stroke lead he had gained on the first playoff hole. Both men made crucial difficult putts throughout the tournament. But perhaps the key was number 15 on Sunday. May led his playing partner by one stroke and had a four foot birdie opportunity. Woods faced a 10 foot par putt. Woods made his and May pulled his. What could have been a three stroke margin against Woods with two to play remained a one stroke lead. May could have folded at that point, but this man, who had never won a professional PGA tournament, did not fold. He birdied one of the last two holes to keep the pressure on. Woods birdied both, and you know the rest.

So what can we learn, other than that Tiger Woods is prepared to take on the best that the rest of the field can throw at him? For Dr. Putt, who finds statistics useful in understanding and explaining human phenomena, the PGA tournament illustrates an essential limit of any statistical approach to human behavior. What may be generally true tells us little about any particular case. Tiger Woods is indeed a very particular and unique golfer. While his wins in the other two majors of 2000 were consistent with the statistics we generally use to measure performance, such was not the case for the PGA. The stats for the PGA tournament suggest that Tiger's unique sheer will power won the tournament -- despite his statistical performance. Based on almost anything but the final score, he did well, but should not have won.

Both Woods and May were tied at 12th for fairways hit, but Woods did have a 22 yard advantage in the measured drives, ranked #1 against #7 for May. But that did not translate into any significant advantage over May in greens hit for Woods, who ranked #1 at 60 of the 72 hit. May was 2nd at 59. Comparatively speaking, Woods putted poorly, ranking tied for 60th with 119 putts. May was tied for 17 with 111 putts, giving him an 8 putt advantage. The par 5's did not fully explain the difference. Woods played them 13 under, but May was close behind, playing them at 11 under. Woods won by first doing what was necessary to get the tie in regulation after May's marvelous comeback from his opening 66 (compared to Woods' 66). Despite the odds, he put himself in position to win. One simply can not see those things in the usual statistics: a sense of moment, an ability to raise one's game when all is on the line, an unwillingness to settle for second, a faith in one's own ability to prevail even in the face of events that would create doubt in most human beings (Woods' back nine 31 was preceeded by a front nine score of 36).

Does this mean that we should abandon statistics in golf? Dr. Putt emphatically says "no." One can definitely improve the chances of winning by improving the statistics of one's performance. Most of the time even Tiger does not defy the variables that usually determine the outcome in a golf tournament. He has lost many tournaments this year -- including several since the PGA -- when he was not at the top on these measures of performance. He is great because he is usually good enough to rank better than the rest of the field on those key variables. He is great because he can win even when he fails to best the field on these key variables. Statisticians know this happens. Exceptionally great winners make it happen when it counts the most. And, dear readers, a major to make it three in a row is when it counts the most.
Dr. Putt

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