This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for some time, but I have struggled with how to document it or how to test it. My theory is that the PGA Tour is deeper in talent now than ever before, and for that reason it’s much more difficult to win tournaments and majors now than it was 30 years ago or more.
There’s a group of people who claim that Jack and Tom and Lee and Gary won so many majors and so many tournaments just because they were that much better than their competition, and that today’s pros are complacent and happy to Lukedonald it. It’s the classic “Things were better in the past” dogma. I don’t necessarily disagree with at least parts of this assessment, but after some statistical analysis I’ve determined that the tour indeed is much deeper today, with a lot more players in position to win tournaments than ever.
For this reason, I feel like Tiger’s 14 majors in the past 14 years is a significantly greater achievement than Jack’s 18 between 1962 and 1986, and in my mind this confirms that Tiger Woods is a greater golfer than Jack Nicklaus.
Before I go any further I need to enter a couple of disclaimers: I’m a huge Jack fan, and I love the old champions as much as the next guy. This is in no way intended to be a slight on them in any way. Everybody knows the tour is a completely different place now than it was in days of yore, and I’m just going to pull out some numbers which I feel will demonstrate that.
Also, in no way am I insinuating that Tiger himself thinks this way. He is all about beating 18.
WHAT DID I MEASURE?
First I had to consider what it takes for a golfer to win a golf tournament. In my mind there are three aspects to this: One, you have to be a very good golfer. Two, you have to play particularly well that particular week. And three, you have to have those little things go right to separate yourself from all the other very good golfer who are playing well that week.
Now, unfortunately two of these three aspects are rather random. Even elite golfers don’t really know how they’re going to play from day to day. The same golfer with the same equipment and preparation on the same course can shoot 65 one day and a 75 the next day. This phenomenon has been around as long as there has been golf, and is best documented in Arnold Haultain’s gem “The Mystery Of Golf” from 1908.
So I had to focus on the general quality of the golfers on tour, assuming that if there are more golfers who are playing at the very highest level then there are more candidates for whom the random elements may “hit”, making them a contender that week.
But how would one measure the “general quality of golfers”? You can’t look at wins, because of the random elements that drive it. You can’t look at average scores from one decade to the next, because changes in training, equipment, and course preparation make this an unreliable variable.
I decided to look at how closely the players were grouped based on their scoring average over the whole year. I figured that any given year the players used the same equipment and played the same courses, and they all played enough tournaments to make the Scoring Average a reliable metric for the “general quality of golfers”. I focused specifically on how many of them are close to the top to measure the depth of the tour.
But even then it’s a bit more complicated. Tiger’s scoring average in 2000 was 68.17, and if I compared the masses to that my numbers would be skewed. I decided to ignore the very best averages every year, and use the 10:th best scoring average for a year as my baseline.
Then I decided to use the measurement “Within one stroke” as a means to measure the depth of the tour. Not that one stroke is that significant, but it’s a way to compare different periods of time to each other.
WHERE DID I GET MY DATA?
PGATOUR.com. They have extensive individual player statistics, as well as overall tour statistics. It’s unfortunate that their data only goes back to 1980, but as I will discuss in my “WHY WOULD THIS BE?” section below this should be far enough back to make my point.
WHAT DID I FIND?
I looked at the numbers every five years starting in 1980 and ending in 2010, and the trend is obvious. In 1980 there were 47 players within one stroke of the 10:th best scoring average, and in 2010 there were 116 players within a stroke of tenth place. I then went back to check the years between the five year intervals, and the trend most definitely holds up.
This would indicate to me that the tour is more than twice as deep now as it was 30 years ago, and for this reason there are more than twice as many possible contenders for any tournament win, including majors.
WHY WOULD THIS BE?
I think there are several reasons for this trend.
One major change took place in 1983, when the PGA Tour became an “All-Exempt” tour. Prior to 1983 only 60 players were guaranteed a place on tour from one year to the next. Now it’s 150 players. More players being exempt means more players who are able to work on their game all year without having to worry about the next Monday qualifier. I’m sure it’s coincidental, but the rate of players within a stroke of 10th place in 2010 over the same number in 1980 (116 / 47) corresponds almost exactly to rate of current exempt players to the exempt count in 1980 (150 / 60).
Money is another obvious factor, both directly and indirectly. More money in the sport means more players are comfortable enough financially to be able to work on their game and be competitive. In 1980 the number 100 player on the money list made $34,000. By today’s monetary standards this is $93,000, which in my mind would be far from comfortable given the costs involved in being on tour. In fact, 13 players on the Nationwide tour made more than $93K in 2010, and that was in only ten tournaments.
As a point of comparison, the number 100 player on the money list in 2010 made $950,000.
The increase in money in golf also contributes indirectly, as it makes the sport a lot more appealing to talented golfers, so more of them are having a go at it.
Time is a third factor in this equation. The longer a sport is in existence and the longer it continues to develop and improve, the finer the margins become at the top. This shows itself all over the place, in a variety of sports from the history of world records in Track and Field to the parity that exists in sports like today’s NFL.
It’s tougher to win these days than it was 30 years ago, and the numbers prove it out. This is a large part of the reason why we have so many different players win tournaments every year, including the majors. It’s not that today’s players are weaker, or don’t have the same passion for winning as our heroes from the past. It’s just a lot tighter, the margins are a lot smaller, and there’s a lot more competition.
Keep’em in the short stuff.