With the start of golf’s post season on the PGA Tour, the FedEx Cup series, conversation in New York this week turned to Player of the Year Honors. With only three players at this stage with more than a singleton win for 2013, that conversation stopped at three names – Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar. Mickelson’s pair, with a major, trumps Kuchar’s two of a kind with a WGC title, and Woods at this point has lapped the field for total wins, with five to date.
Without a major for the fifth straight year, Woods was singing a new tune in Gotham about successful years and shifted his career chase focus to Sam Snead’s 82 wins instead of Jack Nicklaus’ eighteen majors.
Masters champion Adam Scott and former FedEx winner Bill Haas cast their vote at this stage for Woods and his five wins. The math was simple for Scott. “I’ve always based it around winning events, and I don’t think one major makes up for five tournaments.” But Scott also said he wouldn’t trade his green jacke,t for Tiger’s flush.
Mickelson was not quizzed for his opinion but no doubt the lefthander would like to win again before year’s end to make the debate a little closer, since POY honors have never appeared on his resume.
Because the choice is the result of a vote by the players, it is not altogether certain that the emotion that attached to Mickelson’s win in the Open Championship at Muirfield might not get him enough style points to make it a race.
I tend to agree with the ‘old math’ that says five is greater than two, but I also think the discussion offers an opportunity to look more carefully at the Woods performance this year and beyond.
In giving his vote for Woods, Haas pointed to the Woods wins in WGC events and the Players as near majors because of the quality of the courses and especially the elite fields. There can be no argument that over the years Tiger Woods has won when the best available talent to challenge him has been on hand.
There is a counterpoint to that as well. From the day he turned professional, Woods had already eliminated the first concern of every player joining the Tour from its very earliest days. With his $100 million contracts with Nike and Titleist securing his financial future, Tiger could always build a schedule for the year of playing where and when and how often he wished to play.
After some early entries into routine Tour stops Woods revised his calendar to include courses and events that suited his ambitions and perhaps his game. The end result is one the most unusual stats to consider about Tiger Woods career.
If you slice out his 14 major wins, where he had no option of competing, Tiger is left with 65 career wins on the PGA Tour. Amazingly 35 of those wins, 53%, have been collected on just five courses, Firestone (8), Bay Hill (8), Doral (7), Torrey Pines (7) and Muirfield Village (5).
One could argue that this is even greater testimony to Woods stature, being able to dominate a field so consistently. You could also flip that perspective to suggest that winning where he has won in the past so often reflects a level of comfort, confidence and knowledge that gives him an edge on the competition.
Any Tour player will tell you that when they compete on a course where they have had success, even without winning, in the past sets a tone at the start of the week that is different from places where they have struggled.
Our town’s Jay Delsing never won on the PGA Tour, but if you looked up his record in Memphis you would think his overall record might be much better.
At 37, Woods has narrowed his schedule entirely. If you exclude the major stops, and now the FedEx series with its revised scoring, Tiger plays exclusively where he has won before. Four of his five wins in 2013 were on a course listed above, with only the Players win at Sawgrass not being a top five home course for Tiger. (Woods won once before in 2001 and has a US Amateur title from there as well.)
It’s a great formula for the kind of success Tiger has cranked out annually for much of his career. But does it also expose a little vulnerability when it comes to less familiar venues and perhaps partially explain his five year drought in the majors. In the last six seasons on the PGA Tour, Woods has collected only one victory, 2009 AT&T National at Congressional, on a course where he not posted a previous win.
Tiger’s winning percentage for his career is far greater than any player in the history of the game. It is a near certainty that he will eclipse Snead, perhaps as early as next year. And the really good news for Woods is, if the formula for Tour wins carries over to the Majors, 2014 could be the season for getting the Nicklaus chase back on the tracks.
Augusta has rewarded him four times with wins, Hoylake is the site of his last Open Championship and he is two for two with PGA Championships at Valhalla. Only Pinehurst #2, and the US Open, would represent a breakthrough win on a course that has not previously hosted a Tiger Woods victory celebration. But if he doesn’t cash in on one of the stops in ’14, his own fourteen (major wins) may look more like a final destination than a station on the way to history.