ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – During the underwhelming run-up to Jordan Spieth’s attempt to join Ben Hogan as the only player to win golf’s first three modern-majors I ran across an article citing his chances of success at 1 percent. The source came from one of the statistical wizards at Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight group.
The reasoning built largely around history, with a bit of alchemy thrown in. As the centerpiece of the analysis was a chart listing the 12 occasions in the last 58 years when a player has had the opportunity to collect any three straight majors. Only three on the list had a chance to match Hogan’s feat in 1953. Not surprisingly, four of those looking for the trifecta came from the same player, Tiger Woods. Woods collected the Tiger slam of four straight between 2000 and 2001. Woods along with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus failed to make it the Hogan Triple.
Both Nicklaus and Palmer came within a stroke of three straight. Nicklaus losing to Lee Trevino at Muirfield in 1972 and Palmer losing by the same margin to Kel Nagle at St. Andrews in 1960. A third round, weathered 81 doomed Woods chances at Muirfield in 2002 where Ernie Els collected the win and Tiger post a T28.
It is presumptuous of me to challenge the findings of such a credentialed source. I am not a closet sabermetric wizard, waiting for the call from the Cardinals to rescue their hacking depleted scouting department (I do have 15 credit hours of Advanced Calculus and Analytic Geometry buried on my college resume). But I do know something about golf, so lets be presumptuous, if not scientific.
In it’s simplest form Jordan Spieth’s chances of winning the Open Championship at St. Andrews are one in 156, the number of players who tee off at the Old Course. Nothing that has happened in the past changes their starting point.
Realistically, roughly one hundred players initially can be eliminated because, while they are mathematically alive, they are simply not talented enough to beat the remainder of the field. That puts Spieth at one in 50 or 2%.
From those approximately fifty remaining golfer’s I thinks another twenty-five would also have to be considered long shots since they have never won or contended in a golf major in their careers. Early in this decade we did see a long stretch of first time major winners, but most of them had at least flirted with a major top ten finish before walking through the door. That puts Spieth at one in 25 4%.
Then we have to consider the Championship itself, and its history of long shot winners. Out of the ten most recent Open winners three were break through accomplishments –Darren Clarke (Sandwich 2011), Louis Oosthuizen (St. Andrews 2010) and Stuart Cink (Turnberry 2009). You have to go back to 2003 and 2004 when Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton came from nowhere to be proclaimed the “Champion Golfer of the Year.”
The final field is not set but there are thirty-one former major winners scheduled to play, and nearly half of them would qualify as ceremonial participants such as Nick Faldo, Tom Watson and Sandy Lyle. So from a competitive standpoint it would be a stretch to list 25 players who have a realistic chance of lifting the claret jug, again leaving Spieth at 4%.
I am not suggesting you find a bookie to put a few dollars on Spieth (rumor has it Phil Mickelson can hook you up with one). I am stating that the odds on the young Texan are greater than one in a 100. Throughout the reign of Tiger Woods in major championship golf, I would have taken the field against Woods on a wager every time, and I would lost only fourteen times in 67 tournaments, an 80% win percentage. Jordan Spieth isn’t Tiger Woods. It’s hard to win one major, much three in a row.
What remains to be seen is how Spieth stacks up four times a year against the quality of players he needs to beat to win at St. Andrews, Whistling Straits, or anywhere else in the future. The FiveThirtyEight crew pegs his career major total at 12, a figure I am sure he would accept. A runner-up finish would pout him in the company of Nicklaus and Palmer and a top 25 would put him ahead of Woods, at least in this instance.
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