Tiger's Turnberry?

Tiger Woods is down the leaderboard with his opening round one-over 71 at the British Open, but it's still fair to ask: Can anyone beat him?

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Tiger Woods is better than you think he is, or let me put this another way: if you think Tiger Woods is one of the best golfers of all time then you are selling him short. That sentence doesn’t need the gentle qualifier, “one of.”

Shortly before Woods’ injury last year, Sal Johnson of Golf Observer published some metrics measuring how often golf players win the tournaments. The familiar names were on the list, Arnold Palmer and Billy Casper were at less than 10 percent, Jack Nicklaus was at 12.2 percent. Some of the greats who played just before my time were next on the list. Sam Snead was at 14.9 percent. Byron Nelson was third all time at 17.8 percent (small wonder he has a tournament named for him!)

Ben Hogan is the only other player who won more than one out of five tournaments he entered; his winning percentage is 20.7 percent That number comes with a small asterisk; the prime of Hogan’s career came during World War II when some of his competitors were probably off at war. Woods winning percentage dwarves these other all-time greats; he’s won a ridiculous 27.4 percent of the tournaments he’s entered. In other words in a sport where some of the all time icons haven’t won 10 percent of their tournaments, Woods has won better than one out of four.

It gets better. Woods is playing in a highly competitive era of golf. It is no longer the sport of the upper crust elite; the middle class is participating widely in golf. Thanks to the increased participation, golf schools and programs for youngsters have proliferated. Golf’s near constant visibility on television has led to much stiffer competition and higher levels of play at the professional level.

As anyone who has ever tried to hit a golf ball can attest, it’s hard enough to get that little thing elevated off a tee. Placing it on a small patch of green hundreds of yards and dozens of trees away is a truly Herculean feat. Yet Woods has done just that, hole after hole and tournament after tournament. This year marks his return from a serious knee injury. He’s entered nine tournaments so far and won three of them. He’s right on track. Small wonder network ratings sometimes triple when Woods is in the lead on the final day of a tournament.

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