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.
The lone mark that eludes Woods right now is career major tournament wins. Nicklaus has won 18 major tournaments — The Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and The P.G.A. Woods is right on his heels at 14 and Woods has played 11 years to Nicklaus’s 24. Woods gets to take a step closer to Nicklaus this weekend at the British Open. He’s won the event three times, but it isn‘t as if the rest of the field is going to lie down. Padraig Harrington is going for his shot at history; he won this tournament in 2007 and ’08. A Harrington win would mark the first time a player has won this tournament in three consecutive years since 1956.
The tournament will be full of intrigue. For instance, it is being held in Turnberry, Scotland — a course Woods has never played. Turnberry has three particularly difficult holes; each has a par five. On the 489-yard third hole, there are bunkers on either side of the fairway which forces players to combine power with accuracy to reach the green. The 538-yard seventh will require players to hook shots to make the fairway and then several bunkers await them. Finally, the 559-yard 17th hole has bunkers all over and it has made a hash out of top players recently. At the British Amateur Open, several of the top young players turned in 10s and 11s on the par-five hole.
Woods begins play on Thursday morning and for the first time since 2004, he isn’t the reigning champion in any of the four major tournaments. However, on a course that requires such a combination of power and touch, this tournament is a great match for his skill set. He will enter as a heavy favorite, and with his track record, who would bet against him?
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.