Tiger. Is. Back.
Since his 2018 debut at the Farmers Insurance Open, Tiger Woods has captivated fans with his every shot (really, is there anything better than Thursday morning Tiger on PGA Tour Live?). With the return of his trademark club twirls, 2 iron stingers, and erratic drives, it's easy to forget that only 9 months ago it seemed Tiger's competitive career was over. And while his play has yet to reach the mind-boggling level of the early and mid 2000s, his recent results have ignited a frenzy of excitement and expectation previously reserved only for the Tiger of old.
But just how good has Tiger been in his return? And how does he compare to the player who dominated the game for more than a decade? So far, it seems the primary metric used to measure the success of Tiger's comeback has been club head speed (122 mph average in 2018 vs. 124 mph average in 2008 for those wondering). Now 34 rounds into his PGA Tour comeback, we decided it was time for a more measured analysis of Tiger's game using detailed categories of the PGA Tour's strokes-gained statistics.
A few words on the analysis before getting to the main plot below. We use shot-level data going back to 2004 (when the ShotLink program was introduced, making the strokes-gained calculation possible). Unfortunately, this means there is no data from the Butch Harmon era. To better understand the evolution of Tiger's game, we break the traditional strokes-gained categories into smaller “bins” defined by the distance from the hole. The only exception is the “Off-the-tee” category, which is left untouched. We calculate a 30-round moving average for each of the strokes-gained bins: this means that each data point is an average of Tiger's performance in his previous 30 rounds in that shot type. For some context, 30 rounds was approximately half a competititve season for Tiger in his prime years. Note that the x-axis is not scaled by date but by the number of rounds since 2004. Therefore, because Tiger only played once in 2016 and 2017, this timeframe is only a small portion of the axis. The plot is interactive: hover over a data point to see the relevant details, and use the menu on the right to view Tiger’s performance in each shot bin on the graph.
The plot shows a few interesting broad trends (some expected, others less so). Tiger played at an extremely high level until late 2009 before having a brief decline in most strokes-gained categories in 2010 and 2011. While it is tempting to blame some of this decline on Sean Foley, who started coaching Tiger in late 2010, his long irons, wedges, and off-the-tee play all returned to a high level in 2012 and 2013 while still under Foley's tutelage. With this in mind it is hard to deny the negative impact the "Thanksgiving incident" had on Tiger's game.
Next, we see a sharp decline in all areas of Tiger’s game beginning around the 2014 season. At the time there was speculation about mental issues and coaching changes contributing to his poor play. While this was probably true to some extent, in hindsight it's hard not to credit most of this poor play to Tiger’s chronic injuries given what we’ve seen from a pain-free Tiger in 2018. The ease with which a 42-year old Tiger generates power and pulls off physically demanding shots makes it difficult to attribute much of his previous decline to anything other than his back injuries.
There are also many trends in individual bins emerging from this plot (too many to comment on, so explore the data yourself!). To start, it is no surprise that the data shows Tiger has been an unbelievable long iron player throughout his career. The peak of his performance came over the ’06-’09 seasons, when he ranked 1st (each season) in strokes-gained from 175-225 yards. Even as his driving began to decline, his long iron play remained at a relatively high level. It is also easy to forget that in his prime Tiger was actually decent off the tee. While he was not quite at the level of present-day Dustin Johnson (+1.0 strokes-gained off-the-tee in recent years), Tiger was certainly not the liability that we have come to know (and love). Finally, for a player who is widely regarded as one of the best putters of all-time, there are sizeable fluctuations in Tiger's putting through the years. Even from ’04 to ’09 Tiger had periods with negative strokes-gained in multiple putting categories. This probably says more about the variability of putting statistics in general, but it is still surprising to see. Tiger also experienced a gradual decline in his putting inside of 5 feet from 2010 until his most recent comeback. While there is no need to draw definitive conclusions, we'll note that a player’s performance on the greens from short range is often thought of as a predictor of their mental state on the golf course.
So how has Tiger faired since returning to the PGA Tour in 2018? The following table shows his average strokes-gained in each bin for the 2018 season, along with averages from some other relevant time periods: the "good" Haney years ('04-'09), the Haney-Foley transition plus the Foley years ('10-'14), and the injury-riddled Chris Como era ('15-'17). When comparing his 2018 numbers to previous eras, keep in mind that Tiger has played just 34 rounds this year, with only 29 having detailed strokes-gained data available.
Overall, Tiger's numbers so far in 2018 look similar to those during the Sean Foley era, but nearly all the categories are below where they were during his years with Haney. The lone exception is the short game, where from inside of 50 yards Tiger is performing the best of his career (about those chipping yips…).
As it has been throughout his career, Tiger's approach game from 175-225 yards and from 225 yards and longer has been outstanding in 2018, ranking 7th and 2nd on Tour in those categories, respectively. Tiger's wedge game from 50-125 yards is not quite as dialed in, but it is comparable to when he was with Haney. It is interesting to note that, in general, this has been one of the least impressive areas of Tiger's game throughout his career. Even during his prime years Tiger only once ranked in the top 10 on Tour from 50-125 yards.
Off the tee Tiger is losing .05 strokes per round in 2018, placing him outside of the top 100 on the PGA Tour (the off-the-tee category also includes fairway woods and long irons, so this number may overestimate his performance in 2018 with the driver). This is a far cry from the Haney era where Tiger was gaining nearly .6 strokes per round. Even though he has looked comfortable at times this season, Tiger still clearly has "big miss" potential. The double cross out-of-bounds left at Bay Hill, and the two blocks OB right at the Memorial, are reminders that we should still be nervous whenever Tiger decides to let the Big Dog eat.
And finally, what about Tiger's putting? Overall, it has been a mixed bag in 2018. While his mid-range putting remains acceptable, Tiger is losing .076 and .079 strokes per round outside 30 feet and inside 5 feet so far in 2018, respectively. He struggled mightily from close range at Quail Hollow and the Memorial, with the latter performance approaching catastrophic levels. While we are inclined to recommend a consultation with Steve Stricker to rectify his putting woes, it seems like Brandel may have already identified the fix
So, what did we learn about Tiger's game in 2018, and how does it compare to earlier in his career? Even after all the injuries, surgeries, coaching changes, and general hoopla, Tiger remains arguably the best long iron player in the game. Additionally, his chipping and pitching so far in 2018 has been the best of his career. As for areas of improvement, he continues to struggle with the driver and obviously needs to turn around his short range putting if he is going to get back to the winner's circle.
As a final word, with the U.S. Open and his chance for a 15th major looming, take a minute to appreciate the excitement that Tiger brings to the game. Whether he goes on to win more majors or not, it's special to have him back playing at a high level. Who knows how long it will last.