The major caveat is that Tiger has played only 11 measurable rounds this year. But let's try to skip one across the pond and consider what it would take for Tiger to become the "old" Tiger. As Broadie has shown in his previous work, the long game is more important than the short game for professional golfers. The best golfers tend to be the longer hitters who have good short games and putting. The golfers with the best short games and putting, but who lack the long game to match, have a higher hill to climb and don't win as often. According to Broadie, the golfers with the best long games in 2010 were Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, Vijay Singh, and Dustin Johnson. They gained between 1.4 and 2 strokes per round against the tour average. The golfers with the best short games in 2010 were Mike Weir, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, and Padraig Harrington. They gained between 0.6 and 0.9 strokes per round against the tour average.
For Tiger to return to the form he had in 2009, he needs to control his drives and stay out of trouble. An improvement there would net him a half-stroke advantage per round, or two strokes a tournament. He can also pick up two strokes a tournament by dialing in those long approach shots again. The long game gives Tiger the greatest opportunity to improve against the tour average. The question here is what Tiger can reasonably ask of his body at this point. With age you lose the flexibility and torque to bomb it off the tee and send those long-iron shots on nice high trajectories. The Tiger declinists have a point. He's in a match against a player who never loses.
In the past, Tiger's excellent putting earned him about a stroke per round against the tour average. To win again, he needs to make more putts in the 7- to 21-foot range, a distance from which you are often shooting for birdie or desperately trying to save par. Tiger also needs to once again become freakishly consistent on putts within 6 feet. The falloff there—from .47 strokes gained in 2009 to .11 in 2010 to .17 so far in 2011—is perhaps one signal of his mental state. The line on Tiger has always been that he never gives up, never loses focus. We've now seen him falter on those short ones, and the numbers reflect that.
So Tiger needs to get better at driving, long approach shots, and short putting. Great insights! Though it sounds like I'm stating the obvious, the strokes-gained stat refines our understanding of how to win a golf tournament. Tiger dominated because he did everything better than everyone else—he put his ball in the best places on a golf course more than the other players. This baseline of performance established his dominance, and he won because of an unquantifiable mix of luck, clutch shots, and the performance of his opponents—the so-called "intangibles." Tiger keeps telling us that his game is "a process," and maybe we should listen. He's not going to have some magical new swing or breakthrough mind-set. He's going to continue to grind away at the edges of golf, to seek those fractional advantages that put him in a position to beat Nicklaus' record of 18 majors. Finding those advantages is going to get harder, but it's not out of reach.
Correction, April 8, 2011: The article originally misnamed ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi as "Tim" Rinaldi. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)