The Masters 2011: The stats show that Tiger Woods is getting his game back.

The stadium scene.
April 6 2011 4:17 PM

The Return of the King

The stats show that Tiger Woods is getting his game back.

Tiger Woods. Click image to expand.
Tiger Woods

It's the 75th year for the Masters, the 25th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus' historic win at age 46, and the first anniversary of "The Perfect Shot" by Phil Mickelson. But here's what's getting most of the attention in the run-up to Augusta: Tiger Woods has not won a professional golf tournament in 1 year, 6 months, and 25 days.

Tiger has a new swing coach, a new home, and a new iPhone app. With only one top 10 finish this year, he also has lots of new detractors. Many golf cognoscenti, including Arnold Palmer, have questioned why Tiger is embarking on yet another overhaul of his swing. There's also a more serious strain of Tiger declinism, put forth by Joe Posnanski at Sports Illustrated .*  The fans and media, the thinking goes, are foolish to keep supposing that Tiger has the best chance to win every major. This has less to do with Tiger's personal turmoil than his age. "Since 1970, the average age of major championship winners is 32," Posnanski writes, "and things tumble off for golfers after age 35." Tiger turned 35 last December.

So who is right, the Tiger declinists or Tiger himself, who told ESPN's Tom * Rinaldi this week that he's the best player in the world "when I get my swing dialed in." Mark Broadie, a professor at Columbia who I wrote about in my series last year on the quest for better, more accurate golf statistics, has analyzed Tiger's shots from 2009 through 2011. He assessed how many strokes Tiger gained or lost on the field with each putt, chip, and drive captured in the tour's ShotLink database. The numbers suggest that Tiger is starting to turn his game around.

 For perspective, let's compare Tiger's 2009 season, in which he won six tournaments, with his 2010 season, in which he fell from Olympus. Here is a chart that gives an overview of Tiger's two years:

Graph of Tiger's scores by season.

We can dissect the drop in performance by looking at a new stat: "strokes gained." It's simple: Some shots are better than others, and strokes gained allow us to quantify how much better they are. The classic example is a 7-foot, 10-inch putt. The average number of putts to hole out from this location for a pro golfer is 1.5. In other words, pros make this putt 50 percent of the time. If a golfer misses the putt, he loses a half-stroke to the tour average. If he makes the putt, he gains half a stroke. This measure of strokes gained can also be applied to shots off the green. An approach shot that lands 2 feet from the hole gains more strokes on the tour average than one that lands 30 feet away. If you add up all of the "strokes gained" by a player, you know how they performed—on average—compared to their peers. In 2009, Tiger was ranked No. 1 on tour in the "strokes gained" statistic. He gained 3.7 strokes per round versus the field, or nearly 15 strokes per tournament. That kind of consistent excellence delivered six wins and 14 top 10 finishes.

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In 2010, Tiger fell to 48th in the strokes-gained statistic. He went from domination to playing at the same level as Angel Cabrera, Anthony Kim, and other merely very good tour golfers. His game earned him 0.7 strokes per round better than the field, or only about three strokes per tournament. That's not news, but how did Tiger lose those three strokes? What aspects of his game were lacking? His caddie, Steve Williams, said: "The one part of Tiger's game this year that has been very substandard is his putting. He hasn't putted well in any of his events." Others put the blame on his erratic driving. The numbers, though, reveal that Tiger lost strokes in all departments.

Here is a chart that summarizes Tiger's performance according to the strokes gained measure:

Graph of Tiger's Strokes Gained.

The biggest fall-off was in the long game—shots more than 100 yards from the hole—where Tiger was 1.2 strokes worse per round than the tour average.While he didn't lose any distance, his driving became significantly wilder, turning that part of his game from an asset to a liability. The long game wasn't all bad news for Tiger, though. Historically,  he's gained the most ground on other pros with his long approach shots. The high point of his 2010 season was this shot from 273 yards back that he hit on the 18th at the U.S. Open. Woods was still sharp on shots from 150 to 200 yards from the hole (ranking second on tour), and he showed just slight declines from longer distances.

Tiger's short game has always been lauded as the most instinctual part of his game, the place where he gets away from the latest swing theory and relies on his natural talent and creativity (c.f. 2005, 16th hole, Augusta National.) He lost almost a stroke per round here, too. His chips and short approach shots were landing farther from the hole, which in turn put more pressure on his putting. In 2010, Tiger made 4 percent fewer putts from between 3 and 15 feet. That tiny difference was enough to drop him from a putting rank of second to 91st and cost him about a stroke per round against the PGA Tour average. The golf green is a mental crucible: A fractional falloff in putting results took Tiger from being one of the best putters to being in the middle of the pack.

While Tiger has yet to set the golf world on fire in 2011, the numbers do show some encouraging signs—the first azalea blooms in Tiger's long winter, perhaps. Despite glaring screw-ups like a blocked drive on the first playoff hole in the Match Play Championship, Tiger's driving, measured by strokes gained, is back to slightly better than average. On approach shots, he's legitimately "dialed in" from 100-150 yards. (He's also slightly above average from other distances.) Compared with 2010, his long putting has improved a lot. And most significantly for the Masters, the numbers show that his chipping touch is returning. That's an encouraging sign for the Tiger faithful, since golf wisdom holds that winning at Augusta requires a world-class short game.