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If you wanted to pick a tournament that makes a mockery of golf statistics, you couldn't do better than the British Open. There's the famous wind, the odd bunkers, the shorter holes that neutralize the advantage of the long hitters. This week, the championship is being played at Royal St. George's. The last time it was held there, in 2003, the winner was Ben Curtis, a tour rookie who was a 300-to-1 shot.
This particular course is notorious for its unpredictable fairways, where a straight drive will hit a bump and carom off into the rough. Hello, double bogey. The "anonymous pro" who contributes to Golf Magazine's PGA Tour Confidential was merciless: "Can I tell it like it is? Royal St. George's is one of the worst major championship venues ever. It's definitely the worst stop in the Open rota."
The anonymous pro, like most pros, scorns unpredictability. A good swing should be rewarded with a landing area that sets up the next shot, not a quirky sideways bounce. A firmly stroked putt should follow a true line, and so on. (For a great example of how unpredictability will sabotage a pro's game, read this Washington Post story about Steve Marino playing a poorly maintained public course in Washington, D.C.) In a similar way, the golf fan doesn't much like unpredictability in golf champions. The 22-year-old Rory McIlroy arrives at the British having won the U.S. Open in record fashion and having drawn Tiger-like attention from the sporting press. The hope is that he will become a dominant golfer, an appealing boldface name who will always be in contention on Sunday afternoon.
Although Rory is young and on the make and Tiger is old and injured—The Chosen One will miss his second straight major—the golf cognoscenti have not yet anointed McIlroy as the heir to Woods. Here's John Garrity from Sports Illustrated: "I don't think anybody's going to say Rory is playing a game with which I'm not familiar, the way people did with Jack and Tiger. Tiger hit shots out of rough and over trees that other players physically couldn't." His colleague Damon Hack echoed this line: "Rory is going to win a lot of majors, but to put him in the same sentence with Nicklaus and Tiger, I don't know. I see too many guys out there who can hit the shots he hits."
Ah, there it is—the old evidence of the eyes. But what do the stats tell us? Is there anything in the numbers to suggest that Rory McIlroy will be an all-time great?
Let's turn to what one day will be recognized as the foundational paper of modern golf statistics, Mark Broadie's "Assessing Golfer Performance on the PGA Tour." Broadie looks at pro golfers from 2003 to 2010 and breaks their games into three categories: long game (shots more than 100 yards from the hole), short game (shots less than 100 yards from the hole, excluding putts) and putting (shots on the green, not including the fringe). According to Broadie, the long game accounts for 72 percent of the strokes by which a pro beats the field. The short game contributes 11 percent, while putting counts for 17 percent. The long game isn't quite everything, but it is the cornerstone of success in professional golf.
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