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Tiger’s Back. But He’s Not The Same.

This website recently argued that even if Tiger Woods’s golf game took a multiyear hiatus, his celebrity didn’t. Though up-and-coming stars like Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson were learning to make moves on Saturday and close things out on Sunday, none of their on-course exploits were able to propel them to the pinnacle of the sport’s fame. And even though nearly a decade had passed since Woods won his last major, golf was still Tiger’s world, and everyone else was just putting in it.

And now, it appears as though Woods may finally be in a position to justify all that hype. In his last two PGA Tour starts, Tiger finished in a tie for second and then a tie for fifth. His play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational three weeks ago kept him in contention for most of Sunday, with only an errant drive on number 16 — and the impressive final-round 64 from McIlroy — keeping Tiger from claiming his 80th PGA Tour victory. Woods’s great play on consecutive weekends, along with his generally impressive stats for the season so far, has fans tuning in and the golf world believing in its messiah again. But is he really returning to his old form? Let’s check the numbers to compare the resurgent Tiger to the Tiger of years past and figure out what his performance so far may mean for the Masters this week.

To be sure, what we’re seeing from Tiger this season isn’t precisely his prime form. Woods was indisputably the best player in the world from at least 2004, which is the first year for which the PGA Tour’s strokes gained metric is calculated, and he stayed at the top through 2009. Strokes gained measures how many shots a player picks up relative to the rest of the field in each of four shot types: off the tee, approaching the green, around the green and putting.1 And during his peak, Woods easily led the Tour in that stat, crushing his next-closest competitor by 1.2 total strokes gained per round, ranking eighth in strokes gained off the tee and first in strokes gained from both approach shots and putting. So in a rare double, Woods was the game’s best player from tee to green and on the greens themselves, which is a pretty unbeatable combination. This is the Tiger we think of when we reminisce about the guy who looked like he might win 25 major championships.

But then came the injuries, the scandals, and multiple coaching changes. Woods struggled in 2010 and 2011, failing to win on tour in consecutive seasons for the first time since he went pro. But he did bounce back in 2012 and 2013 — becoming, yet again, the best golfer on the planet, albeit by a slimmer margin. During those two seasons, Woods dropped about 0.7 strokes relative to the field when compared with his dominant run from 2004 through 2009. His driving and putting both slipped in 2012 and ’13, but because of his customarily exceptional iron play — Woods again lapped the field in approach-shot strokes gained per round — he still led the Tour in average strokes gained overall. He also won eight times in 35 starts, and it looked as though order had been restored to the universe. But that’s when Woods was hit with even more injuries, limiting him to just 11 cuts made over the four seasons from 2014 through 2017. With his body breaking down, Tiger’s second ascension began to look like merely a false start.

And yet here we are, just a day before the Masters is set to begin, and Tiger has roared back into the debate about who might triumph on Sunday. Along with players like Spieth, Johnson and McIlroy, Woods is among the favorites to win the tournament, according the Vegas books.2 And it’s not just sentiment that’s driving those bets. Woods’ play this season mostly justifies the hype, even if he hasn’t quite matched the sublime numbers he achieved earlier in his career. Tiger currently ranks seventh in total strokes gained per round relative to the field — not bad for an old guy coming back from spinal fusion surgery. He’s also doing most of the same old things pretty well, earning a 14th-place ranking in strokes gained per round on approach shots and an 11th-place showing with the putter. In fact, relative to the field, Tiger is adding more strokes per round with the flatstick this season than he did during his prime. And while his overall stats aren’t quite as good as they once were, they’re also a far cry from the downright terrible statistics Woods was producing whenever he managed to play in the previous four seasons.

Tiger’s back … sort of

Strokes gained per round (relative to PGA Tour average) for Tiger Woods on each type of shot

Seasons Off Tee Approach Around Green Putting
2018 -0.17
+0.73
+0.53
+0.74
2014-17* -0.44
+0.22
-0.49
+0.24
2012-13 +0.22
+1.37
+0.22
+0.38
2010-11* -0.23
+0.65
-0.09
+0.06
2004-09 +0.58
+1.34
+0.24
+0.73

* Woods failed to qualify for official PGA Tour leaderboards for any years in these stretches. He also failed to qualify in 2008.

The strokes gained statistic isolates the effect of each shot by measuring how much it adds to or subtracts from a player’s expected score on a given hole.

Source: PGA Tour

So it’s fair to say that Tiger is playing closer to peak form than he has in years. But if one part of his game is cause for concern this week at Augusta, it’s his play off the tee. Driving was never exactly Woods’s strong suit — he was barely above average from the tee box even during his successful 2012-13 comeback — and he’s getting even less out of his drives so far this season, giving away 0.174 strokes per round to the field. As has been the case with Tiger for a while, it’s all about missing his mark with the long clubs: He currently ranks 201st in driving accuracy percentage, hitting the fairway on just 51.6 percent of his measured drives. And although Woods used to compensate for his poor driving accuracy with raw distance, he now also ranks just 34th in average yards per drive this season, and he hasn’t cracked the top 20 in that category since 2007. (Granted, he does rank fourth in average club-head speed so far this year.) Even though accuracy off the tee is a little overrated at the Masters, Tiger might be wise to leave the TaylorMade M3 in the bag and hit that stinger 2 iron around Augusta all week.

It’s probably too early to proclaim with any degree of certainty that Tiger the all-time great golfer — rather than Tiger the overhyped media celebrity — is officially back, but his recent performances suggest he’s getting there. Win or lose at Augusta, all those youngsters who grew up worshipping Woods might have to bow down again in 2018. Even now that he’s 42, and after he’s been through many unexpected career twists and turns, it’s tough to make a talent like Tiger’s go away quietly.

Footnotes

  1. In a nutshell, strokes gained judges each shot you take based on how much it reduces your expected score on a given hole, relative to the field average.

  2. He is just behind the favorites according to Tuesday’s odds from the Westgate, and he is listed as the co-favorite at other sportsbooks as of 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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