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How Good Is Tiger? Mathematician Knows By Number

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Tiger Woods

Not a particularly great putter, Tiger Woods ranked fifth among PGA golfers in putts made from 15 to 20 feet in 2007.


Just how much does Tiger Woods dominate professional golf?

Mathematician Roland Minton can put a number on it.

"In 2008, for example, Tiger computes to being 2.65 strokes per round better than the average," says the professor of mathematics at Roanoke College in Salem, VA. "He rates 1.4 stokes per round better than any other golfer on tour. Over four rounds of a tournament, this predicts that Tiger wins by at least 5.6 strokes."

Minton, the author of a forthcoming book on the mathematics of golf, has analyzed data from the PGA Tour's ShotLink System, which records the location of every shot with qualitative information (rough or not, uphill or not) and quantitative information (such as distance to the hole, within an inch). The data includes the 1.2 million shots per year taken at Tour events between 2004-2008, excluding the four "majors" not run by the tour.

Some of his findings:

  • In 2007, PGA golfers made 99.2 percent of their putts in length of three feet or less. "That is a high percentage, but it means that over 1,500 short putts were missed," he says. "Not one of the regular tour players escaped the season without missing at least one short putt."
  • The "break-even" point is eight feet. "At every distance greater than eight feet, the pros make less than half of their putts," he says. "For most casual golfers, that seems like a surprisingly short distance. Of course, the pros putt on different greens than we do, they are under much more pressure, they never take mulligans and they have a PGA Tour recording every stroke, even on bad days."
  • At every distance, pros make a higher percentage of putts for par than they do for birdie. "The percentage is even higher for bogey than it is for par," he says.
  • Putts are more important. "As the saying goes, 'drive for show, putt for dough,'"says Minton. "The driving statistics don't really say much about who's going to have the best score."
  • Tiger is not a great putter—in some ways. "In 2007, Tiger ranked 181st in percentage of putts made between seven and eight feet. He was 187th in putts made between six and seven feet, and 74th in putts made between five and six feet," says Minton. "This surprises many golf fans, who are accustomed to watching Tiger make every putt down the stretch on his way to another tournament win. But his best putting statistically is at the longer distances. In 2007, he ranked 8th in percentage of putts made from 10 to 15 feet and 5th in putts made from 15 to 20 feet."
  • But he's still the most consistently effective putter on tour. Minton is able to put statistics into a single rating that shows how many strokes better or worse than average each golfer is as a putter. "Tiger ranked in the top ten in overall putting for four of the five years from 2004 to 2008."

Minton has presented his research at the 2010 Joint Mathematics Meeting in San Francisco in January, and has written an article for the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics' "Mathematics Awareness Month," in April.


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