Major victories the ultimate measure of greatness

By Joe PosnanskiAugust 26, 2013, 4:23 pm

Tom Tango, one of the most incisive baseball analysts working today, asks a fascinating golf question: When you are analyzing a golfer’s greatness, how many non-major golf victories equal a major championship?

It is a particularly great question this year as we try to determine who exactly is the Player of the Year.

This year, Tiger Woods has won five times. And we’re not talking about five inconsequential tournaments. He won The Players Championship, which has perhaps the best field of any tournament in the world and many consider a sort of minor major. He won two World Golf Championships events. He won the prestigious Arnold Palmer Invitational. It has, in so many ways, been a remarkable year.

This year, Adam Scott has won just twice. This past weekend, he sort of backed into a victory at The Barclays – he shot a final-round 66, got into the clubhouse, and watched everyone self-destruct down the stretch. And earlier this year, of course, he won the Masters – maybe the most illustrious golf tournament in the world.

So: Who is your Player of the Year?

On one level, it seems pretty simple, no? If you are looking at the whole season, there’s no question it’s Tiger Woods. He has won twice as much money as Scott. He has dominated the Tour like no one since, well, himself. The list of golfers who have won five times in a season since 1960 is quite short:

• Tiger Woods (10 times)

Vijay Singh (2004)

• Tom Watson (four times)

• Jack Nicklaus (five times)

• Johnny Miller (1974)

• Lee Trevino (1971)

• Billy Casper (1968)

• Tony Lema (1964)

• Arnold Palmer (four times)

Wow. Tiger. Ten times. That’s just crazy. As you probably know, Woods (79 victories) is just three PGA Tour victories behind Sam Snead (82). But any serious analysis of the two careers shows Woods is already ahead. Snead’s victory count includes various suspect titles like the five four-ball tournaments he won with a partner and the 1950 Bing Crosby Pro-Am where he tied with three others and they just gave all of them the title. It will be a cool story when Woods officially passes Snead just like it was a cool story when Ichiro got 4,000 hits between Japan and the U.S. But, realistically, Woods already has more real victories.

What does it mean, though? We judge history through our own prism. And truth is that people – most people, I think – will rank the best golfers based almost entirely on their major championship record. Fair? Maybe not. Logical? Maybe not. Mathematically sound? Maybe not. But until Woods came along, it was almost universally accepted that Jack Nicklaus was the best golfer who ever lived. Nicklaus did not win as many golf tournaments as Snead.

Most people would say Ben Hogan was better than Snead. Hogan didn’t win nearly as many golf tournaments as Snead.

Here is the ranking of golfers by PGA Tour events won:

1. Sam Snead, 82

2. Tiger Woods, 79

3. Jack Nicklaus, 73

4. Ben Hogan, 64

5. Arnold Palmer, 62

6. Byron Nelson, 52

7. Billy Casper, 51

8. Walter Hagen, 45

9. Phil Mickelson, 42

T-10. Cary Middlecoff, 40

T-10. Tom Watson, 40

And here’s the ranking of golfers by professional majors won:

1. Jack Nicklaus, 18

2. Tiger Woods, 14

3. Walter Hagen, 11

T4. Ben Hogan, 9

T4. Gary Player, 9

6. Tom Watson, 8

T7. San Snead, 7

T7. Arnold Palmer, 7

T7. Gene Sarazen, 7

T7. Bobby Jones, 7

Now, you tell me: Which list comes closer to the way you view the all-time golfers? For me, it’s the second list, and it’s not even close. I don’t believe regular tournaments are meaningless – they matter. But I think they matter in the same way that regular season NFL games matter. The Cleveland Browns between 1986 and 1989 went 41-21-1 and reached three AFC Championship games, an amazing run. Those victories certainly mattered. Does anyone think of that as a great team? No. I lived and died with those teams and even I don’t think of it as a great team.

In the 1990s, the Kansas City Chiefs won 101 games, one of only four NFL teams to do so, and made the playoffs seven times. Were the 1990s Chiefs a great team? Nobody thinks so, not even people in Kansas City. They didn’t win a Super Bowl. They didn’t reach a Super Bowl. For most football fans, greatness comes with Super Bowl championships (and semi-greatness can come by finishing runner up in the Super Bowl – the Buffalo Bills won 103 games in the 1990s, lost four Super Bowls, and some do think of them as a great team).

And for moderate golf fans, major championships are more or less the only qualifier for greatness. If a golfer won 150 regular PGA Tour events and zero majors I would wager that nobody would consider him the greatest ever. But if a golfer won 30 majors and zero regular tournaments, yeah, I’d bet he would be widely viewed as the best ever.

Nobody understands this kind of history-making better than Woods. He laid out the blueprint before he ever hit a single shot on the PGA Tour. When he was a kid, the story goes, he did not have a poster of Snead’s accomplishments on his wall. He had Nicklaus’ 18 major championships up there. That’s the pinnacle.

And so, when Tom Tango asks how many non-major championships equal a major, I would have to answer that it depends on what you are measuring. For most, winning a regular PGA Tour event is pretty close to winning a major championship. Sometimes it’s even better.

Look at Derek Ernst. He’s a 24-year-old professional golfer who clubbed his way through qualifying school, made it to the cusp of the Tour (he was ranked 1,207th in the world), was headed to a Tour event in Georgia when he was called and told he had made it into the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte as a fourth alternate. He raced to Charlotte. And then he won the thing. He won more than $1 million and a two-year exemption on the Tour, and you can bet his feeling was no different than the feelings of Adam Scott or Jason Dufner when they won their first major championship. If anything, he was MORE excited.

So, yes, for most professional golfers, regular tournaments are hugely important. I don’t know what the algebra would be, but I would bet that for most golfers winning a major is maybe two or three times bigger than a regular event.

But in that special instance when you are determining the very best golfers – both ever and in a single season – the formula changes drastically. I’m not sure that in that case there is any number of regular Tour events that would equal a major.

Who is the Player of the Year? By the numbers, by the money, by consistency, by any fair measure of the whole season, Woods has had a better year than Scott and everyone else. But Scott won the Masters. Phil Mickelson won the British Open and the Phoenix Open. Justin Rose won the U.S. Open and that’s it.

Do you think if given the chance, Woods would trade seasons with any of them right now? You better believe he would.

Who is Player of the Year? My vote goes to Scott.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.