Stat attack!: Hero World Challenge

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Tiger Woods returns to competition this week at the Hero World Challenge, more than three months removed from his last appearance at the PGA Championship and eight months on from a microdiscectomy, performed to alleviate a pinched nerve in his back resulting in the worst season of his professional career.

How Woods plays this week is not the most pertinent question – the Hero, after all, is an unofficial competition, in which golfers play for pride, World Ranking points and gobs and gobs of money – but his performance this week at Isleworth G&CC could go a long way to determining what to expect when the bell rings on the PGA Tour season in 2015. If he’s healthy, and there’s no reason to expect he won’t be, he’ll improve on those 79 Tour wins and perhaps those 14 majors. How much he improves is the question.

There has never been another player like Woods. But at his age, with all the scar tissue – physical and mental – it’s fair to ask what to expect from him. Woods’s birthday is December 30, and he’s about to embark on his age 39 season. Do we dare compare him to other 39-year-old golfers? Yes, let’s do. Let’s compare him to the greats. 

Wins and majors after age 39 among the top 10 victory leaders in PGA Tour history

 Player Date turned 39 Wins Majors
 Sam Snead 5-27-1951 22 3
 Jack Nicklaus 1-21-1979 5 3
 Ben Hogan 8-13-1951 7 3
 Arnold Palmer 9-10-1968 9 0
 Byron Nelson 5-4-1951 0 0
 Billy Casper 6-24-1970 6 0
 Walter Hagen 12-21-1931 5 0
 Phil Mickelson 6-16-2009 6 2
 Cary Middlecoff 1-6-1960 1 0
 Tom Watson 9-4-1988 2 0

Woods likely won’t match Sam Snead, who played often, and quite competitively, deep into his 50s. Vijay Singh, 14th on the all-time victory list, who won 25 times after age 39, is also an anomaly. But if Woods is every bit the player that Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan were during the final years of their careers, Tiger will certainly break the all-time record for PGA Tour victories. He needs three wins to tie Snead’s mark of 82. Nicklaus, Hogan, Snead and Mickelson all won multiple majors after age 39. There’s no reason Woods won’t also, although getting to 18 and matching Nicklaus’s all-time record might be a stretch.

But what about 2015? How will Woods compare to the greats in their age 39 season. Nicklaus and Tom Watson did not win during that year, 1979 for Jack and 1989 for Tom, finishing deep down the PGA Tour money list. But others, notably Palmer and Sam Snead had good years. Then there’s Singh, who was about to embark on a run never before seen by a player of his age. As good as he was in 2002 at age 39, Singh was even better in 2003 and 2004, when he led the PGA Tour in wins and earnings. 

How selected golfers fared in their age 39 season on the PGA Tour*

 Player Year Birthday Wins Top 10s Money (Rank)
 Jack Nicklaus 1979 1-21-1940 0 3 59,434 (71)
 Tom Watson 1989 9-4-1949 0 2 185,390 (80)
 Arnold Palmer 1969 9-10-1929 2 10 95,267 (9)
 Ben Hogan 1952 8-13-1912 1 3 5,625 (24)
 Sam Snead 1951 5-27-1912 1 10 15,073 (6)
 Vijay Singh 2002 2-22-1963 2 11 3,756,563 (3)

*A player’s age on June 1, about the midpoint of most seasons, was used to determine a season age. Hogan made only three starts in 1952. Stats were pulled from the PGA Tour statistical database.


The money grab

That Woods can rebound from an injury-plagued season is not unprecedented. He played just six events in 2008 (winning four times), before a knee injury sidelined him for the second half of the year. He rebounded in 2009 to win six times and led the PGA Tour money list. In 2011, injuries to his left knee and Achilles' tendon limited him to nine starts and a paltry $660,238 in earnings. Healthy in 2012 he won three times and earned $6,133,158. Woods’s monetary increase of $5,472,920 from 2011 to 2012 is the fourth-largest one-season earnings jump in PGA Tour history. Woods has four of the nine greatest single-season earnings jumps all time.

Largest PGA Tour single-season earnings gains from one season to the next

 Player Gain in $ First season Second season
 Rory McIlroy $6,477,653 $1,802,443 (2013) 8,280,096 (2014)
 Rory McIlroy* 5,658,343* 2,389,609* (2011) 8,047,952 (2012)
 Henrik Stenson 5,597,123 791,107 (2012) 6,388,230 (2013)
 Tiger Woods 5,472,920 660,238 (2011) 6,133,158 (2012)
 Webb Simpson 5,374,391 972,962 (2010) 6,347,353 (2011)
 Tiger Woods 5,262,552 5,365,472 (2004) 10,628,024 (2005)
 Tiger Woods 4,775,468 1,841,117 (1998) 6,616,585 (1999)
 Tiger Woods 4,733,163 5,775,000 (2008) 10,508,163 (2009)
 Bubba Watson 4,577,702 1,759,276 (2013) 6,336,978 (2014)

*Not a Tour member in 2011, McIlroy’s earnings that year are unofficial.

To overtake McIlroy for the greatest monetary improvement from one year to the next, Woods would have to earn just less than $6.6 million in 2015. Basically, he'd need to have a slightly better year than the one Bubba Watson had in 2014 (two wins, three seconds, eight top-10s).


Of course, Woods wouldn’t have some of the greatest one-season earnings jumps in history, if not for the greatest one-season earnings drops. His 2014 season is the second-greatest decline in PGA Tour history, trailing just his $9,213,488 decline from 2009 to 2010.

* Of note, is Rory McIlroy’s decline from 2012 to 2013, which precipitated his $6,477,653 increase in earnings from 2013 to 2014, the all-time greatest single-season earnings improvement in PGA Tour history. 

Largest PGA Tour single-season earnings drops from one season to the next

 Player Loss in $ First season Second season
 Tiger Woods $9,213,488 $10,508,163 (2009) $1,294,765 (2010)
 Tiger Woods 8,445,164 8,553,439 (2013) 108,275 (2014)
 Rory McIlroy 6,245,509 8,047,952 (2012) 1,802,443 (2013)
 Vijay Singh 5,324,279 6,601,094 (2008) 1,276,815 (2009)
 Tiger Woods 5,092,052 10,867,052 (2007) 5,775,000 (2008)

One final thought: Woods has come back from injuries before, but as he ages, it will be tougher for him to return to the otherworldly levels we once assumed were normal for him. He already has the longest streak of sustained brilliance in PGA Tour history, his 16 years from his first money title (1997) to his most recent (2013) is the longest stretch since the Tour began keeping track of earnings in 1934. Snead (1938 to 1950) and Nicklaus (1964 to 1976) went 12 years from their first money title to their last. Whatever Tiger does in 2015, is icing on an already historic career.

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