Let’s call this A Tale of Two Tours, which is sort of like A Tale of Two Cities, except without the peasantry and the revolution is only a metaphorical one.
So far this year, the LPGA has been everything it’s needed to be – fun, exciting, dramatic and relevant. The last three tournaments, in order, have featured teenage sensation Lexi Thompson topping Michelle Wie in a major; then Wie, the tour’s most recognizable star, winning on home turf; followed by another teenager, Lydia Ko, prevailing for a mind-numbing third time just days after her 17th birthday.
The way things are going, we should all start consulting commissioner Michael Whan for Powerball numbers.
Meanwhile, the PGA Tour has been a tedious hodgepodge of snoozer Sundays, save for the rare hole-out by a Matt. (Kuchar in regulation at Harbour Town; Jones in a playoff in Houston.) The champions’ list is confoundingly eclectic, with few winners this side of Bubba Watson drawing more than just the most diehard fans to the television screen.
It’s like the golf gods are playing Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the, uh … less rich.
It’s like one tour’s season has been scripted in Hollywood, while the other’s was scripted by Ed Wood, king of the low-budget films.
It’s like we all have selective memories.
No, that last one doesn’t necessarily fit the theme, but that’s because this theme – to an extent – is misguided.
Based on the collective objection that this year’s PGA Tour winners are largely unknowns and journeymen, I crunched some numbers to see how they compare with last year’s list to this point.
What I found will probably surprise you.
(For the sake of keeping things uniform, I didn’t include the six winners during last year’s portion of the 2013-14 schedule, instead just matching up the first 18 of the last two calendar years, from the Hyundai Tournament of Champions through this past week’s Zurich Classic.)
This year’s champions have held an average position of 83.5 on the Official World Golf Ranking at the time of their victories. None of them were ranked inside the top five when they won and six (Scott Stallings, Kevin Stadler, Russell Henley, John Senden, Steven Bowditch and Seung-yul Noh) were ranked outside the top 100.
Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? It does to me.
And yet …
Last year’s champions to this point had an average world ranking of 99.4, with eight of them (Henley, Brian Gay, John Merrick, Michael Thompson, Scott Brown, Kevin Streelman, D.A. Points and Martin Laird) ranked outside the top 100 at the time of their wins.
Based on the numbers alone, this year’s winners have been less eclectic and more calculable than those of last year.
Of course, then there’s the Tiger Factor.
By this point a year ago, Tiger Woods had already claimed three titles – the Farmers Insurance Open, WGC-Cadillac Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational. His smiling face gleaming in the reflection of a trophy on a Sunday evening (or Monday afternoon, as was the case in two of those wins) can obviously do wonders for public perception on the state of the PGA Tour.
Looking at it another way, though, last year’s champions’ list was even more unpredictable. Take out Tiger, who was ranked second when he won each of those three tournaments between January and April, and the average world ranking of the other 15 winners increases to 118.9.
Not that world ranking should serve as the be-all, end-all for this debate. Compare them based on previous wins and you’ll find that this year’s 18 champions (which includes two apiece from Watson, Patrick Reed and Jimmy Walker) had won a combined total of 36 titles prior to their most recent one.
Last year’s number looked decidedly different. Those winners had previously won 294 career PGA Tour titles, if we correctly include Woods, who owned 74, 75 and 76 wins, respectively, before each his three titles. Again, as always, he skews the stats. Remove him from this list and last year’s other first 15 champions had a combined 69 career wins, largely buoyed by the 40 from Phil Mickelson prior to his victory in Phoenix.
What does it all mean? Well, a few things.
First and foremost, having a couple of Hall of Fame members combine for a win each month during the year’s first quarter can do wonders for soothing whatever perceived ailments are affecting the Tour. A victory by a guy ranked 176th is deemed more palatable when it’s preceded or followed by one from a household name. (And that’s not to invalidate the importance of a win from Noh, a 22-year-old up-and-comer, whose roots in the burgeoning golf hotbed of Asia should be viewed in Ponte Vedra Beach headquarters as an unmitigated success.)
Second and perhaps just as important, is that these numbers should help quash the notion that the PGA Tour is undergoing some type of never-before-seen transitional phase that’s led to a half-dozen first-time winners already. Sure, we can argue that fields are deeper and it’s more difficult to win than ever before and anything can happen on the proverbial Any Given Sunday, but we can’t portray this as a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon zipping through the atmosphere like Halley’s Comet.
The level of excitement on the LPGA in recent months has unquestionably surpassed that of its gender counterpart. The tournament finales have featured more drama and the winners’ list reads like a “Who’s Who” rather than a “Who’s He?”
The disparity is evident, but that doesn’t mean times have changed on the PGA Tour and we’re venturing into an unfamiliar frontier where randomness is the new norm. It doesn’t mean this tale of two tours has to end in Dickensian fashion, either.