This blog will ask the questions – what makes the perfect golfer? Has a perfect golfer ever existed? Will a perfect golfer exist in the future? and will anybody ever win golf’s Holy Grail of a Grand Slam of majors in a calendar year?
The Perfect Golfer
It goes without saying that no golfer will ever achieve the perfect round of 18 holes-in-one on a full length course. So we need a different definition of ‘perfect’. We live in an age where strokes gained statistics can compare golfers against the field. In this analysis, the game is split into four statistical groups:
Strokes Gained Driving (SGD): Tee shots on all Par 4 & Par 5 Holes
Strokes Gained Approach (SGA): All approach shots from 100 yards and above
Strokes Gained Short-Game (SGS): All shots from within 100 yards not on the green.
Strokes Gained Putting (SGP): All shots from on the green.
Our statistically ‘perfect’ golfer would rank number 1 in all 4 areas on the premier Professional Tour in world golf (PGA Tour).
So has this statistically perfect golfer ever existed? Well in the era’s of Jones, Snead, Hogan and Nicklaus, detailed shot data was never kept and so we cannot be certain. Nevertheless we know that all of these golfer’s had a relative weakness in at least one area of the game – Nicklaus with the short game, Hogan with putting and so it is unlikely they would have achieved statistical dominance.
In the modern era, Tiger Woods in his prime came the closest to achieving perfection. In 2008, Tigers stats showed:
Total SG rank: 1 SGD: 8 SGA: 1 SGS: 3 SGP: 4
Compare this to his nearest rivals at the time:
SGD SGA SGS SGP
Ernie Els: 80 2 43 190
Phil Mickelson 17 6 9 50
Vijay Singh 3 7 7 177
Luke Donald 164 47 1 2
Sergio Garcia 10 3 21 111
In other words, all of Wood’s main rivals had a significant weakness in at least one of the four statistical comparisons. But why is this statistically perfect golfer so difficult to achieve? Or in other words, what made Tiger so special?
The answer lies in the differences in underlying skills required for the different aspects of the game. Whilst driving requires athleticism, power, technique and flexibility, consistently great putting requires nerve, touch and green reading skills. In this way, high levels of skill in one aspect in no way guarantee a level of competency in another.
For Woods to excel to a world top 10 level in what are essentially four separate games within a game is indeed unique.
To give an idea of how good Woods was in his prime years (1999 – 2009), he statistically would still have beaten the 2018 version of McIlroy’s long game combined with Mickelson’s short game magic.
Remarkably, between August 1999 and November 2000, Woods beat the field average for 89 consecutive tournament rounds. For context, with over 1,500 tournaments analysed since 1983, Mark O’Meara is second on this particular list with 33 straight rounds to beat the field average, achieved in 1992. Read more on this story here.
To achieve such near perfection over a prolonged period of time requires more than just outstanding technical skills in the four main parts of the game. Such consistency requires mental skills that also raise the bar – tenacity, perseverance, amazing nerve under intense pressure and single-mindedness to name just a few.
Of course we know now that the extreme drive and focus instilled by his father Earl as an infant left Tiger with a deficit in other life skills that has contributed to marital breakdown and a slew of personal issues. I wonder if Tiger thinks it was all worth it?
The current crop and the holy grail
So how do the current crop rank on our scale of perfection and what are the chances that anybody can achieve something that Tiger came agonisingly close to but never quite managed – The Grand Slam of majors in a single year?
Although the 2018 season is in its infancy, the stats are still telling,
SGD SGA SGS SGP
Dustin Johnson 1 60 14 15
Jordan Spieth 24 24 19 169
Rory McIlroy 20 91 78 23
Justin Thomas 28 5 54 38
Justin Rose 16 87 71 5
Tiger Woods 148 14 7 14
Dustin Johnson has the best all-round game but perhaps lacks the drive to really dominate over a longer period of time.
McIlroy is coming off the best putting week of his career at Bay Hill, and if he can maintain that form with the putter and his fitness then he will win many tournaments but his distance judgement with his irons and wedges is still not quite at the top-level.
Jordan Spieth has the strongest mind of the current crop. His ball-striking is not quite at the very top-level and in 2018 he has seen a worrying drop in his putting form.
The stats indicate that if Tiger can improve his driving then he has the chance to contend for more majors. When he does, we will see if his nerve is still there in the clutch moments. If he lets his natural instinct take over then he should be fine. I for one would not bet against him – partly because – as the numbers suggest – the current crop are someway short of his skill and form at his peak.
So the evidence suggests that none of the current group of top players have the skills to consistently dominate the field. This makes the Grand Slam in a single season highly unlikely. There is a good chance that in the future somebody new will come through in the way that Tiger Woods did twenty years ago and get close to perfection – making the Grand Slam more likely.
My suspicion however, is that modern technology with the golf ball and Drivers have made aspects of the game much easier than 20 years ago. The inevitable result is that the field has been brought closer together – making it much more difficult for any individual to separate themselves from the field consistently by skill level.
The wait for that elusive Grand Slam could be a long one.
References & Further reading:
Historical strokes gained stats taken from: Every Shot Counts (Mark Broadie)
2018 Strokes Gained stats from http://www.pgatour.com
Tiger Woods swing sequence from: How I Play Golf (Tiger Woods)