Analyzing the likelihood that Tiger Woods breaks the win records of Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead
If Tiger Woods’ Masters triumph proved anything, it’s that golf has no stomach for stopping and smelling the roses.
The green jacket was barely on Woods’ shoulders when the focus shifted from Augusta to what lies ahead, specifically the win marks of Sam Snead (all-time PGA Tour titles) and Jack Nicklaus (professional major victories). Woods’ tried his best to downplay those questions. “You know, I really haven't thought about that yet,” Woods said on that historic Sunday. “I’m sure that I’ll probably think of it going down the road. Maybe, maybe not. But right now, it’s a little soon.”
Except that Nicklaus himself stoked the flames mere hours later. “I’ve been saying—everybody kept asking me, ‘What about Tiger? Can he win another major?’ I kept saying, ‘I think so. I think he will,’ ” Nicklaus told the Golf Channel. “You know, the next two majors are at Bethpage, where he’s won, and Pebble Beach, where he’s won. You know, he’s got me shaking in my boots, guys.”
A day later, the PGA Tour released a video highlighting Woods’ pursuit of Snead’s record 82 tour wins. So much for keeping that horse in the barn.
But, since it is out and roaming, when will Woods break Snead’s mark? And is Jack’s number, long thought safe following Tiger’s downfall, now in jeopardy?
While speculating rampantly is appetizing—let us be the gazillionth person to remind you that Tiger has won at Bethpage and Pebble—it also rings hollow. Especially when math can do the job for us.
Dr. Lucius Riccio, a statistical contributor to Golf Digest for 30 years and one of the inventors of the USGA Slope System, has developed a model for predicting tournament outcomes. We asked Dr. Lou to fire up his simulation and see if, and when, Woods will hurdle these marks. (Which, even by the fickle and challenging nature of golf forecasting, is easier said than done.)
What makes Woods such a fascinating study—past, present, future—is also hell on projections. There’s no definitive baseline, not on a player who achieved absurd highs and suffered severe lows. How much weight is put on his recent performance—the Masters win, yes, but also last season’s runner-up at Bellerive, charge at Carnoustie and win at East Lake—compared to the better part of a decade when Woods was a non-factor? There’s the battle between his age, and what that’s historically meant in the game, and how his fused back, a surgery made for improving Woods’ quality of life rather than his golf game, will hold up. To say nothing of outside forces, like the growing list of formidable opponents, many of which Woods has influenced.
In short, elements that make gazing into a crystal ball quite cloudy.
Yet Riccio, who is a senior lecturer at Columbia University, managed to account for these variables, altering his weekly-prediction model into a long-range forecast. What type of picture does it paint for Tiger and his prospects?
First, on 82. The 15-time major winner has been adamant he won’t be playing as much going forward, and with just six outings this season, he’s been a man of his word. A healthy Woods will play in the remaining three majors, and likely the three FedEx Cup Playoff events. After that, the Memorial (a tournament Woods has won five times that’s two weeks after the PGA and two weeks before the U.S. Open) and new WGC event in Memphis (the week after the Open Championship) would be his next conceivable appearances. Anything else would be a surprise, meaning Woods has six-to-eight starts left in 2019. (Though Woods has already committed to the inaugural ZOZO Championship in the fall, that will technically be next season.)
With that slate on tap, Riccio gives Woods a 19-percent chance he’ll win another event this season and tie Snead’s mark.
That percentage may seem high with Woods’ limited schedule. Conversely, Tiger does have two wins in his last seven official starts and eight top-10s in his last 14 appearances. A performance backed up by analytics, Woods ranking seventh in strokes gained this season, fifth in 2018. Even for the non-recency biased, production that's hard to ignore.
But records are made to be broken, not tied. What are the chances of Woods capturing tour victory No. 83?
According to Riccio, stout, to the tune of 57 percent within the next two years.
“And an 82-percent chance within three years,” Riccio says. “It’s higher if the timeframe is stretched to five years, but predictions out that far are somewhat dubious.”
Under the guise of a “full” (12-15 event) season, Riccio has Tiger averaging 1.5 wins per campaign for the next three years, with his production staying relatively steady over this span. Riccio's model is so optimistic that it has Woods twice as likely to win multiple tournaments than be shut out:
The forecast extends to the end of 2022, what baseball stat-heads would describe as the end of Woods’ 46-year season. After that, Riccio says the model’s forecast becomes what ambiguous. Not just because of Woods’ age, but, as alluded above, it’s hard to predict that far into the future. Nevertheless, it seems Snead and his record will soon be vanquished.
But Snead has never been the real target, with Jack and his 18 majors the true white whale. What are the odds Woods reels that sucker in?
A refresher on the upcoming major venues:
2019: Bethpage Black, Pebble Beach, Royal Portrush
2020: Augusta National, TPC Harding Park, Winged Foot, Royal St. George's
2021: Augusta National, Kiawah Island, Torrey Pines, St. Andrews
2022: Augusta National, Trump Bedminster, The Country Club, Royal Liverpool
Woods historians will note he’s won 11 majors at these 13 venues: five Masters (which, contrary to popular belief, is played at Augusta every year), three U.S. Opens (2000 Pebble, 2002 Bethpage, 2008 Torrey Pines) and three Opens (St. Andrews twice, 2006 Liverpool). That doesn’t include his seven Buick/Farmers Insurance Open victories at Torrey, or his 2005 WGC-American Express Championship at TPC Harding Park. Ostensibly, it’s an itinerary that favors Woods.
However, conducive this schedule may seem, it’s worth restating some of these triumphs were almost two decades ago. And even the most zealous of Tiger backers would concede tying Jack is ambitious. Taking the 2019 Masters into account, that means Woods will win have four majors in four years after going a decade without one.
But these are mere human observations. What say the computers?
According to Riccio, Woods has a 13-percent chance of tying Nicklaus by the end of 2022. Mentioned above, Woods will be 46 years old at the end of that season, the same age Nicklaus was when he won his 18th major at the 1986 Masters. Only Julius Boros has won a major older than 46 (48 years, 4 months, 18 days at the 1968 PGA), although a handful of players have come close.
For those who deem that percentage too high, know that Woods has 24-percent chance of not winning another major in this span. Yet the prediction does like Tiger to win at least one (76 percent), and at least two majors victories isn’t far behind (36.5 percent). Tiger passing Jack in this span is a bridge too far, according to the model, with just a 3.2 percent chance.
“I estimate his expected value of major wins is about one every two years,” Riccio says.
As for where, if Woods continues to rack up majors, expect them to be of the green jacket or claret jug variety.
Riccio gives Woods a 20-percent chance of winning another Masters in this span and 15-percent chance at the Open Championship. Those odds drop to 10 percent for the PGA and only 8 percent at the U.S. Open. Riccio cites Tiger’s occasionally wayward accuracy as a possible issue at the PGA and U.S. Open.
Of course, as Woods proved at East Lake and Augusta National, he has a penchant for proving the odds wrong. A point Riccio happily concedes.
“He might just look at these numbers and say, ‘The hell with these, I’m winning the next three and that’s that,’ ” Riccio says.
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