In every article about the great man’s return, it’s there. Usually wedged in the middle of the piece, a mandatory disclaimer, albeit one mostly ignored like a substitute teacher on the last day of school. And that proviso is “We know it’s early, but…”
It’s understandable, and correct: Tiger Woods’ latest comeback remains in an infant state, just three tournaments and 10 rounds old. In a vacuum, observations can be made about this play—“Tiger’s driver continues to be a problem,” or “His scrambling has been remarkably efficient”—with varying degrees of merit. But in a broader sense, it’s a sample most agree is too small to —not only now, but likely before the Masters, where Woods is expected to make his first start since 2015—yield a meaningful takeaway or trend.
That includes Woods himself.
"I know people are saying that I've been, you know, erratic, a little inconsistent," Woods said at the Valspar Championship. "But 10 rounds, it's not that many. I looked up some of my stats last night, I wanted to see how I ranked. I'm not even on the rankings. I haven't played enough rounds. OK. That's basically how my comeback has been so far this year. I haven't played a lot."
So we asked two prominent statisticians a basic question: When will we have enough rounds—or more specifically, data—to get an educated sense of what the “new” Tiger looks like?
According to Professor Lou Riccio, the answer is, well, not that long.
Riccio, a Columbia University professor and one of the inventors of the USGA Slope System, runs a weekly simulation model for PGA Tour events, one that’s been quite accurate. In his 30 years of work on golf analytics, he’s discovered you don’t necessarily need that much information—about 500 holes, or seven tournaments of making the cut—for a sound estimation
“I need a mix of hole difficulties to have a good profile of a player’s ability; 15-to-20 rounds at seven venues is pretty good,” Riccio says. In spite of the volatility of the sport—weather conditions, course setup, etc.—how a player performs on varying hole distances is a dominant enough factor to generate a forecast.
Obviously the more numbers Riccio gets the better—his model uses a different limit than 500—yet it produces a relatively high level of confidence. That figure might draw scorn, although Riccio’s not saying we’ll know a rookie’s prospects after his first seven starts, or that sequence will capture every slump or streak. On average, however, it helps establish a benchmark. Important because, in his research, “running true to form” is the standard in golf.
“Golfers tend—that's a partially tested observation on my part—to have a long plateau of performance,” Riccio says. “As such lots of historical data is generally the best predictor, unless there are other circumstances which can negate the record.”
Hold off on those “other circumstances” for just one moment.
If things go well for Tiger at the Valspar Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational, he will accumulate 324 official holes before teeing it up at Augusta National. Short of Riccio’s magic number, yet far from irrelevant.
Mark Broadie, who developed the revolutionary “strokes gained” statistic for the PGA Tour, notes that if you’re blindly comparing Dustin Johnson (leading the tour in strokes gained) to an average tour player, you’re obviously not going to be able to tell who’s who after a few rounds. Conversely, after 10 rounds...
“Dustin should be nowhere close to an average player,” Broadie says.
Meaning, with some level confidence, we already have an idea of “new” Tiger.
But it’s not exactly a clear outlook. Muddied up thanks to “old” Tiger.
Statistical relevancy is a fickle matter with Woods. We have tons of historical data on the 42-year-old; unfortunately, the most recents points are few—Tiger's played in just 22 events since 2013—and flawed, as Woods competed at less than ideal strength for a large contingent of those events. Riccio considers this stretch mostly useless.
But is Tiger's 2013 output, when he won five times and reclaimed the No. 1 world ranking, still germane to the discussion?
"Of course you cannot rule out using data from 2012 and 2013, before the back problems became a major impediment," Riccio says. "That was the last time he was healthy. So that data should be instructive assuming he is healthy now and has the same muscle memory."
That last point can be countered; after all, Woods admitted he's still exploring his limitations post fusion. It's also not accounting for age; despite the longevity of some, golf remains a young man's game. And selective bias, such as tossing out the data when he was hurt, can rear its head in the present as well.
“We have a lot of info on what he used to be,” says Broadie. “It would take just a few rounds to remind you if it was the Tiger Woods of old, then it would for another random player. Whoever won four tournaments ago [Ted Potter Jr.], that player had four great rounds. Are you going to say he’s better than old Tiger Woods? Of course not. But if Tiger puts together a few good rounds, we’re quicker to make the connection that ‘He’s back.’"
To an extent, we've already seen this phenomenon in the excitement generated by Woods at the Honda Classic. The 14-time major winner's play warranted praise, but because so many want the old Tiger back so badly, more stock was put into this performance than Woods making the cut on the line at Torrey Pines or missing the weekend by miles at Riviera.
But here's where nuance is key. We should put more emphasis on his outing at PGA National, as the human element gives light to a notion the numbers miss. Mainly, that it's natural for one coming off a prolonged absence to be rusty in the return, and, as more reps are had, progression should be made.
“If Tiger can finish 12th [at the Honda] with just average ball-striking and lights-out putting, that’s smoke and mirrors,” Broadie says. (He has long made the case that putting is overrated.) “But if all parts of the game are going in the right direction, it’s meaningful.” And they are: Woods led the Honda field in proximity to the hole, was 12th in strokes gained for the week and saw noticeable improvements in accuracy off the tee.
Whether that’s a one-week aberration or a trend, we will soon discover. But when the calendar turns to April and speculation of a fifth green jacket arises, there’s no need to temper Tiger talk with caveats or cautions. The 2018 sample will be small. That doesn’t make it insignificant.