Introducing the Historical Domination Scale: Measuring the greatest years in golf history

January 10, 2018
during the pro-am prior to the SBS Tournament of Champions at the Plantation Course at Kapalua Golf Club on January 4, 2017 in Lahaina, Hawaii.

One of my favorite moments of the 2017 PGA Tour season came in the playoff between Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth at the Northern Trust Open in August. If you saw it, you haven’t forgotten, and probably never will. Playing the 18th hole at Long Island’s Glen Oaks Club in a sudden-death playoff, Spieth hit a normal, sensible drive, and then DJ did this:

Spoiler alert: Spieth did not win the tournament.

There has never been a more overtly intimidating figure in golf than Tiger Woods, but moments like The Drive prove that DJ can have the same overwhelming effect on his opponents. Like Tiger, there’s a physical presence to his game that goes beyond the 17 career wins and his other impressive numbers. (If I were a British soccer announcer, I would call him “magisterial.”)

It’s evident on TV, and it’s even more powerful in person. When I interviewed him during a practice round before Colonial in 2014, I felt the unmistakable sense that I was shrinking both psychologically and physically in the presence of Humanity 2.0. And it’s this quality that can fool you into thinking he’s a once-in-a-generation talent who will overshadow his contemporaries.

Of course, that’s not quite how it’s played out. DJ has led a complicated life, and it wasn’t until 2016 when he won his first major and the tour’s Player of the Year Award. He had another very strong season in 2017—rising to World No. 1—but was nipped at the line by Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth.

While watching him torch the field at Kapalua last weekend, I kept coming back to a question that might sound pretty unfair: Is Johnson, now 33 and in his prime, destined to have a truly dominant, superlative year, either in 2018 or beyond?

And that question led to another: Would we even know it when we saw it? How would we measure it?

If I may be so bold, I think I have the answer. Introducing: The Historical Domination Scale.

The HDS is a somewhat arbitrary, uniquely intuitive, faintly ridiculous—and hopefully entertaining—product born from my attempt to quantify true historical transcendence by pro golfers within a single year. Before I explain the method, I should issue two disclaimers:

1. As the name indicates, the goal here is to measure the most “historical” years of all time. Not the mathematical best. Repeat: Not the best. To measure “best,” you’d have to take every tournament finish into account, from the wins to the top-10s to the missed cuts, and weight them accordingly. In the HDS, I am only looking at wins. The idea is that for a player to go down in history, he must get that sweet, sweet W. There are no golf fans who gather to speak in reverent tones about that time Rickie Fowler finished top five in all four majors.

2. There is a huge modern bias. You can apply the HDS to older players, as you'll see below, but it’s not a perfect fit. The HDS is custom engineered for a post-2000 world.

Here’s how it works: In the HDS, a golfer earns points for each win during a calendar year according to the following scale:

5 points: Major championships
4 points: WGC tournaments, Players Championship, BMW PGA Championship
3 points: Championship series events (FedExCup playoffs, European Tour finals series) and season-long PGA or European Tour titles (money list used in pre-FedExCup/Race to Dubai finals series years)
2 points: Any “regular” PGA Tour or European Tour event

Pretty simple, right? (I was going to make it less simple by including Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup points won as a fifth category, but it met with protest from, well, everybody, so I retreated.)

As I crunched the numbers, I found something pretty interesting and gratifying: It’s really, really hard for a player to reach the 20-point threshold. I was hoping for a nice round number that separated the wheat from the chaff, and the system, basically by accident, delivered. Since 1990, the 20-point season has only been accomplished 12 times … by five players. (Can you guess the name of the only person to do it more than once? Who, in fact, did it eight freaking times? Hint: He’s kinda famous.)

Here’s the list of 20-point years:

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If you’re interested, you can look at the spreadsheet with all the players and scores here. Some notes:

• As you would expect from a metric that rewards wins and wins alone, Tiger is king. But the really crazy thing about his epic 2000 season is that it came before the FedEx Cup playoffs, depriving him of the chance for nine additional points.

• Aside from Tiger, no modern player has reached 20 points twice. The one-timer club includes Rory, Spieth, Nick Price and Vijay Singh.

• You’ll notice there are only two players from the 1990s who made the cut. That’s partly because the WGCs didn’t start until ’99 (and the FedEx Cup playoffs not debuting until 2007), but it’s also because there weren’t many shows of pure domination that decade. Nick Faldo and Mark O’Meara each won two majors in a single year, but neither of them won a single other tournament, much less the money-list title. Nick Price, on the other hand, backed up his two majors in ’94 with four regular wins and a PGA Tour money-list prize, and Tiger was a one-man army in ’99.

• Three other seasons came within two points of reaching the 20-point mark: Rory’s in 2012, Tiger’s in 2013 and Jason Day’s in 2015. Of those, Rory had the most heartbreaking near-miss—he went down in a playoff at the Wells Fargo to Rickie Fowler. That’s how close he came to joining Tiger in the multi-20 club.

• If you were curious, Justin Thomas scored a 17 last year (he’d have reached 20 if he caught Xander Schauffele at the Tour Championship), and Dustin Johnson actually did better in 2017 (13) than 2016 (12).

• The most surprising discovery was that Phil Mickelson has really never had a dominant year. He hasn’t won two majors in a season, he has only two WGCs to his name. He’s never won player of the year, and he’s never won a money list or the FedEx Cup. His highest total on the HDS is 13 in 2009.

• The worst showing by a PGA Tour Player of the Year is Corey Pavin in 1991, when he won just two regular events and the money list, tallying 7 total points. The worst since 2000 is a tie between Padraig Harrington in 2008 and Jim Furyk in 2010 (10 points each).

Now, let’s check out the old-timers. As mentioned before, they’re at a significant disadvantage. And yet, these guys used to win at crazy high clips back in the day (cough weak competition cough), so there are actually a decent amount of 20-point seasons … 10, to be exact. Here they are:

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• I’m not sure how impressive it is that Byron Nelson won 18 tournaments in 1945 with the U.S. at war and most of his major rivals gone, and I mean that sincerely—I really have no clue how impressed I should be. But I think the answer is “less impressed than that gaudy number would suggest.” And yes, I’m a little annoyed that his point total is higher than Tiger’s best.

• The most hilarious year ever is Ben Hogan in 1953. He entered five tournaments, three of them majors, and won them all. His point total? Nineteen.

• Seve Ballesteros is the closest European to 20 (16 in 1988), while Johnny Miller (1974), Jack Nicklaus (1975), and Tom Watson (1977) all reached 19 points in the 1970s.

• I am not a computer, so it is vaguely possible that I missed a 20-point season somewhere along the way. Not likely, but possible.

And that’s the Historical Domination Scale, folks. If I had to put money on one player reaching the 20-point plateau this season, I’d pick DJ (hell, he already has two points!). But as history shows us, it’s incredibly difficult, and that’s as it should be—transcendence should never come easy.


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