By: Edward Egros

One Major Challenge for Tiger

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(Courtesy: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Call it a comeback. At last weekend's Honda Classic, Tiger Woods finished 12th at even par and seven strokes off the pace. In his last five events on Tour, he has three Top-25 finishes, coming within eight shots of the lead at tournament's end each time. More specifically, last weekend his proximity to the hole
led the field at 29 feet, 3 inches (with greens hit in regulation), and while it is not Tiger of old, there is an upward trajectory where it is safe to conclude he can be competitive again.

But with Tiger Woods, it is not about being competitive, it's about winning. At 42 years old with
a number of injuries throughout his career, will Tiger ever win another PGA Tour event? A major? Multiple majors? The aforementioned uptick suggests he's given himself an opportunity, but there's one factor that's perhaps more important than Tiger's performance:

The rest of the field has improved.

Let's say the Tiger era lasted from 1997-2009 and the post-dominant-Tiger era is from 2010 to now. This divide makes the most sense based upon his career. In the modern era of golf, Tiger owns the four lowest average scores per season; and, if you adjust for stroke average by tournaments,
Tiger owns the six lowest. Those seasons happened between 1999 and 2009. Since then, though no one has posted any one season of that caliber, from an article I wrote last year, the median golf score has gone down since 2006. And if you update 2017's median average score from the time that article was published, it's 70.94, a low score compared with the Tiger era.

Also, Tiger owns the largest margin of victory at an event during the modern era:
15 strokes at the 2000 U.S. Open. Since 2010, the largest margin of victory at a major is eight strokes, happening twice (2011 U.S. Open by Rory McIlroy and 2012 PGA Championship, also by McIlroy). Yes, Tiger's run is superior than what any golfer has mustered since, but the smaller margins of victory and greater dispersement of tournaments wins is because of more golfers able to challenge for golf's top prizes.

There's something else explaining stiffer competition. In 2007, Jennifer Brown of the University of California, Berkeley released a paper explaining how, on average,
highly skilled golfers' scores are 0.8 strokes worse when Tiger Woods is playing in the same tournament, compared with if he is not there. This disparity does not exist now for a few reasons. First, Tiger has not won a tournament since 2013 and hasn't won a major since 2008. Second, health continues to be a talking point about Tiger, given he has three withdrawals since 2013, played in far fewer tournaments and missed the cut with greater frequency. Finally, if opponents know Tiger will play well, they are likelier to play riskier golf because otherwise they know they will lose if they play their usual game. This idea is part of a paper I have frequently cited from Brian Skinner about knowing competition and recognizing when having a riskier gameplay is the only way to win.

The field knows Tiger is not what he was and the field itself has improved. Jordan Spieth, for instance,
tied Tiger's course record at the Masters. Dustin Johnson is consistently at the top of the leaderboard in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee. And Justin Thomas just earned his 8th victory before the age of 25, just the third golfer ever to accomplish that feat. An improved field is just one of many challenges for Tiger Woods, but if he does return to winning, it would make the comeback all the more impressive.