Examining Tiger's Sawgrass struggles

May, 8, 2012
Seemingly just moments after Tiger Woods missed his eighth cut as a professional at the Wells Fargo Championship last week, there was a foreboding sense that he'll face more struggles at TPC Sawgrass.

Trivia question

Sandy Lyle is a part of the 2012 World Golf Hall of Fame induction class. Who was the last Scottish player to win a major championship? (Answer below)

Even if Tiger wasn't coming off a missed cut where he looked erratic (just six fairways hit Friday and six putts missed inside 10 feet for the week), he wouldn't be a smart pick at the Players Championship. Woods has never played well in this event, by his standards.

Tiger has played in only two different PGA Tour events at least 10 times and won just once or not at all. One is the Northern Trust Open, an event he hasn't won and hasn't finished since 2006; two of his 11 career starts in the event came when he was a teenager. The other is The Players Championship -- 14 career starts, four top-10 finishes, and more withdrawals (two) than victories (one).

We at Numbers Game, though, wanted to know why Woods hasn't succeeded at this event.

We examined the performances of the past eight winners of the Players Championship, looking for which key statistic was most indicative of winning this event in recent years. The numbers we looked at were fairways hit, greens in regulation, putts made distance, total putts and strokes gained -- putting.

(For stats, 2004 ended up being the furthest we could go back, since that was the first year "strokes gained -- putting" was measured at the event.)

Four of the past eight winners of the Players Championship have led or tied for the field lead in greens-in-regulation percentage. That's the highest such total among any of the five categories. Three of the eight champions were either first or tied for first in the field in fairways hit.

Only one led the field in "strokes gained -- putting." None led the field in either of the other two putting categories.

The average field rank for the winners yielded the same leader for our sample size. Players Championship winners since 2004 had an average GIR field rank of 8.1. Next-best among the group: strokes gained -- putting at 14.9, and fairways hit at 17.0.

If the numbers say that greens in regulation (GIR) is the most important number to follow at this event, how has Woods fared in the statistic? The answer -- not well.

Woods has finished the Players Championship five times since 2004 (he of course withdrew the past two years due to injury). Tiger never once finished in the top-15 in GIR any of those years. Only once did he even finish in the top-30 in GIR. So, in turn, it makes sense that he has just one top-10 finish in the event in that span (eighth in 2009).

Woods is currently ranked 19th on the PGA Tour in GIR percentage (68.8 percent). However, Tiger was T-51 at Augusta in GIR,and is hitting just 61.1 percent GIR over his past two starts.

Whichever way one looks at the information -- historically or from recent weeks -- it doesn't look promising for Woods at TPC Sawgrass.

We've got something new, something old(er) and the man atop the FedExCup points list in the Players Championship edition of Three on the Tee. The Numbers Game starter calls:

Rickie Fowler: The man in orange broke through with his first career PGA Tour victory Sunday, largely thanks to his stellar ballstriking.

Consider this: Six times in 2011, Fowler was T-7 or better entering the final round in a PGA Tour event. In those final rounds, he hit just 51.2 percent of his fairways and just 56.5 percent of his greens in regulation. On Sunday, he entered the day tied for sixth -- his best position through 36 holes this year. Fowler hit 11 of 14 fairways (78.6 percent) and 14 of 18 greens (77.8 percent).

Phil Mickelson: As premature as it might seem to honor the career of a player currently ranked 10th in the Official World Golf Ranking, the World Golf Hall of Fame did so this week with Lefty.

Mickelson is one of just four American players since 1955 to have at least four major championships and 40 or more career PGA Tour victories. The other three on that list? Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer. Mickelson picked up career win No. 40 earlier this year at Pebble Beach.

Mickelson makes his 19th career start this week at the Players Championship. He won the event in 2007, but the event has largely been a tough one for Mickelson -- he has just three career top-10s and 11 finishes outside the top-25.

Trivia answer

Question: Sandy Lyle is a part of the 2012 World Golf Hall of Fame induction class. Who was the last Scottish player to win a major championship?

Answer: Paul Lawrie at the 1999 Open Championship

Hunter Mahan: The only man to win multiple times on tour this year had his best career finish at this event in 2011, finishing tied for sixth. He's currently fifth on the circuit in GIR percentage -- and we shared earlier how important that number is at Sawgrass.

Mahan has also been better this year when he plays consistently. Over his past six starts, he has two wins and a T-12 finish (at Augusta) when he played the week before on tour. In the other three events in that span, when he hadn't played the previous week, he failed to finish better than 24th.

Justin Ray is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He has contributed to ESPN's golf coverage since joining the network out of college in 2008. He is based in Austin, Texas, with the Longhorn Network. Send comments and suggestions to Justin.Ray@espn.com.



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