Will a repeat major winner please stand up?

July, 10, 2012

With the Open Championship fast approaching, talk of favorites, odds and picks for golf's oldest major are growing topics of conversation. 

But as innocuous and standard as that sounds, it's become a nearly impossible practice to predict winners in recent major championship history.

Trivia question

Tiger Woods is 11-1 in playoffs in his PGA TOUR career. Which playoff did he lose, and to whom? (Answer below)
We have seen 15 different players win the past 15 majors -- the longest streak without a repeat winner since a stretch from the 1994 PGA Tour to the 1998 U.S. Open. The current run of nine straight first-time winners is already the longest such streak since 1934 (the year the first Masters was contested). Before the current stretch, we had never seen more than six straight first-time major winners.

Just how deep does the parity run though? We at Numbers Game wanted to compare this four-year span (2009 to 2012) with others in recent history. We looked at the Official World Golf Ranking of every major champion since 1989 in an effort to compare this stretch with what we have seen in the past.

• Since the beginning of 2009, there have been more major winners from outside the top 100 (three) than from inside the OWGR top 10 (two). The only two players in that span to win a major when ranked inside the top 10 are Rory McIlroy (eighth at the 2011 U.S. Open) and Phil Mickelson (third at the 2010 Masters).

• Compare that with the previous four-year span of 2005-2008. Ten of those 16 major champions were ranked inside the top 10 at the time of their victory. From 2001-2008, 20 of the 32 major winners were ranked inside the top 10 (62.5 percent).

• Six of the past 14 major winners were ranked outside the top 50 in the OWGR. From 1997 to 2008, there were only seven major champions ranked 51st or lower.

• Let's look at the average OWGR position of major winners. For this exercise, we threw out the highest number in that span when calculating the average (so, let's say in the 2001-2004 span, we tossed out Ben Curtis' No. 396, then calculated the number from there). The number you come up with for the past four years is a staggering 43.5. From 2005-2008, that number is just 12.3. In fact, only two major winners in the 2005-2008 sample had a world ranking higher than the 43.5 average from the past four years: Michael Campbell at the 2005 U.S. Open (80th) and Zach Johnson at the 2007 Masters (56th).

• The obvious elephant in the room when doing this exercise is a particular 14-time major champion who has gone major-less during this period of parity. So how does this 2009-2012 span compare with the pre-Tiger years? Once again, the contrast is very stark.

From 1989-1996 (a span of 32 major championships), there were only five major winners ranked outside the OWGR top 50. In the past 14 majors held, there have been six.

• There were seven major winners ranked inside the OWGR top 10 from 1993-1996. There were eight from 1989-1992. Amazingly (as referenced above), there have been just two such champions since the 2009 Masters. So who's the pick to win it at Royal Lytham? The numbers say that nowadays, it's anybody's guess.

Three on the tee gives you a trio of players to keep an eye on at this weekend's John Deere Classic. The starter calls:

Steve Stricker: They're calling it the "Stricker Slam" this week at TPC Deere Run. Stricker is seeking his fourth straight John Deere Classic victory. With a win this week, Stricker would join an elite club of players to win events four straight years in PGA Tour history: Tom Morris Jr., Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen and Woods (twice).

TPC Deere Run has been known to hemorrhage birdies in recent years, but even within that context, Stricker has assembled a ridiculous résumé en route to his three-peat. Since 2009, Stricker is a combined 68 under in this event, amassing 79 birdies/eagles, plus-20.5 total strokes gained-putting, and knocked down 94.3 percent of his putts inside 10 feet (182-for-193).

Zach Johnson: The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native (it's about 90 miles from TPC Deere Run) has racked up 12 straight sub-70 rounds in this event over the past three years, finishing in the top three twice. Johnson enters this week as the high man in the field in the FedEx Cup standings (sixth), fifth on tour in strokes gained-putting and 10th in scoring average. However, Johnson has struggled a bit in his past three starts following a stretch of three top-2 finishes in five weeks. After missing the cut at the St. Jude Classic, Johnson finished outside the top 40 at the U.S. Open and Travelers Championship. With a career scoring average of 69.1 at the John Deere Classic, some home cooking could be just the thing to get Johnson back on track.

Trivia answer

Question: Tiger Woods is 11-1 in playoffs in his PGA TOUR career. Which playoff did he lose, and to whom?

Answer: The 1998 Nissan Open and he was defeated by Billy Mayfair.

Jonathan Byrd: The 2007 champion here, Byrd enters this week on a streak of seven consecutive made cuts, with four of those tournaments ending in top-12 finishes. Byrd missed the cut at the John Deere last year, but has a career scoring average of 68.73 in the event. We're not yet to mid-July, but Byrd can set a personal high-water mark this week. A top-10 finish would be his sixth of the 2012 season, a career high.

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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