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Why Tiger Won’t Catch Jack

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Predicting that Tiger Woods can win five more majors assumes that nothing has significantly degraded the freakish combination required for extreme accomplishment. That assumption is untenable.

I know, I know: This essay guarantees that Tiger Woods will win the PGA Championship in a few weeks and win all four major golf championships next year. But even if he does, he shouldn’t have, in theory, which is the most important thing. Here’s why:

One of the fascinating byproducts of the research for my book Human Accomplishment was the light that golf sheds on the nature of extreme accomplishment. Unlike greatness in science, literature, music, or art, greatness in golf has an objective measure: the number of wins in major championships. But golf also has many objective measures of component skills—greens hit in regulation, putts per round, driving distance, etc., all of which are tracked by the PGA for every shot that a player makes.

The component skills form almost perfect normal distributions—bell curves, if you prefer. Here, for example, is the distribution of putts per round among pro golfers:

Murray 7.21.10 A

The same is true of all the component measures. Furthermore, it is not the case that a Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods is at the top on several of these component skills. The great champions do well on all of them, but not necessarily the best or even close to the best. Even in Nicklaus’s prime, his colleagues considered his short game pedestrian and gave Lee Trevino the nod as the genius shot-maker of his generation. But not one of them doubted that Nicklaus was the greatest golfer among them, because he could put it all together—especially on Sunday afternoon with everything on the line.

And so when it comes to the number of major victories, there is no bell curve. Instead, the graph looks like this even when the sample is limited to golfers who won at least one major—a severe constraint indeed. The figure comes from Human Accomplishment. It is based on golfers who had completed their careers by 2001, so it omits Woods.

Murray 7.21.10 B

More than half of all the golfers who won a major had won just one. Besides Nicklaus, only14 percent had won more than three. Woods has four to go to catch Nicklaus and five to pass him.

The combination of qualities that enabled Nicklaus to win 18 majors and has enabled Woods to win 14 is freakish. To take just one example, Woods has an astonishing record of sinking difficult putts at critical moments, including on the final hole with victory at stake. That’s not just a matter of reading the greens accurately and having a good putting stroke. It’s a product of a mental state that the rest of us can barely imagine, the product of a Chinese puzzle of psychological strengths—including, one sometimes suspects, telekinesis.

The role of those psychological strengths is why so much of the commentary about Woods’s play since he returned is beside the point. The commentators focus on whether his component skills are returning to their pre-scandal levels. He can return to precisely the same place on the bell curves of the component skills that he occupied before the meltdown in his personal life, but the package will not be the same. Tiger Woods has experienced a sort of concussion to that Chinese puzzle of psychological strengths, and there must be some residual damage that won’t ever go away.

The long-term effects can be quite small. When we are talking about the extremes of human accomplishment, there is no wiggle room. The package changed at all is no longer at the one-in-many-millions extreme that is required. Woods will still be a sensational golfer, winning a lot of tournaments and probably a few more majors. But to predict that Woods can win five majors between now and the end of his career—something that only 17 other golfers have done in their entire careers—assumes that nothing in the last year has significantly degraded the freakish combination required for extreme accomplishment. I find that assumption untenable.

Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Murray recently commented on “The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism,” “Why Charter Schools Fail the Test,” and “Intelligence and College.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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