How do you explain the existence of golfer Tiger Woods? He is the leading moneywinner on the PGA Tour, the winner of seven consecutive PGA events, the winner of his third consecutive Buick Invitational tournament, at 31 is well on his way to passing Jack Nicklaus for career major tournaments won, and on and on.
As the late Stephen J. Gould pointed out in his book Full House, one of the hallmarks of a human-centered dynamic system over time is the spread of excellence. In other words, participants in the activity — he used baseball as his example — get better with the result being a decrease in standard deviation and an increase in the overall level of play. That is how Gould explained the disappearance of Ted Williams-like 0.400 hitters in baseball: It is an example of overall improvement, not of some late lamented baseball period with better hitters.
Fair enough, but why should golf be different? In other words, shouldn’t the dominance records set in the days of yore (read: days of high standard deviation) be unassailable, like Byron Nelson’s 1945 mark of 11 consecutive wins?
Interestingly, golf is a funny case. If you look back at average scores for professional golfers over the last 25 years you find that it hasn’t changed much, despite reputedly better equipment, with 70.5 (give or take 0.03 or so) having been the scoring norm on 18 holes for more than 15 years. At the same time, the standard deviation in scoring has gone nowhere, sitting at 0.54 in 2006, which is pretty much where it was in 1980, more than 25 years ago.
So, if scoring isn’t improving and standard deviations aren’t tightening, what does that mean? You could reasonably argue that it means pro golfers aren’t really improving, which is possible, even if it feels unlikely if you compare the state of play today to that of 50 years ago. (Note: I’ll concede straight away that we amateurs aren’t getting any better, but that’s a different issue). Pros today hit it longer, have more shots in their repertoire, and generally do things that pros of fifty years ago couldn’t imagine. Then again, golf is a strange sport, one designed, it often seems, just to piss participants off.
You might also argue that courses have gotten longer and more difficult, mitigating new equipment’s advantages and making a pro’s 70.5 today very different from a 70.5 in 1980. Fair enough, and I put considerable credence in that argument, although I’m still not convinced tricked-up and Tiger-proof courses are enough to explain the non-improvement in golf demonstrated in frozen deviations.
Anyway, I got to thinking about all of this last weekend when I saw Tiger win, and saw how tennis player Roger Federer wrecking-balled his way through the Australian Open, demolishing Andy Roddick along the way. That match was otherworldly, with Federer playing like some descending racket-wielding angel, not like someone who knew that the spread of excellence in professional sports meant that outrageously dominant people like him should not really, you know, exist.
But Federer exists, and so does Woods, as does the latter’s staggering 25% career win ratio. Compare that figure to the same for his counterparts, and you see Phil Mickelson with a career 8.5% mark, former #1 Vijay Singh at 8.4%, and so on. Tiger is so far out ahead in win rate as to be freakish,, although it still puts a mere 1-in-14,000 likelihood on his current winning streak. (Mind you, the likelihood is an even more remote 1-in-33-million for Phil and Vijay.)
One way of alibiing Woods, Federer, and even bicyclist Lance Armstrong for that matter (he won seven straight Tour de France in an age when cycling was supposed to be post-patron), is to simply say that reduced deviation in performance doesn’t mean no deviation, and it also means that when you find someone who is a real outlier he or she stands out even more than usual.
Other explanations? I’m open to ideas, but I still find it fascinating how a Woods, a Federer, or an Armstrong emerge and is distinctly superior in an age of known training methods and when professional scientific training rules. Excellence continues to spread through the “full house” of diversity that Gould described, but it seemingly leaves room for some real performance surprises.
- Better tees, irons, drivers, but golf scores stagnate (IHT May 25 2005)
- Federer finds new ways to torment Roddick (NY Times Jan 26 2007)
- Woods, Federer dominate in unheard of ways (IHT Jan 29 2007)
- Full House, by Stephen Gould
[Update] A few people are misconstruing at least part of my argument. In that part it’s not about whether Tiger (or Federer) is an outlier, because of course he is. The real issue is the puzzling fixity in the standard deviation of professional golfers’ scores over the last few decades. Why aren’t pro golfers getting better? Amateurs I understand, and their poor performance is well documented, but the non-improvement among pros is something else.