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Strength of Field: Tiger vs. Phil, Part One

Jan. 18, 2007     By     Comments (2)

The debate over whether Tiger Woods plays stronger field events than Phil Mickelson is about to come to an end. Well, maybe not, but perhaps this will provide some food for thought and show who plays better in stronger field.

The Numbers GameIt's been said that Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods differ in schedule in one critical way: Tiger plays (and excels) at events with stronger fields while Phil Mickelson excels at weaker-field events.

I've compiled a list of statistics from last season which speak to this statistic. Bear in mind that one season is far from representative (particularly given Tiger's eight wins, two majors, and father's death which forced an extended break). To illuminate true patterns, an entire career (or at least, say, the most recent five years) would have to be examined. The manner in which I've compiled these numbers is assuredly a less than scientific way of determining which player is playing in the toughest events.

Compiling the Numbers
In order to make the comparison of field strength, I had to do a bit of number magic. I first had to take a look at each of the tournaments in which Tiger and Phil played. I then grabbed the World Rankings from the week prior to the tournament in order to get the rankings that were current going into each tournament. Now, this is where I had to do a bit of voodoo, and may possibly throw off my results a bit.

Since the Official World Golf Rankings archive only shows the top 200 in each PDF, I had to assign a number to those not on the list. Therefore, to show that the player was worse than the top 200, I assigned a rank of 220 to any player out of the top 200. The number 220 is nothing significant except for the fact that it is higher than 200 and will make the average go up a little bit if the player didn't make the top 200.

Once I had a ranking for each player in the field, I would add up all ranks to get an average ranking of the field. The table below shows the results for each player for each tournament played. Tournaments with an asterisk (*) are tournaments in which both Tiger and Phil played.

Tiger's Events

Tournament                      Field WGR Avg  Pos
----------                      -------------  ---
Buick Invitational*                158.22        1
Nissan Open                        127.30       WD
WGC - Accenture Match Play*         32.50       T9
Ford Championship at Doral*        140.81        1
Bay Hill Invitational              115.58      T20
THE PLAYERS Championship*          100.31      T22
Masters Tournament*                 82.84       T3
U.S. Open Championship*            131.72      CUT
Cialis Western Open*               152.72       T2
British Open Championship*         118.94        1
Buick Open                         168.83        1
PGA Championship*                   99.99        1
WGC - Bridgestone Inv.*             57.06        1
Deutsche Bank Championship         172.66        1
WGC - American Express Champ.       50.08        1

Phil's Events

Tournament                      Field WGR Avg  Pos
----------                      -------------  ---
Bob Hope Chrysler Classic          152.77        5
Buick Invitational*                158.22       T8
FBR Open                           133.51       T7
AT&T Pebble Beach Nat'l            178.33      T38
WGC - Accenture Match Play*         32.50       T9
Ford Championship @ Doral*         140.81      T12
THE PLAYERS Championship*          100.31      T14
BellSouth Classic                  167.99        1
Masters Tournament*                 82.84        1
Zurich Classic of New Orleans      175.70      T15
Wachovia Championship              139.46      T35
the Memorial Tournament             98.45       T4
Barclays Classic                   137.28      T18
U.S. Open Championship*            131.72       T2
Cialis Western Open*               152.72      T65
British Open Championship*         118.94      T22
The INTERNATIONAL                  163.31      CUT
PGA Championship*                   99.99      T16
WGC - Bridgestone Invt.*            57.06      T54

Let the Comparisons Begin
As seen in the chart, Phil and Tiger played ten events together in 2006 (four of which were the majors, of course). In those events, Tiger bettered Phil six of the ten times. The average field strength during those tournaments was 107.51. This is quite a bit lower than each player's overall averages, but we will get to that in a second. Basically, if Phil and Tiger are in the field, Tiger is going to beat Phil 60% of the time. Because of that simple fact, Tiger draws first blood. Tiger: - 1up

Looking back at the events both players participated in we can see that Tiger's average finish in these events was 4.56th (although he did miss one cut) while Phil (who also missed one cut) averaged 20.30th, quite a bit worse than Tiger. This is one of the most interesting numbers for argument because of the same fact stated above… Tiger beats Phil 60% of the time when they are in the same field. Tiger - 2 up

Tale of the Tape

Player  Overall Avg  Avg w/o WGC  No Phil/Tiger  Win  Top 10  Top 20
------  -----------  -----------  -------------  ---  ------  ------
Tiger      113.97       125.15       126.89       8     11       12
Phil       127.47       132.75       149.64       2      8       13

Taking an overall average for all events played for each player we are able see Tiger again has the edge, but it isn't a minor edge. As seen in the chart, Tiger plays a stronger field by an average of 13.5 places. But this isn't the most interesting piece of information… Tiger - 2up

Again looking through the events overall for each player, Tiger finished an average of 4.92th. That is ridiculously low. Average his finish for the year and he'd have been in the top five. Phil, on the other hand, had an average finish of 18.11th. Tiger - 3 up

If we were to take away two limited-field WGC events - the Match Play Championship and the AmEx - we find that Tiger's average field strength lead drops 7.59 places. This isn't a huge surprise since the best players in the world normally play in the WGC events. However, Phil didn't enter the match-play event, but did enter two other WGC events. So if we take those two away from Phil we find his average field strength goes up by about 10 places! Heck, even if we let Phil have his WGC events, his average field rank is still higher than Tiger's by six places! Tiger - 4 up

Now this is where this thing gets interesting. When looking at events that only Tiger or Phil played, how does the field strength look? Well, by looking at the chart we can see that Tiger has the slight advantage by about three places. Of course, four of the ten tournaments in common are the majors (which naturally attract strong fields), and a few of the others are virtually "must-play" events for the game's top players (THE PLAYERS, the Bridgestone, the Western Open). The main difference, however, is how they each finish in those events. While Tiger is playing in stronger fields (on average), he averaged 5.75th place (the 20th at Bay Hill killed him here). Phil averaged 15.38th place. Tiger Wins - 5 & 4

Let's Wrap This Up
So now that the numbers have been revealed, who's really the winner? I have above that Tiger wins 5 & 4, but it was a lot closer than I had originally thought. The deciding factor in all of this has to be Tiger's performance in the events that Phil was also entered. It's easy to say that Tiger is better than Phil - you won't find a reasonable statistic out there that will say otherwise.

This was only one year's worth of data, but this thing could go the other way if I were to go back two, three, even four years. Or Tiger's domination over Phil would show through even more. Either way, in 2006 Tiger owned Phil.

This article was written by guest author Harry Solomon, an active member of our forum.

Discussion

  1. I see two problems with this comparison and would like to point one additional thing out.

    One, choosing to weighting the average of those outside the top 200 to a lowly 220 is bad math. Look at these players, culled from players currently ranked 350-400 in the world, and I'm sure you'll recognize that many of them played in several PGA Tour events in 2006 (their current OWGR is in parentheses): Bubba Dickerson (353), Phillip Price (354), Rocco Mediate (355), Mikko Ilonen (357), John Huston (365), Bob May (366), Ian Leggatt (369), Nick Price (371), Brent Geiberger (372), Alex Cejka (388), Chris Riley (390), David Duval (391), Andrew Coltart (394).

    Clearly 220 is a weak number that likely only serves to "scrunch up" (and lower) the average a little. Throw in the occasional 500th ranked player and the average increase quite a bit. Perhaps accurate numbers would have closed the gap between Phil and Tiger - but I doubt it. I think accurate OWGR rankings would have increased Tiger's lead.

    Second, I find that including the strength of all but the top 20 players or so a fruitless and meaningless consideration altogether. How often is Tiger worried about the guy ranked #388th in the world? Not often. True "stronger-field" events have a healthy number of top-tier players. "EIght of the world's top ten" or so on. I would be interested to see what the average of the top 20 ranked players in the world are for the events in which Tiger and Phil play.

    Third, a 13.5-point average, weighted across the entire field, is a significant leap. Imagine an event with players ranked 1-100 and another event with players ranked 11-110. The average difference is only 10 places, but which field is easier? The field with every top ten player or no top ten players? I view a 13.5-point average as quite significant.

    Incidentally, looking at the average of their three weakest field events is interesting as well. Tiger played in the Buick Invitational (158.22), the Buick Open (168.83), and the Deutsche Bank Championship (172.66). His average for those is 166.57 and he won all three (and two he plays in partly because he's sponsored by Buick). Phil played in the AT&T Pebble Beach Nat'l (178.33), the BellSouth Classic (167.99), and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans (175.70) for an average of 174.01.

  1. [... It's been said that Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods differ in schedule in one critical way: Tiger plays (and excels) at events with stronger fields while Phil Mickelson excels at ...]

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