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USATSI

In one of the stranger turns of an already very strange year, Tiger Woods will be the defending champion at the next two tournaments he plays. This week, Woods will try to win back-to-back Zozo Championships, though this year’s edition will be played in California after the event was moved from Japan because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then in three weeks, Woods will be the reigning champion at golf’s most coveted event, the Masters.

This is broadly how Woods will finish out what has been a mostly disappointing 2020. He has one top-10 finish this calendar year and nothing else inside the top-30 anywhere. He recently missed the cut at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, just the 10th missed cut at a major championship of his professional career.

Woods is unlikely to win either of the next two tournaments he plays — he’s 33-1 to win the Zozo Championship and 25-1 to win the Masters — but the Zozo last year was the event that actually surprised me most and served as the most eye-opening reminder that this sport can flip on you in a hurry (for better or worse).

Going into last year’s Zozo, Woods had accomplished the following in the three months prior.

  • MC at the Open Championship
  • WD at The Northern Trust
  • T37 at the BMW Championship
  • Surgery on his knee

Going into that tournament at the end of October in Japan, Woods seemed barely a sideshow. He was called upon with Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Hideki Matsuyama to play in an exhibition leading into the real event. That, we all figured, was the most we would hear from him all week. Then he went out and won the actual tournament after not having played at all over the course of two months.

In some ways this was more shocking than him winning the Masters. At least going into the Masters — his other win of two in the 2019 calendar year — he had gained strokes in every round in each of his four tournaments leading into that week. That was not the case (nor anything close to it) at the 2019 Zozo Championship.

And yet, his world-class performance that resulted in win No. 82 on the PGA Tour caused reigning U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland to grasp for the right words to describe what he had just seen in playing with Woods to close out the Zozo.

“Eighty-two is just a crazy number,” said Woodland after finishing fifth, seven strokes back of Woods. “You look at the guys that have won 10 times and it’s pretty special, let alone to come out here and win 82 times. To battle through the injuries he’s dealt with, gosh, he’s young and he’s playing unbelievable. The ball-striking exhibition I’ve seen the last two days is a joke. So I don’t see him stopping anytime soon. Eighty-two’s pretty special. I think there’s a lot more in store.”

There has not been a lot more in store so far in 2020, but the point with Tiger is that you never really know when he’s going to find it for a week again. And boy when he does, you can cancel all your plans because it’s going to be an absolute show.

It’s instructive to look at the strokes-gained graph below to see how things have been trending for Tiger. The blue line is the level a top-10 player plays at, and the white line is a 50-round lagging average of how Woods has been performing. Tiger re-entered that top-10 stratosphere toward the end of 2018 and stayed there until the Memorial Tournament earlier this summer, but you can see that the overall trajectory with him is not great (by his standards). 

Data Golf

There are couple of different things that could mean, and both of them could coexist. The first — and this one is objective — is that Tiger is not currently playing at a level he has played at for most of his career. The second is that this will make us appreciate the outlier weeks more than we normally would.

He will jump up and win or at least truly contend on a Sunday again at some point in his career. We won’t see it coming (based on the graph above), and Tiger will just go out and win because the body is feeling good or he’s locked in with the driver in any given week. This is almost exactly what happened last year at the Zozo. His trajectory had already started to point downward, and then he went out and shot 64-64-66-67 and lit up an elite field. Here’s what one moron (me) wrote about him going into that week.

My expectations aren’t high between the surgery and the way he finished last season, but Tiger has made a career (and a ton of money) in blowing expectations out of the water. 

Maybe that will happen this week at Sherwood Country Club — where he won the Hero World Challenge five different times — maybe not, but it will happen again, possibly when we least expect it. 

And in some ways this version of Tiger could be even more exciting than any of the previous iterations. Because we had years of data telling us those wins and that dominance was coming, but when an old lion regains top form and it comes from the place where legacy and past excellence intermingle, well, that’s special. It would be special this week at Sherwood, and it would be unfathomably special in three weeks when the most-viewed golfer of all time tries to win his sixth green jacket in front of absolutely nobody at one of the great venues in professional sports.