The Best “Golfer-Year”

Those who do not follow golf closely may wonder what a “golfer-year” is. Those who do follow golf closely know it’s a term I have just imagined into being. In my attempt to define the greatest golfer of all time, I struggled with how to compare players. Rather than count the career-long accolades won by the game’s biggest stars, I wanted to find who was playing golf at the highest level for any one season. In doing so, I defined the golfer-year – a single year of golf for a single player. I did not care that Jack Nicklaus won a record 18 majors over his career, but only that he had an incredible run in 1975.

The premise of my approach was simple – if every golfer-year played in 10,000 tournaments against every other golfer-year, who would win the most? Who would have the most top 5 finishes? By any reasonable metric the answer is clear and unsurprising. In 2000, Tiger Woods was uniquely dominant. The Tiger Woods-2000 golfer-year placed first 43 times in 10,000 simulations, beating out every other golfer-year by a large margin (including many other remarkable performances by Woods).

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Figure 1: First place finishes for the top ten placing golfer-years

Rounding out the top ten finishers are three additional Tiger Woods golfer-years (orange), five by Jack Nicklaus (blue), and one by Tom Watson (red). Nobody will be surprised by seeing Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus at the top of this list, but the degree of their success is astonishing. Figure 2 shows the count of Top 5 finishes in 10,000 simulated tournaments, with similar results.

Figure 2: Top 5 finishes for the top eleven placing golfer-years (two tied for 10th)
Figure 2: Top 5 finishes for the top eleven placing golfer-years (two tied for 10th)

It is noteworthy that while the composition of the players is largely the same for top place and top 5 finishes, the years change for several of the golfer-years. Tom Watson is represented in 1977 instead of 1979 and several new years appear for Tiger Woods. However, the story is the same. Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus were the greatest golfers ever and it’s not close. More, Tiger Woods in 2000 was untouchable.


Okay, but how was this done?

Comparing athletes across generations is notoriously difficult. I made no attempt to adjust for it here, believing that each golfer was a product of his own era. The fact that one golfer from the 1970s and one from the 2000s top my list shows that neither extreme was overwhelmingly disadvantaged. My data came from and ranged from 1970 to 2009, which unfortunately does not encompass Jack Nicklaus’s original surge to prominence.

Every finish was recorded for each golfer-year to build a distribution that could be sampled from. For example, Tiger Woods-2002 played in 17 tournaments. He finished in the top 0.9%, 8.1%, 22.9%, 3.4%, 0.7%, etc. for each tournament. I used a kernel estimation of the distribution of percentiles to simulate how he would be expected to place in 10,000 tournaments. Shown in Figure 3, it illustrates how Woods rarely placed outside the top 10% in a tournament, with his most likely finish being around the top 1-2%.

Figure 3: Kernel estimate for Tiger Woods-2002 golfer-year
Figure 3: Kernel estimate for Tiger Woods-2002 golfer-year

After repeating the same process for all golfer-years that competed in at least 10 tournaments, the golfer-years were ranked by their predicted percentile for each of the 10,000 simulated tournaments. The number of top finishes and top five finishes for each golfer-year were then counted from these rankings.

It does not take analytics to know that Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus were golf’s best players, or that 2000 was a dominant year for Woods. But analytics provides a means to quantify that dominance, and to appreciate its magnitude. It also confirms a bias I’ve had since childhood, while watching Tiger Woods play golf – that no one, not even Jack, could beat him at his best.

Columnist: Daniel Brannock