Commentary

Numbers prove Nelson is still King of the Wild

Updated: March 27, 2008, 10:29 AM ET
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

Tiger Woods' abbreviated march toward the PGA Tour's consecutive victory mark stalled at five this week -- less than halfway to Byron Nelson's all-time record of 11 that was established in 1945. The mere mention of a comparison between the two streaks has produced two separate schools of thought on which is the more impressive of the two.

The Nelson School: Unlike Tiger, Byron teed it up nearly every single week and didn't have the luxury of traveling in his own personal Gulfstream.

The Woods School: Unlike Byron, Tiger teed it up against the world's best players and didn't take part in lower-tier events.

Before we move on, let's clear up two long-standing myths about Nelson's record-breaking season. First, the fact that all his stiffest competition was away "fighting for their country" is a misnomer. In fact, Nelson's main rival that year happened to be a guy named Sam Snead, and Ben Hogan returned from service duties in August. Not exactly a pair of nobodies.

And secondly, Nelson wasn't playing the Bushwood member-guest every week. Sure, many of the tournaments from that 1945 campaign are now defunct, but at the time they were all mainstays of the professional tour.

So, just how good was Nelson's streak? And how can we compare his 18-win season to anything Woods has accomplished?

I submit, once again, the Wild Principle. Regular readers of ESPN.com's golf coverage will remember this device, developed by one of their own, Levi Wild of Dallas. The statistic measures not just a player's winning percentage but his dominance and consistency over a given period of time -- all tabulated into one nifty number that serves as the bottom line.

Here's how it works:

• For every tournament a player wins, add the margin of victory over the runner-up finisher. (Playoff wins are given a +1.)

• For every tournament a player does not win, subtract his total strokes from that of the winner.

• For every tournament in which a player misses the cut, double his two-round total, then subtract from the doubled total of the leader through two rounds. (Match play events are not considered.)

• Totals are then divided by the number of events during said period to give an adjusted number.

Let's start with an easy one. So far this season, Woods has competed in three stroke-play events on the PGA Tour, winning the Buick Invitational by eight (+8), the Arnold Palmer Invitational by one (+1) and losing the CA Championship by two (-2). Add 'em up and Tiger is a +7 overall for a Wild average of +2.33 per tournament.

How does that compare with the best numbers on tour since Woods turned pro? Here are the top performers, using the Wild Principle, from 1997-2007. Not surprisingly, Tiger owns nine of the best 11 seasons:

Wild Principle leaders, 1997-2007
Year Player Starts Wild number Wild average
1997 Tiger Woods 21 -175 -8.33
1998 Mark O'Meara 19 -208 -10.95
1999 Tiger Woods 19 -64 -3.37
2000 Tiger Woods 19 +6 +0.32
2001 Tiger Woods 19 -103 -5.42
2002 Tiger Woods 17 -46 -2.71
2003 Tiger Woods 17 -78 -4.59
2004 Vijay Singh 28 -150 -5.36
2005 Tiger Woods 20 -104 -5.20
2006 Tiger Woods 14 -55 -3.93
2007 Tiger Woods 15 -20 -1.33

If we believe everything the Wild Principle shows us, there are a few things we can deduce from these statistics:

• Woods' most dominant season was 2000, when he finished in positive numbers for the only time in his career. In layman's terms, this means that the total number of strokes by which he won was greater than the total number of strokes by which he was defeated. (If anything, this number simply gives some validity to the Wild Principle, as most experts would contend that 2000 was his most dominant campaign anyway.)

• Woods has improved his performance in each of the past three seasons. Interesting one here, considering he won six events in '05, eight in '06 and seven in '07. The biggest difference? He missed two cuts in '05, one in '06 and none in '07. That consistency is rewarded in this formula.

• How much better is Woods than his competitors? For comparison's sake, let's also look at Phil Mickelson's 2007 season, when he was without a doubt the second-best player on tour. He competed in 20 stroke-play events (winning three times), compiling a total Wild number of -237 for an average of -11.85 per event.

• If Woods continues his current torrid pace, he'll enjoy the best statistical season of his career. Sure, three appearances is hardly a strong sampling and we all know Tiger bases his success more on major victories than anything else, but the numbers don't lie. His current Wild average of +2.33 is monumentally better than the +0.32 of 2000.

Now let's get back to Nelson. He played in 31 total events during the 1945 season. Two of them -- the Montreal tournament and the Spring Lake pro-member -- were unofficial and therefore do not count toward his total (much like last year's Target World Challenge victory does not count toward Woods' total, either). Two others -- the Miami International Four Ball and the PGA Championship -- were match play format and also do not count (much like this year's Accenture Match Play Championship victory does not count for Woods).

That leaves 27 official stroke-play events, of which Nelson won 15. His overall Wild number for these tournaments is -- you ready for this? -- +30, leaving his Wild average at an impressive +1.11.

Though it's impossible to tabulate every number from every season, we also ran the numbers for Jack Nicklaus' 1972 campaign when he won seven of 19 starts, added three runner-up finishes and didn't miss a cut -- arguably the best season of his distinguished career. Jack's final numbers: -56 overall and a -2.95 Wild average, which ranks behind Nelson's '45 season and Woods' three best years using this formula.

So, what have we learned? For now, Lord Byron reigns as King of the Wild. But if Woods continues playing what he calls the best golf of his career, we may see a challenger to the throne by the end of 2008.

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.