Commentary

Even Woods' future results are totally unpredictable

Originally Published: February 4, 2008
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

Who says that Tiger Woods guy always gets it done down the stretch? Making the turn during the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic on Sunday, Woods surmised that he needed to shoot a 7-under 30 on the back nine in order to force a playoff. Instead, he simply carded a 31 coming in -- 1 shot clear of the field, but 1 shot off his desired score.

Ha. Shows how much he knows.

Of course, that prediction was about the only thing Tiger did wrong for the second week in a row. The victory fueled even more speculation that Woods could be headed toward a historic season. Based on a few other recent events, it's led the Weekly 18 to begin with an idea about how unpredictably predictable his season could be. Doesn't make sense? Well, just keep reading.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Paul Childs/Icon SMIWoods is now 100-under-par in his last five starts.

1. Predicting the unpredictable?
Two prohibitive favorites, Phil Mickelson and the New England Patriots, were defeated in Arizona on Sunday. Both incidents speak to the unpredictability of sporting events, reminding us once again why competitions aren't played on paper and trophies aren't handed out beforehand.

Of course, earlier on the same day, the closest we have to a sure thing in sports -- Tiger Woods -- accomplished what he always seems to accomplish, coming from behind to clinch the title in Dubai.

In the fallout of the day's big events, two things struck us as notable when considering Woods' past, present and future performances. First, in a realm that is utterly capricious, Woods' propensity for winning continues to amaze. He has transformed unpredictable events into predictable conclusions, surfacing atop the leaderboard so often that it's now become a surprise only when he doesn't win a tournament.

Second, though, is a reminder that when dealing with incalculable occurrences, there is no such thing as a guarantee. Let's face it: Since Woods won the 1997 Masters at age 21, he has been the best bet to claim a title every single time he's competed. And still, Woods' 28.7 winning percentage in PGA Tour events shows that he loses more often than he wins.

There is plenty of talk right now about golf's Grand Slam, with Woods himself saying that winning all four majors in this calendar year is "easily within reason." But let's not forget how completely unpredictable such events can be. We need only look at the first three winners of last year's majors -- Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera and Padraig Harrington -- for a reminder of this notion.

In fact, it can be argued that, should Woods complete his stated goal this season, it would be one of the more unexpected conclusions in sports in quite a while. That's not to say it can't happen. Hey, if Lefty and the Pats can both lose on the same day, then anything can happen, right?

2. Century club
This week's graphic to show just how dominant Woods has been lately? Another simple yet unbelievable one:

Tiger Woods, past five tournaments
Tournament Strokes under par Result
Dubai Desert Classic 14 Win
Buick Invitational 19 Win
Target World Challenge
(unofficial event)
22 Win
Tour Championship 23 Win
BMW Championship 22 Win

Count 'em up and you'll find that Woods is exactly 100 strokes under par in his past five events. All wins, of course.

3. Value of the Euro
Technically, Woods now owns 34 career European Tour victories … despite never having been an official member of the tour. That number places him third on the all-time list, behind Seve Ballesteros (50 wins) and Bernhard Langer (42), but if it seems a bit elevated, here's why: Majors and WGC events count as official events on both the PGA and Euro tours. Woods owns 13 major victories and 13 more in WGCs. Add in his eight wins at "regular" European Tour events and it explains how Woods has reached such a mark.

4. Ranked and filed
With his victory, Woods added 0.88 average points to his Official World Golf Ranking total. Meanwhile, Mickelson, who is No. 2 on the list, tallied 0.65 average points for his playoff loss. That means Woods now owns a 20.43-9.18 lead, doubling up on the next-highest ranked player for the 78th straight week. The streak dates back to the week of Aug. 6, 2006, when Mickelson trailed, 18.98-9.69, after winning the PGA Championship.

5. Wild … and crazy
Want one more way of measuring Woods' success? The Wild Principle, an idea developed by ESPN.com reader Levi Wild of Dallas, which was introduced to the world through a recent blog entry. The idea is simple: If Woods (or any other player) wins by 2, he gets a plus-2 for that tournament. If he loses by two, he gets a minus-2. In 2007, Woods was minus-20 overall for the season. By comparison, Mickelson and K.J. Choi were minus-200 and minus-224, respectively. Expect the Wild Principle to receive a few tweaks -- numbers based on average per tournament rather than overall figures and a more discerning eye toward how missed cuts should be received -- but get used to it, because we'll be employing the simple yet effective tool quite often in this column.

6. Thursday driver
Perhaps Woods should break his driver more often. On the first tee of Wednesday's practice round, he cracked the face of the club he's been using for the past year and had to employ a second-stringer the next day. "This driver, it's supposed to be the same, but it spins more," he said. "I had a hard time keeping it down." Uh, sure you did. In the opening round, Woods tied for the lead in driving accuracy (12 of 14 fairways) and was second in driving distance at 306 yards per drive. For the week, he was 39th in driving accuracy (55.4 percent) and second in distance (301 yards).

7. Bogey man
More than a year ago, Ernie Els stated his desire to unseat Woods as the world's top-ranked player -- part of a personal three-year plan. "If you look at where he is at the top of the rankings, it's a big lead, so no one is going to get near him anytime soon," Els said in December 2006. "I've got to give myself a three-year stretch to try to approach him and I really believe I can do it." Though Els is currently ranked fourth in the world, he's still a far cry from Woods, proving so once again during the final round on Sunday. Staked to a 1-stroke 54-hole lead (4 strokes over Tiger), Els shot a respectable 1-under 71, but faltered mightily down the stretch. He made three bogeys on the back nine, including at Nos. 11 and 12, on which Els missed par putts of inside 5 feet each time. "Those two putts really cost me the tournament in the end, yeah, because I played really solid coming in," Els said. Had he made each of those, the Big Easy would have forced a playoff with Woods, even with a closing bogey at the par-5 final hole.

8. Poul quotes
Speaking of potential competitors to Woods' throne atop the rankings, Ian Poulter made noise last week when he told Golf World (U.K.) magazine: "I don't rate anyone else. Don't get me wrong, I really respect every professional golfer, but I know I haven't played to my full potential and when that happens, it will be just me and Tiger."

One day after the story caused worldwide headlines, Poulter recanted, saying he was misquoted by the mag.

    "I have had it on my mind since last night. You put the Internet on and it's THE [golf] story. The story is also I couldn't get my word [of reply] in before everyone else. I have to try and explain the situation of how it was actually said, as opposed to how it has been written. … The question was asked, where do I see myself and could I get to No. 1 in the world. My answer to that question was, 'As long as Tiger Woods is playing golf, I can't get to No. 1 in the world and nor can many other players. And quite frankly, if I do fulfill my potential, I do believe the gap between me and second is achievable, so therefore I do have a chance of getting second in the world if I work hard and fulfill my potential.' … Therefore, the comment was, 'It would be a dream to sit back one day and look at the world rankings and see it say, Tiger Woods and then me.' … Well, if you shorten that phrase down, 'Tiger Woods and then me,' you get what you've got in the paper today, or the magazine."

Reached by the Weekly 18 via e-mail, Golf World's editor, Chris Jones, only offered the official statement proffered to the media: "Ian's manager is happy with the interview as it appeared in the March issue of Golf World magazine, where Ian's comments can be seen in the full context they were intended. People should read the full interview, rather than the juicy sound bites picked up by the British media."

Sounds like a major game of he said/he said, one that may take some time to get sorted out. At least one man didn't care to hear the explanation. Asked to comment on the gap between him and Mickelson in the World Ranking following his victory, Woods deadpanned, "I thought Poulter was No. 2." Ouch.

9. Drink it in
Though Woods tied Arnold Palmer's PGA Tour victory total at the Buick Invitational, Arnie can still claim one thing over Tiger: At least he has a drink named in his honor. Of course, it won't take long before Woods surpasses Palmer in this category, either. Gatorade Tiger will debut in March, featuring three different flavors: Red Drive (cherry blend), Cool Fusion (citrus blend) and Quiet Storm (grape blend). In case you haven't needed a 19th hole refreshment in a while, the Arnold Palmer is a blend of lemonade and iced tea, the favorite drink of the golfing legend.

10. Caddie corner
There were rumors last year about Woods' caddie, Steve Williams, hanging up his sneakers, but they were proven to be unfounded. At the time, the name that was circulating as a replacement was Billy Foster, then Darren Clarke's looper, who had stepped in to aid Tiger at the 2005 Presidents Cup when Williams' son was born. Well, the story was half right; Foster was switching bags to another top player, but it wasn't Woods. He is now with Sergio Garcia, who has yet to play on the PGA Tour this season but is ranked 39th on the European Tour's Order of Merit following a T-46 finish in Dubai.

11. Kaymer time
Haven't heard the name Martin Kaymer yet? Well, time to get familiar with his game. With a birdie-birdie-eagle finish in Dubai, Kaymer (rhymes with Charlie Rymer) passed Els to finish solo second just two weeks after winning the Abu Dhabi Championship. It's part of a momentous climb for the 23-year-old German who is now No. 21 on the Official World Golf Ranking -- better than such players as Stewart Cink, Paul Casey and Retief Goosen -- especially considering he's never once competed in a U.S.-based event. That should change later this month, if he chooses to play in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, for which he is already qualified.

12. How the West was won
Loved seeing Lee Westwood using one of the oldest tricks in the book during Thursday's opening round in Dubai. His tee shot on the par-5 final hole wound up in a gnarly lie in the first cut. Though he had less than 200 yards to the middle of the green, it would have taken an act of brilliance to carve a high 3- or 4-iron into the green. So Westy used his head. He took out a 3-wood -- certainly too much club for that situation -- and belted one into the corporate hospitality tents beyond the putting surface. The ball bounded back toward the fringe, meaning he didn't even need the free drop, and from there Westwood got up and down for birdie to close out his round of 69.

13. Yo, Holmes
How did J.B. Holmes win the FBR Open this past week? With his usual power game, of course, though on measured holes he averaged "only" 302.5 yards off the tee -- ranking 13th in the field. But it was Holmes' putter that really helped him to his second career victory. Ranked 121st and 158th in putting average during his first two seasons, he took a mere 1.608 putts per greens in reg at the FBR, good for second in the field. That doesn't even include the 8-footer on the first extra hole against Mickelson to seal the win, Holmes' 22nd birdie of the week in 73 holes.

14. Holmes-ing in
The U.S. Ryder Cup team is in a state of flux. No, not because the team hasn't won since 1999 -- although, sure, that could have something to do with it. But the new points system works on a one-year basis (two years for majors) -- as opposed to two, the format used in the past -- giving the list a high amount of volatility each week. Case in point: While Woods, Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson and Steve Stricker remain the top four, Holmes crept into the No. 5 position -- up from 74th last week -- following his win on Sunday. D.J. Trahan, another '07 champ, checks in at No. 6, while Mickelson moved from 37th to ninth with his runner-up finish.

15. Two is a pattern?
After starting his career with wins in seven of his first eight PGA Tour playoffs, Mickelson has now lost two straight. The loss to Holmes was preceded by last year's Nissan Open defeat at the hands of Charles Howell III. His other playoff loss came to Jesper Parnevik at the Byron Nelson in 2000.

16. Playing in the 'band
Was that John McEnroe circa 1979 playing in the FBR Open? Nope, just Ryan Moore, who eschewed his usual military-style Ping cap in favor of having his curly locks sprouting through a headband. Unfortunately for the former U.S. Amateur champ, he didn't have the same success as Johnny Mac during his U.S. Open-winning season. Moore shot 75-69 to miss the cut.

17. Cutting back
Fear not, Tim Clark fans. Though it seemed like a bad sign that the Scottsdale, Ariz., native wasn't entered in his hometown event, it wasn't due to the neck injury which hampered his 2007 season. Nope, there was a much simpler explanation. "I never seem to play well at Phoenix," Clark told us in a phone conversation last week. "For some reason, I've never really played the course well. I'm playing the next three weeks, though." Clark reports that he's feeling much better and actually learned something during his somewhat abbreviated season, during which he had three runner-up results in just 19 starts. Though he averaged more than 24 appearances per season from 2002 to 2006, Clark is planning to compete in only 21-23 tournaments this year in order to remain fresh.

18. Quote of the week
"Is he? No!"
-- Sergio Garcia, sarcastically responding to a reporter when told Woods was atop the Dubai leaderboard on Thursday.

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.

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