Life Is Unpredictable

“What are your odds calculation that Tiger will (or will not) beat Jack Nicklaus’ record of major wins?”

I received the comment/question above over the weekend. It was in response to my post from April on “Probability, Golf, Wagers.” Just to clarify, Nicklaus won 18 professional majors. Tiger has won 14 and needs four more to tie the record and five more to break the record.

For a variety of reasons Tiger has not won a major since the 2008 US Open. He won his first major in the 1997 Masters. Between the 1997 Masters and 2008 US Open Tiger won something like 14 of the 46 majors in which he competed, about 30% wins from starts.

But he has not won a major since the 2008 US Open and has had some personal problems (to put it mildly) in the interim, leading many people to speculate that Tiger is now “washed up,” that he will never be the same again. He has also been coping with assorted injuries that have forced him to miss many of the majors since the 2008 US Open.

That is the critical question: Will Tiger regain his best form???? If he does regain his best form and goes back to his old ways of winning at least one of the four majors every year, he could conceivably win ten or more majors in the future.

Some people are decidedly negative about this question. Some people say that Tiger will never win another major period. I do not go nearly that far. I think he will win some more majors, but how many?????

On the other hand, I do not think that Tiger will get back to his previous level of winning about 30% of the majors in which he competes. He is simply not that dominant anymore. He used to win majors by psychologically intimidating the opposition. Tiger does not intimidate anyone anymore. No one is afraid of him anymore. A whole new generation of younger players has come along. That generation respects Tiger, but they are not afraid to go toe to toe with him.

The first step to answering the question posed then is to estimate what percentage of future majors Tiger will win. Tiger did look good Sunday in annihilating Aaron Baddeley in his singles match in the President’s Cup. But Tiger’s overall record in that President’s Cup was 2-3, not exactly dominating.

I think Tiger is still capable of winning about 10% of the future majors in which he plays, at least for the next ten years or so. I say “at least for the next ten years or so” because Tiger turns 36 in December. He is not exactly a spring chicken anymore. Most professional golfers remain competitive well into their 40s, but when they reach the age of 50, it is time to turn to the Champions (senior) Tour.

Nicklaus won his 18th and final major, the 1986 Masters, at the age of 46 and was pretty much considered a “has been” when he did so. I could be wrong, but I believe that the oldest winner of a professional golf major was Julius Boros at age 49. No one has won a professional golf major beyond the age of 50.

Tom Watson almost pulled it off in the 2009 British Open. He led all the way at the age of 59 and then lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink. Watson is the exception that proves the rule.

When Tiger was winning majors at a 30% rate, he used a lot of psychological intimidation on his opposition. That does not work anymore for the simple reason that the opposition is not afraid of Tiger anymore. A whole new generation of golfers has come along since then. That generation respects Tiger but does not fear him and is not afraid to go toe to toe with him.

So if Tiger competes in all four majors for the next ten years or so and wins 10% of them, he wins four more majors. He ties the record but does not break it. That is my best estimate of what is likely to happen.

In terms of probability, there are three possible results. I say there is about a 40% probability that Tiger DOES break the record, about a 40% probability that he does NOT break the record, and a 20% probability that he ties the record but does not break it.

In terms of a wager, Tiger should be even odds to break the record, even odds NOT to break the record, and if he ties the record but does not break it, then the bet is a push. No one wins. That is the most fair way to structure a wager (as opposed to the Las Vegas way).

From a practical point of view, you probably need to impose some sort of time limit on the wager. Otherwise, the wager would not terminate until Tiger dies or retires from competitive golf. I suggest that the appropriate time limit should be when Tigers turns 50. That would take it through the 2025 PGA.

Of course this is all based on estimates, and estimates can be way off. Tiger could conceivably return to his old form of winning at least one major every year. He could win a dozen more majors and obliterate the record.

On the other hand, he might not even be able to compete in 40 more majors due to injuries or other problems. He could die in an airplane mishap (a la Payne Stewart). The only predictable thing about life is its unpredictability.

If I had to take part in this wager, I would try to find a Tiger fan (if there ARE any of them out there anymore) and goad that person into giving me favorable odds. Always try to take advantage of the fanaticism of others and keep the odds on YOUR side.

But I repeat that all this is based on estimates, and estimates can be way off. Life is unpredictable. Two years ago Tiger was still THE most popular professional athlete, perhaps of all time. Then that changed overnight. About all I can safely say is that I think Tiger’s continued pursuit of this record will be very interesting to watch over the next ten years or so. The issue is still very much in doubt.

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