Who Wins a Major First: Tiger or Phil?

Note: You were probably confused when you saw my name in the Masters Predictions post a few weeks ago, and rightfully so. Although I haven’t appeared on the podcast, I’ll be writing for the site and am looking forward to putting out content for you guys. I decided to keep it broad with the first post, but if you guys are looking for a breakdown of the Valero Texas Open and more make sure to give this week’s podcast a listen!

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As someone born in 1994, the majority of my golf viewing life has been consumed by Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Obviously Tiger has been the more dominant figure, and there is no doubt the casual golf fan tunes in more when Tiger is relevant. However, I’ve always fancied myself a Phil guy. Phil is a fierce competitor, loves taking risks, and is a well-documented gambler, all things I can get behind. That doesn’t mean I hate Tiger, per say, because it’s always exciting when he’s in the mix, but I’ll always ride or die with Phil.

So now that Tiger is “back” and both competed in the Masters (both finished in the 30s), I wanted to take a look at how these guys stack up and determine who I think next wins a major. Tiger hasn’t won since the gutsy one-legged performance at Torrey Pines in 2008, and Phil hasn’t won since he charged on the final day to capture the Claret Jug in 2013.

Age:

Both guys are getting up there, and with the great crop of young golfers currently, who’s to say one of them even gets another major? But that’s not why you called. Phil is 47, Tiger is 42. That’s not quite the age where you have to hope to catch lightning in a bottle to win a major, but they’re both getting close, especially Phil, since no one older than 48 has won a major. Let’s look at some of the all-time greats who won majors past the age of 40:

  • Jack Nicklaus: Won the Masters at 46
  • Phil Mickelson: Won The Open at 43
  • Gary Player: Won the Masters at 42
  • Sam Snead: Won the Masters at 41

Other notables: Ben Hogan completed the Triple Crown at the age of 40. Arnold Palmer won the PGA at 40. Tom Watson almost won The Open at the age of 59 (there’s our lightning in a bottle example).

I think this category is a wash. Phil has shown he can do it at an advanced age, and if anything, I think the fact he knows he’s nearing the end in terms of legitimately competing pushes him that much more, so the fact Tiger is 5 years younger doesn’t hold that much sway.

Also when you look at the list of names above, you see a trend that I think keeps both these guys in the conversation for awhile: The Masters.

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The Masters

No other tournament requires course knowledge and experience more than the Masters. That’s why you’ve seen older guys go out and win this major. We’ll start with a little analysis on Tiger. Tiger loves the Masters. I mean who doesn’t, but he really loves Augusta. Out of the 21 times he’s competed, he’s finished in the top-10 13 times (62%), and of those 13 he’s finished top-5 11 times (52%), and of course he’s won the green jacket 4 times, the last time being in 2005 (19%). Even after the injury and controversy plagued years of 2008 and 2009, he finished tied for 4th at the Masters in 2010. He posted the same finishes in 2011 and 2013, but the 2010 performance was remarkable because of the fact he had taken a leave from the game after the scandal of his marital infidelities came to light in 2009. This means he was just getting used to swinging a golf club again, and he still came out and posted a T4. That’s why so many people thought he could have possibly come out and won a few weeks ago, although I thought that was a bit premature.

You know who else had a remarkable 2010 performance at Augusta National? Phil fucking Mickelson — because he won the whole damn thing. Out of his 26 appearances at the Masters, Phil has 15 top-10s (57%), 11 of those being top-5s (42%), and 3 green jackets to his name (12%). Phil has been a little erratic in recent years, with his best finish recently in 2015 (T2) being sandwiched by missed cuts in ’14 and ’16. While it’s no cheating scandal, Phil did have the Wall Street Journal report come out in 2014 about his “alleged” insider trading tendencies, which flared up again in 2016, so maybe there’s some correlation with the missed cuts.

Simply looking back on these two guys’ careers just at Augusta is one reason why I love golf and the competition these two have always had. From 2001-2006, either Tiger or Phil won the Masters in each year besides 2003. I’m not going to get into the gory details, but that alone is why this question of who will win next is interesting to me. Because these two were 1 and 2 in my eyes for a majority of my life, then they both relatively fell off the table (if you compare their respective performances in the 00s to the 10s), and now we’re seeing if either of them can win another major. In terms of who I think can capture another green jacket first, I would have to go with Tiger.

Now those percentages might help the Tiger argument, but obviously we’re looking at appearances, and Tiger hasn’t been at Augusta 3 of the last 5 years, which ties into my next point on injury risk.

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Health

This is pretty much a no-brainer, and I’m gonna save you from reading too many words on one of the more clearly defined points in this debate. Phil has had nagging injuries pop up from time-to-time, as any golfer will have, but Tiger has had debilitating injuries that have kept him out for long periods.

People think Tiger has fixed his back with the spinal fusion surgery he received, which is fair. But he put himself through so much wear and tear in his athletic prime that anything short of him going back to steroids (allegedly) will keep the injury concern in the forefront of my mind with him. Phil is getting up there in age so his body might start to break down more as well, but he has never been known as a violent golfer like Tiger, so I wouldn’t think he’ll have to sit out many upcoming majors due to injury.

This one clearly goes to Phil in my mind, but does bring up my final point that I think is key in this debate.

 

Play Style

What separated Tiger was the incredibly aggressive, forceful, and powerful swing he possessed, which then lead to his body breaking down after so many hacks. The spinal surgery should help add some longevity to his career, but that limits the old Tiger from ever showing back up. That’s why he’ll never completely be “back” in my eyes, because he won’t be able to run away from a field with the ease that he had back in the day. And that’s not just because of the young core of golfers emerging that grew up watching him, but also because his body could break down at any moment with his style of play. The thing that can never be taken away is the killer instinct he had that can resurface at any minute. If Tiger is in his Sunday Red with the 54-hole lead at any of the majors, you know he’s reaching back and finding that extra gear. That experience of literally being one of the best, if not the best, of all time will always keep him in the conversation as long as he’s healthy.

For Phil, his playing style ages well. He’s always been a magician with the irons and around the green, but an erratic driver can’t continually be bailed out. I love the fact he thinks he can do what he did on the 13th at Augusta in 2010 with any shot, which is probably my favorite Phil shot ever. But as he starts to lose length on his drive, he just won’t be able to win if he doesn’t hit the majority of fairways. So obviously I think both guys have to go back in time a bit and find themselves to win another major, but I think Phil’s playing style lends itself to more opportunities in the future for a win.

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Decision

There are obviously other factors that will play into whether or not these two can win a major going forward, but I think these 4 are the most important in terms of which guy will get a major before the other. Phil is obviously looking to complete the career grand slam with the U.S. Open (I think he’ll regret not getting 2013 for the rest of his life), and Tiger is looking to catch Jack, so I hope we eventually get an answer to the question of who will win a major next. Phil has started incredibly strong this year, and if Tiger can stay healthy for this entire year I think next year he’ll be primed for Augusta.

Ultimately, I think Phil will get his next major before Tiger — with the deciding factors being health and play style. I love his chance to complete the career grand slam this year at Shinnecock, where he finished 2nd in 2004, the last time the U.S. Open was hosted there. But every year Phil lets it get to Augusta without winning a major hurts exponentially, as I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Tiger won another green jacket or two before it’s all said and done.

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