“If you won a Major and miss 20 other cuts, is that a good year? I don’t know. Yeah, you’ve had one good week, but does that mean you’ve had a good year?”
— Rory McIlroy, before the Tour Championship
“If the narrative becomes that the Majors are the only important thing in golf, then that’s dangerous because are fans not going to care for the other 48 weeks of the year?”
— Rory McIlroy, after the Tour Championship
Let two facts be known: first, Rory McIlroy wasn’t referring to Brooks Koepka in his hypothetical about the player who won a Major but missed 20 cuts. Koepka missed exactly one cut and added wins at a World Golf Championship and an early-season event with his PGA Championship title, a season that Rory has praised. Second, Rory had an incentive to de-emphasise the Majors, however subtly. In the PGA Tour player-of-the-year race, it’s either him, the guy who won the most money, had the most top-10s and finished with the best scoring average and the most strokes gained… or it’s the guy who played the best in the four Majors (besides his PGA win, he finished T-2, second and T-4 in the other three).
Others have already made the case for Rory’s candidacy, so I won’t repeat that, but I’ll just lay my cards on the table: to me, Rory was the best golfer on the PGA Tour in 2019, and the numbers don’t leave much room for interpretation. The PGA of America already gave its year-end award to Koepka, which seems understandable since he won the association’s flagship event. But I believe it would be more than fair for the PGA Tour to make this the first year since 1990 with a split decision, since Rory won both of the tour’s flagship events, including the year-end title.
Now, let’s get to the more interesting question: should the four Majors command as much emphasis as they do in the enlightened days of 2019? In other words, to echo our headline, should they matter less now that we know more?
The question can be framed in terms of the Player of the Year debate if we want, and a cursory look at who has collected those awards shows that stats haven’t really mattered much at all in the face of Major wins. The leader in scoring average has won Player of the Year only five times in the past 10 years, and in four of those years, the POY also won at least one Major in championship. That tells us the scoring-average title was more coincidence than correlation in taking the honour. The one year when possibilities seemed more open came in 2011, when Luke Donald won the award despite winning zero Majors and only one PGA Tour event, but dominated the scoring average and put up endless top-10s. Meanwhile, three of the four Majors were won by golfers (Charl Schwartzel, Darren Clarke and Keegan Bradley) who made it their one and only.
Going back even farther, there is the 1998 season, one in which David Duval by most accepted measures at the time – wins (four), scoring average (69.13) and money earned ($US2.591 million) – was more than POY worthy. But Mark O’Meara didn’t just win one Major, but two. And at age 41. They were the last two victories of his PGA Tour career, but also the most memorable, securing his eventual spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame. The voters, of course, chose him over Duval.
Aside from the Donald anomaly, it’s been all Majors, all the time, and that’s especially interesting in the age of golf’s statistical revolution. We have more ways to measure greatness than ever before, and we can drill down with a high degree of specificity. But the truth is that in our broader perceptions, history rather than innovation still rules the day.
The Major championships are the Major championships because of age and circumstance – they’ve either been around the longest under the umbrella of some very old and powerful organisations or, in the case of the Masters, they were really good at marketing. Yet suspend belief for a moment and consider these events without thinking about their names. Their fields are strong, because everybody wants to win, but they’re not that strong. Koepka himself is the first person to express a surprising take, which is that in some ways, for some players, Majors might be the easiest tournaments to win. From a pure degree-of-difficulty perspective, Rory’s win at the Players Championship was more impressive than Tiger’s at the Masters. Without the pre-baked conceit of what these events are supposed to be, would they really be the four tournaments by which you’d judge immortality? Would any four?
Of course, winning matters in golf. In a team sport like baseball, the MVP sometimes goes to a player on a mediocre or even bad team who puts up incredible numbers, with the understanding that one player only has limited control on the team’s performance. In golf, the individual player is the team, and thus winning takes on greater importance, which is as it should be. The complications come in a year like 2019 when players like Koepka and McIlroy each win a number of events, and awards and perception boil down to judgments about which wins are “best”.
Some players, like Adam Scott, take an opposite view of Rory’s recent quotes. “History has shown that the greatest players have ended up accumulating the most of these [Major] tournaments,” he told me in 2014, “and I think it’s probably a fair assessment of who the greatest players over time have been in each decade and each era. So I’m happy with the way everyone sees that.” Coming from someone whose career probably merits more than the one Major he’s captured, that carries some weight.
And it might be true in the case of those like Woods and Nicklaus and Hogan, but I’d argue that it doesn’t hold up on a smaller scale. Who would argue that Andy North and his two Majors represent a “better” career than Scott, or Justin Rose, or Sergio Garcia, or Dustin Johnson? That’s an extreme example, but it shows the pitfalls of over-valuing Major championships.
Winning a Major comes down to many factors, two of which are luck and timing. To use one more baseball parallel, modern analytics birthed a statistic called “batting average on balls in play (BABIP)” that looks at how often a player gets a base hit when a batted ball goes into the field (i.e. it’s not a strikeout, walk or home run). What they found is that this average, for almost every player, is just a measure of luck, and both high and low BABIPs tend to regress to the mean no matter how skilled the player might otherwise be. This stunned many experts and helped change how we think about batting average.
I bring this up not to suggest that Majors in golf are exclusively about luck in the same way, but to posit that the more we understand about statistics, the more we’ll understand that even the best players can’t always control their Major performances, much less their good and bad luck in the critical and rare moments when the stars begin to align.
All of which is to say that in a perfect world, we should be developing more and better ways to evaluate and celebrate players beyond Major wins. However, history looms very large in golf, and there’s a lot of inertia to overcome before that utopia manifests. I’ll even grudgingly admit that it might just be more fun in an individual sport to have a select series of events that matter the most, and that, despite what Rory said, it would be a little exhausting to treat all 52 weeks as equally important. Our hearts and minds are devoted to the Majors, and while statistics may open up a new path to fairness in our judgments, I can’t blame anyone who peers down that road, finds it a little dull, and goes back to dreaming of Augusta in April.