The Match: Tiger vs. Phil on the Green

*** Legal Note: Written permission has been granted by CDW to use the Shotlink database for academic means. Therefore, no profits are gained from the posting of this analysis. ***

The Match

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have always been on the fan wishlist for a Sunday showdown through the final stretch of a major championship. Surprisingly, each player has captured the drama and nail-biting drama of major championship wins without the other nipping at their heels. Craving more Tiger-Phil action, the golf gods (aka PPV TV) have presented an opportunity to watch these golf superstars go head-to-head in a made-for-tv affair. “The Match” goes down on Thanksgiving Day in Las Vegas at Shadow Creek and is an 18-hole match play (winner take all on each hole) for $9 million. While the Vegas odds have Tiger favored –220 to Phil’s +180, these numbers can change as golf fans dive deeper into their recent Ryder Cup failures.

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The purpose of the below analysis is to take a peek at one component of Tiger and Phil’s game. Each week leading up to “The Match” I hope to present a piece of the puzzle that will help golf fans and analysts alike understand the driving factors for each golfer’s success. This week we focus on where most of the drama will occur: the putting green.

Data Collection

The data that is used for this analysis come from CDW’s PGA Tour Shotlink database. (You can read about Shotlink here). This database is a proprietary collection of every golf shot hit from 2003 to 2018 on the PGA Tour regular season.  Each shot records 46 different variables, ranging from tournament location, golfer identification, the distance of shots, starting coordinates in relation to the hole, strokes gained, Boolean (0s and 1s) for whether or not a player is located on the green if it is the first putt, etc… Needless to say, there is a lot of data. In fact, 2018 alone recorded 1.17 million shots.

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The analysis utilized a SQLite3 local server that stored the more than 18 million rows of data. Feature engineering (creating new variables) was used to determine how long courses played during the tournaments and to create better features to identify players. The object-oriented programming language Python was used for all cleaning, wrangling, feature engineering, and analytics, while SQL queries were run from within Python to query the database.

2003 – 2017 PGA Tour Regular Season

Tiger and Phil are wizards around the green. In fact, there are many times where each of them have made incredible saves that seemed to defy the odds of gravity. (Tiger fans will recall a late Sunday charge at The Valspar this year on the 17th hole, when he drained a 40+ foot putt to get within one of the lead). But how do these two magicians of the green compare?

First, let’s take a look at their putting before this 2018 PGA Tour regular season. using data on every putt they hit during these 14 years, we find that Phil had many more opportunities on the gree, possibly from a busier playing schedule, being on the green in regulation more often, missing more putts, or whatever it is that makes someone hit the ball more often (room for analysis in the future). Regardless, Tiger hit 13,647 putts to Phil’s 21,641.

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When we look at how well they did side-by-side, we can see little deviation from one another outside of 20 feet. The graph below plots every putt from the 2003 to 2017 season, by taking the putts made and dividing it by the putts attempted from each foot interval. This gives us the probability that a putt will be made at the distance on the horizontal axis distance. (Note, there is a large sample size, so each player has at least one putt recorded from every foot inside 60 feet. Statistically, the line within 20 feet should be given more importance since a majority of the putts were attempted and made in this vicinity.)

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So if we can place more importance on putts within 20 feet, wouldn’t it be interesting to look at those putt probabilities within that distance?

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Once we zoom in closer, we notice that both players make the same proportion of putts from 3.5 feet and in. There is only one recorded miss from Tiger woods at 1 foot in this 14-year window, while Phil missed a few one footers during this time as well. Tiger appears to gain the upper hand once we move outside of 7 feet with a 10 percent higher probability of making for putts between 7 to 10 feet. Overall, I give the advantage to Tiger.

Compared to the rest of the field, the indicator that will help us differentiate putting ability is called “strokes gained.” The strokes gained formula compares putting to the rest of the field. For example, if the field did poorly in a tournament and Tiger putted average, then he would have gained strokes on the field through putting. Let’s look at strokes gained-putting through the same process of isolating putts at each foot. This time, we will stick within 20 feet for sample size reasons explained earlier.

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It appears that both Tiger and Phil outpace the field on strokes gained within 7 feet. Keep in mind that many tournaments are won and lost within this distance and mental fortitude must be outstanding to lead in this category. Each player’s aggressive putting preference may yield the lower than expected results from outside 10 feet.

2018 PGA Tour Regular Season

Since the sample size is an issue for one season, we will be looking at 2018 putts within 20 feet. When comparing Tiger’s performance to Phil’s, we see that Phil has the advantage. This advantage widens after 7 feet and is neutralized thereafter. Since Tiger recently began to play competitively again, it could be that Phil was more comfortable on the greens during the 2018 season.

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Let’s take a look at some other statistics. If we compare putts at exactly 15 feet, it looks like Tiger is slightly better at 0.5 percent higher probability of making the putt. Although, this is really decimal dust at this point and carries little weight.

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From 6 to 10 feet, Phil had a much better 2018 regular season with a 10 percent higher probability of making a putt than Tiger.

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So what about strokes gained for putting in 2018. Well, throwing statistics out the door, let’s forget about small sample sizes and see where they stack up against the field.

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While Phil has a consistent 0.03 to 0.04 strokes gained on the field, Tiger is almost at the tour average. Barring some exceptional putting at 7 feet and in, Tiger fails to deliver in 2018 on the green. Remember, these are very small numbers and should be seen as indicative of average putting on tour.

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Again, if we zoom in and look at 2018 regular season putting from within 20 feet for strokes gained, we see good putting from within 7 feet for both players, but almost average putting compared to the PGA Tour at large when putting from distances outside 10 feet, especially Tiger.

So who is the better putter? Well, the analysis shows that Tiger was a better putter from 2003 to 2017, but Phil has gained traction in 2018. Both have not had astonishing putting careers, but it is the clutch putting in the heat of battle when everything is on the line, that makes the difference and has truly separated Tiger and Phil from the rest of the Tour.