In the run up to the Open Championship, which starts this Thursday at Royal Lytham & St Annes, and after inputting hundreds of results from golf’s major tournaments and the records of more than 800 players into his new and highly sophisticated computer model, one of the UK’s leading sports statisticians believes he has the answer: it’s Ben Hogan (but only just).
Dr Ian McHale, Director of the Centre for Sports Business Analytics at Salford Business School, and Chair of the Royal Statistical Society’s sports section, has developed a statistical method for comparing the performance of golf’s most illustrious players of the last 80 years, taking into account their varying prowess from the beginning to the end of their career and the standard of opposition faced.
The study has identified the year of maximum ‘strength’ or quality for each golfer which can be objectively compared with players of any era from the 1930s until the present day. By analysing the overlapping competitive records of 807 players in 274 majors (The Open, The Masters, US Open and US PGA) since 1934, Dr McHale’s method suggests that nine-time major winner Ben Hogan at his peak in 1950 was the greatest person ever to have played golf. Second in the list was Byron Nelson at the height of his powers in 1943, with the Jack Nicklaus of 1974 in third place and 2001-vintage Tiger Woods in fourth.
Explained Dr McHale: “With 18 major titles, Jack Nicklaus is widely seen as the greatest. Our study uses a statistical model to provide an objective answer to whether he is or not.
“The key to it all is not to assign a single number to an entire career, but to look at how good a player was at his peak. Some players have slumps, as we are seeing with Tiger now, and Tiger’s record now doesn’t reflect how good he has been. Using our new statistical method, we can give very good, objective answers to questions such as who would win in a head-to-head between Tiger at his 2001 imperious best or Jack in the mid-seventies.”
“By looking at results from golf’s major tournaments for hundreds of players, you can start to build up a picture using the overlapping careers of the leading golfers and attempt to decide who was the best.
“For example, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus never competed against each other when they were at their respective bests. But you can compare the two by looking at how Nicklaus performed in the years when he was competing against someone like Seve Ballesteros.
“Seve’s major-winning years then overlapped with Nick Faldo at his peak, so you can judge Faldo’s strength against Nicklaus through his performances in majors alongside Seve. Faldo won his last major – The Masters – in 1996, the year before Tiger Woods won the same title to claim his first, and in this way we can link the records of these greats together and directly compare Nicklaus to Tiger.
“By making these overlapping career comparisons for the 807 golfers whose data we used, we were able to objectively measure the ‘strength’ of each player over time. The results can be used to estimate how easy or difficult it was for a particular player to win a major in a specific year by measuring how tough the opposition was to beat in relative terms in each tournament.”
In addition, Dr McHale used the model to judge players over a sustained five-year period of success, and over a total career. Ben Hogan again tops the pile for both of these measures, with Jack Nicklaus second in each case. Byron Nelson is ranked third in the five-year table, with Sam Snead in third place when judged over a whole career.
“As Ben Hogan is top of the table using all three methods, I think the results suggest that he is the greatest golfer of all time,” concluded Dr McHale, “although Jack Nicklaus runs him extremely close.”
Interestingly, the statistical model can also give the average objective player quality over the period 1934 to 2011, which reveals ‘golden eras’ of golf during the mid-1930s to mid-1940s and mid-1960s to late-1970s. It also shows a steady increase in average player quality from the late 1990s through to the present day, suggesting that competition for major titles today is the keenest it has ever been, and that the last ten years constitute the true ‘golden age’ which shows no sign of ending in the near future.