The Investor

The Numbers Game at The Masters

Tiger Woods plays the percentages; Phil Mickelson tries to fool them. Guess who ends up winning the big one?

By 4.15.02

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"Be the number!"
That was what Tiger Woods yelled as his second shot sailed toward the eighteenth green on Sunday at The Masters. Like Woods needed the help. He's the best golfer on the planet by a wide margin -- no one repeated the claim that "the gap between Woods and the other players is closing" on Sunday -- and he had a three-stroke lead. Naturally, the ball stopped dead, ten feet beyond the hole.

All Tiger did was ask for the shot to turn out as he expected. When you know your game that well, and know what to do that well, you will probably get what you want.

I actually hoped for more commercials.
With the expanded Masters coverage yesterday, I settled in for about seven hours of pure golf. When I turned on the set too early (I'm in Arizona on Pacific Time, so I assume sporting events start while it's still dark), I watched an informercial for the Momentus Swing Trainer, featuring David Duval.

The Masters seemed like it went on forever, and it takes a real stinker of a tournament to test my stamina. A week ago, I watched a tape-delay of the final round of a Canadian Tour event held, of all places, about three miles from my home in Scottsdale.

By the end of the day, I found myself trying to figure out whether anything I understood about investing could help explain the enormous difference in the success of Tiger Woods versus the success of Phil Mickelson in the most important events. I decided it was worth going through the exercise, because the golf writers haven't been able to explain it, and there wasn't much to watch on TV after Woods chipped in at 6 just as Mickelson was bogeying 7.

Investing and golf actually have a great deal in common. Success depends on the interplay of four factors: (1) understanding your objectives, (2) understanding yourself, (3) knowing the likelihood and magnitude of the risks and rewards, and (4) executing.

The difference in skill level between Tiger and Phil does not account for the difference in majors. Phil is as long as Tiger, though not quite as straight. When Phil's not trying to pull some crazy shot out of his nether quarters, he is just as good, if not better, at cleaning up his mistakes. (Notice the identical bunker shots they hit on the first hole, nearly blind from 145 yards out: Tiger hit an excellent shot to the middle of the green and two-putted for par; Mickelson nearly holed it out and tapped in for birdie.) Woods has a more imaginative short game, but Mickelson's execution is as good. They are both great long putters and inconsistent short putters. Mickelson has gotten in some big trouble for that recently, but Tiger had problems in that area in 1998 and 1999, and still fusses over his putting.

I don't think it's "choking" or "pressure," either. Mickelson has been playing competitive golf since he was potty trained, just like Tiger. Although Phil won "only" one U.S. Amateur, he won a Tour event while still an Arizona State junior. He's won 20 professional tournaments, including a couple with Woods as his primary obstacle. He has been through the crucible and, in fact, until two years ago, had a great record at closing out tournaments in which he held the 54-hole lead.

"I don't think I have ever hit a shot in competition where I couldn't pull it off 40% of the time."
Phil Mickelson said that to explain away the 4-iron-to-the-island-green-from-behind-the-trees-that-ended-in-the-water at Bay Hill. I think this is the key difference between Phil and Tiger. Phil may try only shots that have a 40% or greater chance of succeeding, but he thinks he can make ANY shot 40% of the time. This is a guy who, with his back to the hole, can flop a wedge backwards over his shoulder onto the green. There are shots even Tiger Woods can't make 40% of the time. The only difference is that Tiger knows that.

Tiger struggles. He hits shots that end up on pine needles, behind trees, and well behind water hazards. Remember the last hole of his playoff with Bob May at the 2000 PGA Championship? He knows how to stop the bleeding with conservative shots. He'll lay up, he'll pitch and run, he'll chip out. Then he tries to get up and down for par from the middle of the fairway, something that Tiger can do far more than 40% of the time.

When Tiger yells "be the number," he is expressing the end result of a careful calculation, a calculation that not only includes the shot in the air, but the shots that got him to that spot.

But don't be too harsh on Phil. The people who don't like Clinton probably don't like Phil -- a big guy with a big chin, standing over you making crazy excuses and just daring you not to believe him. Golfers are more accessible to the media than any other athletes and probably any other public figures. At the same time as they try to be brutally honest and confront questions -- were the NBA superstars choking on Michael Jordan's exhaust year after year that gracious with the press? -- they play a game with so many mental elements that even focusing on some of these questions is dangerous. Also, he plays an exciting game. That's Palmer's game, and Greg Norman's game. Palmer was eclipsed by Nicklaus, a phenomenal golfing robot (just like Woods). Norman was fun to watch, but Nick Faldo mowed him down in methodical style. Faldo won the British Open one year with eighteen pars on Sunday.

Mickelson is a great golfer and a great entertainer. He's just not a good enough investor or poker player. He's not a methodical, boring, calculating guy who plays the percentages. A guy like Tiger Woods.

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About the Author

Michael Craig is a writer in Scottsdale, Arizona.