Remember the Ricky Fowler, Rory McIlroy rivalry that everyone was talking about a few weeks ago? Wow, it’s been great hasn’t it? All those classic duels, those great memories.
So, why is it that golf rivalries rarely deliver the great face-to-face, mano-a-mano encounters that we’d all like to see? Well, let’s do the math.
Let’s compare golf with its country club cousin, tennis. How many times does a tennis player strike the ball en route to winning a tournament? Hell if I know, but here’s an estimate: Let’s assume that each point, on average, involves hitting the ball four times, so that’s two strokes a point per player. We’ll also assume that each game lasts about seven points on average and that each set is an average of nine games. If this is a 64 player tournament in which players play best of three until the finals, that means that on average, assuming that an average match lasts 2.5 sets, a pro tennis player is hitting the ball about 1,575 times in order to make it to the finals.
How many times does a pro golfer strike the ball in order to make it to the final pairing? Around 200, give or take.
That’s a huge difference. And here’s what it means: randomness means a whole lot less when you’re talking about that many events. The fluke bounce or the lucky outcome gets drowned in the sheer number of strokes. The cream rises to the top when you have that kind of sample size. Add in the fact that tennis players actually play against each other rather than competing to see who plays the course better, and you can see why tennis fans, all 275 of them, get a pretty standard diet of Nadal v. Federer or Nadal v. Djokovic. Meanwhile, we golf fans can get final pairings that look like something produced by one of those spinning cage things that spit out numbered balls for a state lottery.