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CARY North Carolina (Reuters) - It is often said that the depth of talent on the PGA Tour has become stronger than ever, but does this apparently widespread belief stand up to statistical analysis?
There are several ways to 'measure' depth but, at first glance, it might help to get the opinion of professional golfers who have been playing the tour since the 1990s.
Australian Stuart Appleby and American David Toms, two veterans who have competed on the U.S. circuit for almost two decades, have little doubt that the depth of talent has improved considerably during their time playing at the highest level.
Appleby, 43, a nine-times winner who has been on the tour since 1996, believes there are more quality players now at both ends of the age spectrum, either in their early 20s or 40s, and therefore it stands to reason that there is more depth.
"When I came on tour, I was considered one of the young guns and I was in my mid-20s," Australian Appleby told Reuters. "That same tag now is really someone between 19 and 23. It's probably dropped five years.
"There are more guys under 30 who can win on tour than ever. I wonder whether I would have got a foot in the game if I was starting out now, because I was 14 when I took the game up.
"Today, 15 and 16-year-olds are shooting under par. That was pretty rare when I was a kid. The young talent these days is more gifted all round than it was 20 years ago."
Former world number one Tiger Woods, a 14-times major champion, would be an exception to that generalization. He won his first Masters at the age of 21 in 1997.
Toms, the 2001 PGA Championship winner, believes the proliferation of players capable of driving the ball more than 300 yards means that almost any bomber can win if he has a hot week with the longest club in the bag -- and makes a few putts.
"When I first got on tour, when a guy hit it past you it was by 10 or 15 yards," said Toms, a 13-times winner who has been competing regularly on the circuit since 1992, before modern-day 'young guns' such as American Jordan Spieth were even born.
"Now it can be 50 (yards) or 60, or more. There are a lot of guys who can win when they're on (form) with their drivers."
Ian Baker-Finch, the 1991 British Open champion who played the PGA Tour for half a dozen years before driving yips forced him into the commentary box, agreed that it used to take players in their early 20s much longer to become comfortable on tour.
"It appears to me that more and more 22-to-25-year-olds are achieving a really high level," said Baker-Finch.
"I don't think that happened before. Added to that, more older guys are staying competitive longer because they're fitter than they used to be. Therefore, I think the cross-section (of players) has to be a lot deeper."
Appleby also believes that it is harder now to make halfway cuts on the PGA Tour than it used to be.
"How much harder I'm not sure," he said. "Some weeks there might be no difference, and the next week it might be one shot.
"Jack Nicklaus will tell you it was different when he left the tour to when he joined the tour."
But how do you back up anecdotal observations about player depth with empirical evidence? There are several possible ways to measure depth.
You could analyze the average winning margin at tournaments in the modern era compared to a generation or so ago.
If there is in fact more depth these days, you might expect the average winning margin to have shrunk and there to be fewer runaway victories.
This measurement, however, can be problematic, because any given tournament might contain an outlier, someone who just catches fire that week and laps the field.
Another way might be to measure the stroke spread after each tournament between fifth and 55th place. By ignoring the top-four finishes, you get rid of the outliers and get a more reliable number.
By this measure, the fields on tour this year have been slightly more bunched than 25 years ago, but not by as much as some might imagine.
Reuters analyzed the stroke spread at 10 PGA Tour events played on the same course this year as in 1989. We picked the same venues to make it an 'apples-to-apples' comparison.
The average spread between fifth and 55th place was 11.5 strokes back in 1989 while this year it was 10.0 strokes. So, according to this measure, fields were more closely bunched by 1.5 strokes in 2014 than 25 years earlier.
At only one of the 10 tournaments, the Phoenix Open, was the field more spread out last year than in 1989.
The influx of foreign players is another reason why depth is probably greater than ever. In 1989, there were only a handful of non-Americans on tour. Now there are dozens.
At the 1989 Los Angeles Open, for example, only seven non-Americans made the cut. This year the number was 27.
The PGA Tour in essence has gone from an American tour with a handful of foreigners to a world tour played primarily in the United States.
Not that the great players of yester-year would not have been similarly successful had they been born a couple of decades later.
A list of tour winners from 1989 reads like a 'Who's Who' of golf and includes players such as Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Payne Stewart, Curtis Strange, Tom Kite, Mark Calcavecchia and Paul Azinger.
"I wouldn't say (the best players) are better now than they used to be," said Baker-Finch, the 1989 Colonial champion.
"But I think there are more players capable of winning than there used to be."
Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes