Once upon a time, being The Club Champion was a position of some distinction, and being known as a “scratch golfer,” or one of the very best players at any golf club, was an honor that carried a little more reverence than it does today. For a long, long time, most clubs in this world regarded The Club Championship as their premier event, an eagerly anticipated annual occasion where many would line the fairways to watch their club’s best golfers square off in the culmination of a quest to be crowned the champion golfer of the year. It was a great tradition, one each club’s best players planned their golfing year around. It’s the reason why most clubs (even today) hold their championships well into their season: to give golfers ample time to round into form, providing the best opportunity for an exciting event for both competitor and spectator alike.
“Infinite striving to be the best is man’s duty; it is its own reward.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
Yes, once upon a time we respected and revered the best among us, and at least partly because of that, many more of us annually aspired to join their ranks. Unfortunately, we just don’t seem to do that as much anymore. At some point in the last century, there began a slow, but steady erosion of this long-standing tradition, and The Club Championship lost its place as most club’s preeminent tournament to handicapped events like invitationals and qualifiers, where players of varied abilities could team up for a shot at each club’s biggest prize. And as this tradition lost its relevance, a great many of us seemingly lost the desire, determination, and motivation to do the hard work it takes to embark upon that annual quest to be the best. So before this tradition completely fades from memory, I think it’s time to solve the riddle of just how, when and why this has occurred, and what we can all do if we want to go back to that place. To get there, I believe first a little golf history is in order.
The Scots are historically given credit for inventing the game of golf. A lesser-known fact, though, is that they also likely invented the precursor to the modern handicap system. Assigning the odds is what the Scots called the practice of handicapping, and the adjustor of the odds was the person who most closely resembled our modern-day handicap chairman. Their earliest attempts at handicapping golf events, however, didn’t benefit the competitors, but rather the bettors. As a result, the Scots and their nearly insatiable appetite for a wager unknowingly created a monster.
Even more so than today, it was not uncommon back then for there to be two or three golfers of exceeding ability playing in each club’s tournament, but the Scots endeavored to bring more horses into the field, and handicapping the competitors increased the number of individuals that one might bet upon, and subsequently increased the total of bettors and money in the betting pools. The natural progression of this, of course, was the idea of conducting tournaments where players would be given a certain allowance of strokes in order to compete against players of greater or lesser ability. All this aside, and even taking into consideration the rise of a unified handicap system in England during the late 1800s, the Club Tournament (played at scratch), or Club Championship, as it is more commonly called today, remained the preeminent annual event at most golf clubs around the world until the latter half of the 20th century.
So why and at what point did being the best golfer at any given club become an honor that fewer and fewer golfers annually strove to attain? Is there one thing or a host of things that have together conspired to facilitate a detour along the road to self-improvement and our collective desire to not only be the best, but to also appreciate the efforts of those who do? Fingers may be pointed in a handful of directions, but in the end, I think there is a single culprit that rises above the rest when it comes to our having settled into this comfort zone of the commonplace. First, let’s take a look at those things I believe, at best, are merely contributory.
There are some who might point to equipment and instruction as having failed the masses, but nothing is likely further from the truth. Quality golf instruction has never been cheaper or more widely available. Whether it’s on the Golf Channel or the internet, the best instructors in the game are literally lining up each and every day to offer free advice. Prefer a more personal approach? With close to two qualified PGA or LPGA instructors per facility on average in the U.S., it’s truly a stretch to cast the blame in that direction. And vast improvements in equipment over the past few decades, as well as the emergence of a huge and affordable second-hand market via the internet have made hitting the ball cheaper and easier than ever, while leaving little excuse for the average golfer to not have good clubs that fit properly. So in the end, I believe these are the least likely reasons that we have for our acceptance of being average.
A case can be made for the rise in coverage of professional golf events after the advent of television some 50+ years ago. We can now marvel at the talent and ability of elite golfers from around the globe almost 24/7 via TV or the internet. These are golfers who, to an extent, can make our local champions look far more pedestrian by comparison. This argument, however, is thin at best and only takes into account half of our conundrum, the drop in admiration we may feel for local champions, while failing to address the other side of the equation. With the abundance of virtual access we have to the very best players, and the even larger scale celebrity (and compensation) they are now rewarded with for displaying elite skills, you could just as easily argue their influence upon our desire to play the game at a higher level is even greater than those local champions we long admired for their ability to simply best the best among us.
Is it the sandbaggers? Sure, at one point or another, we’ve all become tired of losing to bandits who’ve managed to acquire an allowance of strokes that seemingly exceeds their ability. That so-called level playing field the handicap system was designed to provide can often feel like it’s tilted in favor of the less honorable among us, but so much so that we have en masse adopted the mentality, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em? Well, I hope not, but just in case it’s notoriety you’ve been shooting for, let me be the first to break a little bad news. There is no honor in being infamous, and there are no books being written, movies being made, nor legends being told about Joe Bogey, the best 18-handicapper who ever lived.
So if it isn’t the instructors, the equipment, the prevalence of better golfers being broadcast, or even the sandbaggers, where exactly can we point the finger of blame for our long slow descent into comfortable mediocrity? Well, let me give you my theory, and what I hope we will all consider so that we can at least begin to walk things back a bit. You’re free to disagree, of course, but if you, like me, believe our game has somehow, at some point, taken a wrong turn, it just might offer a bit of direction for how we can find the way back.
The game of golf in and of itself is not always fair. Just like life, there are bad bounces and breaks that we all suffer, while fortune and her golfing mistress, The Member’s Bounce, often smile upon those we deem the least worthy among us. We struggle to improve, while others can seemingly make this incredibly difficult game look easy with what we perceive as little comparative effort. Fair or not, that’s just life. At the same time, the goal of the handicap system is to facilitate fair competition among players of every ability. It mostly does that. Inadvertently, however, this leveling of the playing field — and the opportunity it affords players of all skill levels to win what we now consider our club’s most prestigious events — may have robbed us of what was long our biggest incentive to improve. And while we often bemoan the creeping pervasiveness of policies of “fairness,” in everything from politics to athletics, insisting everyone should earn their fair share (or their trophy), we mostly continue to lean on our handicaps when it comes time to compete. Is all that moaning and complaining just talk?
Most club champions work hard on their games, play to scratch, and are consequently some of the finest amateur players in their respective areas. They typically compete beyond the local level, often testing their mettle in high-profile amateur events against other players of similar abilities and on other courses. Despite all that, how many of you out there reading this would even recognize your club’s own champion if he or she were hitting balls next to you on the driving range? Better yet, how many of you are honing your skills as we speak so that you will be ready to answer the bell when it comes time to challenge him or her for that title this year? Anyone?
So this is my call to arms (or irons, if I may), because whether we realize it or not, we’re in a struggle for the collective soul of our game. Will we fight, or fold up our competitive tents and crawl back under the warm blanket of low expectations? Have we become so addicted to our allowance of strokes that we no longer entertain the idea of ultimately playing without them? I’m not suggesting we do away with handicaps, they serve a purpose, but could they be responsible for at least some of us falling into the habit of settling for smaller victories that could and maybe should be viewed as mere stepping stones? Let’s hope not, but we’ve at least wandered far enough down that path that it’s time to reassert the values of self-improvement and a greater appreciation for the practice. Because, as Gandhi said, if “infinite striving to be the best” is really man’s duty, then it’s time we start walking all that talk. And if it really “is its own reward,” let’s not use the Bandits, the Baggers, or even that infamous Joe Bogey as excuses for not pursuing it.
Vince Lombardi once said, “The only place that success comes before hard work is in the dictionary.” So it’s time to dust off that shag bag, file those wedges, and head to that lonely place called the practice tee. Because whether it’s golf, education, business, or anything else truly important to us in life, success and being considered the best are things that should be earned, and the surest path to them runs through hard work.
Obviously, being your club’s next Club Champion isn’t a goal that’s realistically on everyone’s radar this year. But that doesn’t mean we can’t all at least commit to some small goal of self-betterment, while promising anew to value and appreciate the efforts of those for whom it is. And if we do, we might just find ourselves having turned back the clock to a time when The Club Championship held it’s rightful place among each club’s traditions, and a place where we all used our handicaps as more of a measuring stick of our improvement, rather than a convenient excuse for not seeking to.
See you on the practice tee.
On Spec: I fell in love at Sweetens Cove | Finding your golf “community”
In this episode of On Spec, Ryan can’t say enough great things about his first trip to Sweetens Cove for the first Oil Hardened Classic—an event dedicated to persimmon and blade irons. He also talks about a new group of golf buddies in the era of social media.
Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below.
It started with a crazy idea…
It’s been nearly six years since Bob Parsons decided he wanted to get into the golf club business, and it was five years ago that Ryan Moore was presented with an iron that looked like something out of a Frankenstein movie.
Since then, the name PXG has been growing in stature as quickly as this industry has seen in a long time. In my time with Tour Ops Director Matt Rollins, I discovered once again that there was a point for all of these department heads, where the ability to work in a vacuum with no boundaries peaked enough curiosity to leave great jobs and take a winger on a man’s idea that at inception may have sounded a bit crazy.
Now let’s be clear, Bob Parsons knows golf clubs. Like many on this site, he’s a gear junkie—yes, with unlimited resources to find exactly what he wants. However, being a gear junkie myself, I always wondered what it would look like if I had the resources to go as far down the rabbit hole as I wanted to without risking the roof over my head AND without the mandate of a company to limit my search. This is important to understand because as you may have seen in the last video, the people Mr. Parsons chooses to work with seem to have this unrelenting curiosity as well.
The tour operations started this way: Ryan Moore was the perfect guy to attract early on. He’s a searcher, he has the resume to gain trust, and he’s extremely measured. Ryan doesn’t do anything on a whim, although it may appear so. He considers everything down to the last point before he says yes. I can say this in confidence knowing his story and interacting with him a few times. I have interacted with a good portion of the early PXG staff and to a person they have all said the same thing: “It seemed a bit crazy at the time, but I was curious: I hit the clubs and I wanted in.”
The current staff like the front office is a good mix of all personalities and as a whole they represent the perfect mix to get the PXG message out into the world. Players like Horschel, Perez, Ko, Hahn, Lee, ZJ, Moore, HOF icon Gary Player, and most recently aspiring LPGA player, long drive champion and influencer Troy Mullins.
Now, I won’t get into all of the club junkie tidbits I get from Matt here: ya just gotta watch the video. It was a fun interview and my biggest takeaway personally is that despite all of the opinions and polarizing discussions around PXG, these guys really care about what they are doing and where they want to go.
As you will see in Episode 6 of The Disruptors, Matt Rollins at first had a kind of “yeah right” reaction to the whole thing—then you start to get around Bob, and Mike and Brad and you begin to understand just how serious these guys are about taking PXG to places we have never seen. Are they one of the Big 4? No. They never will be—it’s not designed that way. Are they a company that has the nimbleness, brains, and swagger to continue to shake things up? Oh, yeah. And that’s exactly how Bob likes it.
PGA Tour players on the rise and on the decline heading into 2020
At the end of each season, I compile data on every PGA Tour player and then analyze which players are on the rise and the decline for the upcoming season. There are a number of variables that are historically quality indicators of a golfer’s future performance such as age, club speed, adjusted scoring average, etc. I tend to focus on what I call The Cornerstones of the Game, however, and these Cornerstones include:
- Driving effectiveness
- Red zone play (approach shots from 175-225 yards)
- Short game shots (from 10-20 yards)
- Putting (5-15 feet)
- Ball speed
All that is needed to execute the Cornerstones of the Game is for the player to be in the top half on the PGA Tour in each metric. That’s the beauty of the concept; a player does not need to be dominant in each metric. He can simply be average at each metric and it increases his likelihood of not only having a great season but recording a PGA Tour victory. I can then use the Cornerstones concept to more accurately project players on the rise for the following season.
This past season, there were 10 players that reached The 5 Cornerstones of the Game and they made an average of $4.7 million on the season. Given their success, I focused my analysis more on players that narrowly missed The 5 Cornerstones and their metrics to determine what players will be “on the rise.”
Players on the rise
*The following rankings are based out of 194 players
The young Chilean golfer reached every one of The 5 Cornerstones of the Game, but he made the least amount of FedEx points of any of the golfers that executed all of the Cornerstones.
This was due to Niemann’s early struggles with the putter. However, his putting improved significantly as the season went by.
The dotted black line in the chart represents Niemann’s trendline and that shows a strong upward trend in his putting performance.
Niemann ranked 107th in adjusted par-5 scoring average, and given his quality of ballstriking and distance off the tee, that should greatly improve. The projections are for him to win soon. If he can continue to improve his putting, particularly from 3-5 feet (he ranked 160th last season) he could be a multiple winner this upcoming season.
Kang recorded his first victory at the Byron Nelson Championship but flew under the radar for most of the season. He also executed The 5 Cornerstones of the Game.
Back in 2017, Kang almost executed The 5 Cornerstones, but I was lukewarm to putting him on the list of Players on the Rise as the one cornerstone he failed to reach was red zone play, and that’s too important of a metric to miss out on.
Kang struggled in the 2018 season, but his red zone play greatly improved. In the meantime, his driving greatly suffered. He continued to struggle with his driving early in the 2019 season but made great strides right around the Byron Nelson and ended the season ranked 80th in driving effectiveness. Meanwhile, his red zone play has continued to be strong, and he’s a sound short game performer from 10-20 yards and putter from 5-15 feet.
While I am a little more on the fence with Kang, given his putrid performance from the yellow zone and generally inconsistent play, his putting suffered from ranking 181st on putts from 25-plus feet. That is more likely to move towards the mean and greatly improve his putts gained next season. He’s also 32 years old, which is a prime age for Tour players hit their peak performance of their career.
Straka had a good rookie campaign striking the ball and was a competent putter. The only Cornerstone that Straka failed to execute was short game shots from 10-20 yards. However, we can see that as the season went by Straka’s short game improved
That’s also recognizing that short game around the green has a weaker correlation to success on Tour than most of the other Cornerstones like driving, red zone play and putting from 5-15 feet.
Straka should improve greatly on par-5’s (104th last season). He made a lot of birdies last year (25th in adjusted birdie rate), but made a ton of bogeys (155th). These numbers project well at tournaments that are birdie fests like Palm Springs or courses that are relatively easy on shots around the green such as Harbour Town.
Ryder only missed The 5 Cornerstones with a poor performance from 10-20 yards. He’s an excellent putter and iron-play performer, and that is usually the parts of the game that the eventual winners perform best from.
One of the new metrics I’ve created is called “power-to-putting.” This is a combination of the player’s putts gained ranking and their adjusted driving distance ranking. Earlier this year I wrote an article here about where exactly distance helps with a golfer’s game. In essence, the longer off the tee a golfer is the more likely they will have shorter length birdie putts on average. That’s why long hitters like Bubba Watson can make a lot of money despite putting poorly and why shorter hitters like Brian Gay have to putt well in order to be successful.
The “honey pot” is for a golfer that hits it long and putts well. This means they will sink a ton of birdie putts because they are having easier putts to make and they have the requisite putting skill to make them.
Clark finished first in power-to-putting (Rory McIlroy finished second). On top of that, he was an excellent performer from 10-20 yards which is usually the last step in a long ball hitter becoming an elite performer. Clark’s iron play was very poor and that downgrades his chances of winning on Tour. But, with his length, putting, and short game, he can very well get four days of decent approach shot play and win handily.
Players on the decline
Hoffman ranked 64th in FedEx points but was 139th in adjusted scoring average. Most of Hoffman’s metrics were not very good, but he was a superb performer from the yellow and red zone. The other concerning part of Hoffman is his age: He is at the point of his career that player performance tends to drop-off the most. He only made two of his last seven cuts this past season with the best finish of T51 at The Open Championship.
Holmes finished 166th in adjusted scoring average and was greatly helped by having a favorable schedule as he ranked 21st in purse size per event. The best thing Holmes has going for him is his distance off the tee. He also had a good season around the green that helps long hitters like Holmes when they hit foul balls off the tee.
After that, Holmes did not do much of anything well. He was 179th in adjusted missed fairway–other percentage (aka hitting foul balls off the tee) and his putting was horrendous and doesn’t appear to be bouncing back anytime soon.
Kizzire only made two of his last 11 cuts last season, and it’s easy to see why with his ballstriking struggles. It also doesn’t help that he was poor from 10-20 yards. He’s one of the elite putters on Tour, but elite putting only helps a player so much in the big leagues.
The biggest positive for Mickelson is his newfound power that he exhibited last year. He will also play a favorable schedule as he ranked 16th in purse size per event and has lifetime exempt status on Tour.
For fantasy golf owners, I would be averse to picking Mickelson in the short term. The question with Lefty is if his newfound distance caused him issues with his iron play, short game and putting, or if that is just a temporary slump that once he works thru those issues with his newfound speed, he may be winning tournaments again. But at his age, history is not in his favor.
Molinari turns 37-years-old in November. There’s still plenty of years for good golf, but Molnari’s lack of power and routine struggles with the putter means that he needs to have impeccable driving and iron play in order to be competitive in big tournaments and the majors. Last season he was an average driver of the ball and he was below average from the red zone.
The positive for Molinari is that he has typically been an impeccable ballstriker, so the issues in 2019 may have been a one-time slump. And while he putted poorly, he putted well from 5-15 feet. He ranked 184th on putts from 15-25 feet and 157th on putts from 25-plus feet, and those are more likely to progress towards the mean over time and help his overall putting.
But, Molinari has never been a great putter, and at his age, it will be very difficult to keep up with his impeccable ballstriking to get back to the winner’s circle.
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