At the end of each season, I compile data on every PGA Tour player and then analyze which are on the rise and the decline for the upcoming season.
There are a number of variables that historically are quality indicators of a player’s future performance such as age, club speed, adjusted scoring average, etc. However, I tend to focus on what I call The Cornerstones of the Game.
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
I used to call it The Four Cornerstones of the Game, as I did not factor in ball speed. What I found was that players who finished in the top-half in Driving Effectiveness, Red Zone Play, Short Game Shots from 10-20 yards and Putting from 5-15 feet had a high likelihood of being very successful on Tour and winning… or keep winning. However, I later discovered that players who were able to achieve all Four Cornerstones and be in the top-half in ball speed performed even better and had an increased likelihood of winning.
For instance, in the 2014-2015 season, the players who executed the Four Cornerstones (without ball speed) averaged nearly $1.9 million in earnings, while the players who executed the Four Cornerstones (including ball speed) averaged nearly $4 million in earnings. For short hitters who likely cannot substantially improve their ball speed, the Four Cornerstones still apply and are a good benchmark to improve their scoring average and thus make more money, which is the ultimate goal, right?
Sometimes, it doesn’t quite work out. For example, shorter-hitting Brian Stuard accomplished all Four Cornerstones in the 2013-2014 season and then lost his card in the 2014-2015 season. However, he then won in New Orleans this past season. But last year, the top player I had on my list to rise was Kevin Chappell. He accomplished all Five Cornerstones in the 2014-2015 season and went on to finish 8th in FedEx points.
Here are my players likely to Rise and Decline in 2017.
Players on the rise
The following rankings are based out of 185 players for the 2015-2016 season.
Rodgers makes the list of players on the rise for the second year in a row. At this point, he compares closely to a younger Keegan Bradley prior to the anchor putting ban. He’s a good driver of the ball who generates a lot of club speed. He also plays well from the Red Zone and is a competent short-game player and putter. Rodgers was hurt a bit by having to play a schedule that featured small-purse events, and he struggled to make putts outside 25 feet (150th).
However, putting outside 25 feet is a volatile metric in the sense that a player who performs poorly on long putts one season is more likely to perform well from outside 25 feet the next season. According to this trend, Rodgers is likely to be a better overall putter in the 2016-2017 season.
The two largest obstacles for him to overcome will be shots from 150-175 yards (179th) and putting from 10-15 feet (180th). However, given his Red Zone performance and putting from 5-10 feet and 15-25 feet, the historical data suggests that those metrics should improve this upcoming season.
O’Hair has had a very up-and-down career, as witnessed by him being on my Players on the Decline last year and now being on my Players on the Rise list for this season. My projection of him being on the decline seemed to have merit, as he only had one top-10 finish and missed the cut in four out of the five events before the FedExCup Playoffs. He turned things around in the Playoffs, however, recording a second-place finish at The Barclays and making it into the Tour Championship.
O’Hair has changed swing coaches over the years, and has made various swing changes. He appeared to hit quite a bit downward on the driver and then switched to having one of the most upward attack angles on Tour. While many encourage hitting up on the driver for increased distance, the data shows that it’s very easy to over do it and for Tour players it can have a negative effect on their driving. O’Hair went through that and it now appears he’s reduced the upward attack angle a bit and is starting to find the driver swing that works for him.
Like Rodgers, O’Hair has some major issues from the Yellow Zone (125-175 yards), which will make birdies more difficult to come by, but he has been a very good Yellow Zone player in the past. And at the age of 34, he’s starting to hit those prime years of performance on Tour.
The name of Lowry’s game up to this point in his career has been ballstriking. And while he had a fabulous season driving the ball, he has typically been an even better iron player. While he was still good from the Red Zone, his performance from the Yellow Zone and Green Zone (75-125 yards) was not typical for him. In the meantime, he developed an excellent short game and became a very good putter from 5-15 feet.
Lowry will have to improve on putts from 3-5 feet (177th) and regain his old from the Yellow Zone. I think from a status standpoint one could compare Lowry to Graeme McDowell before McDowell won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. However, Lowry is much longer off the tee than McDowell was and had a fantastic year with his short game around the green, while McDowell is one of the worst on Tour around the green.
Leishman accomplished all Five Cornerstones of the game and at 33 years old, he’s reaching the age of prime performance on Tour. In the past, Leishman’s weakness has been his driving, but he has been a strong Red Zone performer.
The data suggests that he may finally be conquering his driving woes, and while he had a solid season from the Red Zone (175-225) he has typically been much better from that distance range. If he can regain his old form from the Red Zone with the improvements in his driving, he might be a serious contender in the majors this season.
Hadwin executed all Five Cornerstones of the Game at 28 years old. He was hurt by the small-purse events he was allowed to play in. Another issue for him is his very conservative play off the tee, laying up quite often. I had him ranked 140th in Tee Shot Aggressiveness, which ranks players based on driving distance and courses played along with how often they decided to lay up off the tee versus hitting driver. Matt Kuchar ranked No. 1 in Tee Shot Aggressiveness, while Hadwin was very conservative.
Hadwin did have a good year of driving the ball, but had he decided to lay up less often, that would have likely made him more effective off the tee in the long run. And given that he has ample distance off the tee and putts well, he was missing out on some opportunities to win tournaments.
Players on the decline
Hahn finished 40th on the Money List despite ranking 127th in Adjusted Scoring Average thanks to his win at the Wells Fargo Championship. He was right at the average in Driving Effectiveness, but was a mediocre Red Zone player who putted poorly and was the second-worst player on Tour from 10-20 yards.
The positive news is that he hasn’t lost any ball speed, which is where players who drastically decline also tend to drastically decline in their overall performance. He has typically been a better iron player than he was this past season, however, and his numbers suggest that he won’t make many birdies and struggle to consistently save pars going forward.
Day is a difficult subject to tackle because he was second in both Adjusted Scoring Average and the Money List. However, his ball-striking metrics were not as good as one would assume. His weakness has always been his performance from 150-200 yards and this year it carried over to 200-225 yards as well.
Obviously, much of this could be blamed on his injuries. However, that’s part of the point, as the numbers indicate that the injuries are taking a toll on his game. The issue here is that if he comes back healthy and can stay healthy for a period of time, he can churn out performances like he had at the end of 2015 and at The Players Championship this year.
The other issue is that he had the best year putting on Tour since the Putts-Gained metric was created. Odds are that he’s not going to putt nearly as well as he did. He may be one of the top putters on Tour this season, but he’s likely to be statistically worse than how he putted in the 2015-2016 season.
Kaufman benefited from a schedule that featured big-purse events, as he finished 35th on the Money List despite ranking 96th in Adjusted Scoring Average. The good news for Kaufman is that he’s young, he’s long off the tee, he was a good Red Zone player and he’s an above average putter.
He will need to greatly improve his driving and his Yellow Zone play in 2017, however. At this pace, it will take away a lot of good birdie opportunities. And if his short game play from 10-20 yards does not improve, he will struggle to avoid bogeys as well. This season he will not receive the same opportunities in terms of a big-purse schedule.
Bubba’s driving performance and putting became a real struggle for him this season. He also turns 38 years old, which may begin to work against him.
The numbers indicate that Bubba still has plenty of game left in him, as he hasn’t lost significant ball speed and is a good iron player, but he may no longer be quite the performer he was from 2010-2014. Bubba has said he was struggling with some of the mental parts of the game. That may have been a major factor in his putting woes and carried over to his driving, as he typically is the very best driver on Tour. While he still finished 10th in Driving Effectiveness this season, he is typically significantly better off the tee than he was this past season.
Gomez also benefitted from a large-purse schedule that comes with winning twice in a 12-month span. After his victory at the Sony Open, he went on to miss 10 out of 21 cuts to the finish the season. He did have a strong FedExCup Playoffs, but failed to make the Tour Championship. He should have a strong big-purse schedule, but not as much as he had in the 2015-2016 season.
His driving was better than average, but he doesn’t hit it very far. His best attribute was his putting. Meanwhile, he was a mediocre iron player and short-game performer, which typically leads to not making enough birdies and not avoiding enough bogeys.