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 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.
When I did the projections of who would rise in the 2016-2017 season, two of my risers were Adam Hadwin and Marc Leishman, both of which executed all of the cornerstones in the prior season. Both earned a victory on Tour last season, both made the Tour Championship, and they combined for more than $9.3 million in earnings. In the 2016-2017 season, there were nine players that executed each of the Cornerstones, and they made an average of $4.6 million. The list included Justin Thomas, the winner of the FedEx Cup, the PGA Championship, and PGA Tour Player of the Year award.
Here are the players that I project to be on the rise for the 2017-2018 season due to their strong performance in the Cornerstones of the Game.
Players on the Rise
Laird executed each of the Cornerstones of the game and got off to a great start in 2016-2017 before tapering off in the second half of the season. That tapering off would usually make me a little averse to projecting him to rise, but he has shown the ability to execute each of the Cornerstones. He’s also is in that prime age (he’s 34) when Tour players make their most money.
Grace also executed each of the cornerstones of the game in 2016-2017, and he’s only 29. His biggest issue is that, despite putting well from 5-15 feet, he was fourth-worst putter on the PGA Tour from 3-5 feet. Putting from 3-5 feet is often volatile, however, meaning that a player can greatly improve or greatly regress from 3-5 feet from one season to the next. Given Grace’s age, skill, and aggressive strategy off the tee, I can see him finally getting the major championship victory that has alluded him in the past.
DeChambeau struggled for much of the past season. He had a streak of five missed cuts and later missed eight cuts in a row. Many started to blame his single-length iron concept, but his iron play was not the problem. In fact, he was very good from where it counts most; the Red Zone, or shots from 175-225 yards. He’s also quite long off the tee and very proficient with his driver. His major issue was putting.
Here’s a chart showing Dechambeau’s Putts Gained by event. The dotted black line is the trend line, and it shows a nice upward progression in his putting. Once DeChambeau’s putting started to become serviceable, he started making more money and earned his first PGA Tour victory.
The big key here is if DeChambeau sticks with his current putting method. There is some evidence that points to changing equipment and methodology actually hurting putting performance compared to sticking to the same putter and technique. If he can stick to one putter and method and get his Yellow Zone play back to his 2015-2016 levels, he will be in for a huge season.
Hagy was the top ball-speed performer last year, and he also showed a development in the rest of his game. Shots from 10-20 yards are more critical for bombers like Hagy since, when they miss a GIR, they tend to miss in a worse position. Hagy not only showed some quality play from 10-20 yards, but he also putted very well from 5-15 feet. He also ranked 162nd on putts from 15-25 feet and 171st on putts from 25+ feet, which are more likely to progress toward the mean for this upcoming season.
His iron play is still an issue, but there is some statistical correlation between Driving Effectiveness and Red Zone performance on the PGA Tour. This tends to happen with super-long hitters when they first reach the Tour; they struggle from the Red Zone, and then they later develop the skill quite nicely. Good examples are Bubba Watson and Gary Woodland. I expect Hagy will follow in their footsteps this season.
Landry did not play the PGA Tour last year, finishing fourth on the Money List on the Web.com Tour. He ranked 6th in Driving Effectiveness on the PGA Tour in 2016 and fourth in Putts Gained, however, and he showed some flashes of potential, particularly in the U.S. Open. The issue for him was his poor iron play and short game, but the numbers dictate that the likelihood of him driving it that well and putting that well and having nothing to show for it again are very low.
Players on the Decline
Mickelson’s driving started out okay for the season, and then he took a drastic nosedive. The issue for Phil is that he’s seeing a dramatic drop in club and ball speed (currently at 114 mph swing speed/170 mph ball speed) without more accuracy off the tee. Combine that with his poor play from the Red Zone, and it appears that age may finally be catching up to Phil. The data projects a significant drop off coming soon.
Bryan had a fantastic rookie season with a victory, a third-place finish, and three other top-10 finishes. He’s also young (27) and was a good Red Zone player and elite Yellow Zone player who putted well. So, what’s the problem?
The large discrepancy between his ranking in Adjusted Scoring Average and FedEx Cup Points indicates an issue. Bryan’s A-Game he was really good, but when he didn’t have his good stuff he struggled — his best finish in his last six events was a T44.
We also see a major issue with his driving. Bryan was the second-shortest off the tee, and he wasn’t overly accurate, making him the fourth worst driver on the PGA Tour. There’s not a strong correlation between driving and iron play, but there is enough of a correlation to find that troubling.
Bryan could make up for it by improving his play from 10-20 yards given how often he’ll miss a GIR due to poor driving. Even that is a difficult proposition if you drive it poorly enough, though. If Bryan was super long, but still a poor driver of the ball, he could have a chance if he put together four days of quality driving off the tee. But at this point, his data has similarity scores to players like Tyrone Van Aswegen and D.A. Points. It also runs close to Luke Donald, but Donald has not been nearly as effective in the past five years when the top, young players have driven the ball much better and longer off the tee.
Knox has usually been a statistical favorite of mine due to his ballstriking. He got off to a great fall season on Tour, but in 2017 he struggled mightily with only one top-10 finish. It was at the Bridgestone Invitational, where there is no cut.
Knox’s struggles from the Red Zone are concerning to me given that he is not very long off the tee and he’s not been a very good putter. He compounded the issue even more by struggling mightily from 10-20 yards. He’s still at an age (32) when Tour players start to have their best seasons… but it’s also that time of a player’s career where they can have an unexpected drop in performance that serves as a wakeup call.
McDowell used to be one of the best shorter-hitting drivers of the ball on Tour, as well as an excellent Red Zone player. He has always struggled with shots from 10-20 yards, and his putting performance has been inconsistent. Much of his impressive Putts Gained Ranking (fourth) was based off ranking first on putts from 15-25 feet.
McDowell is starting to get to the age when Tour players regress, and his putting from 15-25 feet is likely to regress toward the mean the next season. That means a lot of struggles from the critical Red Zone, along being unable to get up-and-down to save par — unless he straightens things out.
Perez’s age (41) works against him, and his putting is likely to regress given how well he putted from outside 15 feet in 2016-2017, which again, is likely to regress toward the mean.
The positive for Perez is that his biggest strength has been his ability to get reasonably close to executing all of the Cornerstones of the game. As he gets older, however, his ball speed is likely to go down, and that has a correlation to reduced effectiveness off the tee. His play from 10-20 yards is also likely to regress given that it was the best he’s ever recorded from that distance in his career. Thus, Perez is more likely to regress in each Cornerstone metric than he is to progress.