This three week break between seasons doesn’t provide for a lot of time to digest the 2013-14 PGA Tour season and preview the 2014-15 season. I’m still digging through the data from last year, trying to highlight which players took genuine steps forward, who’s stats are throwing up red flags, etc. However, these are my top twenty golfers for next season. The criteria is a bit murky, but it’s basically the twenty guys who will make the largest on-course impact on Tour – whether it’s cashing checks, winning tournaments, or even winning majors. Most of these guys are obvious (it’s no secret that Rory is a beast), but maybe a few won’t be so intuitive.
Luke Donald’s fall from grace this season was unexpected, but he both regressed sharply in his long game (tee shots/approach shots), but also slumped with the putter over the last half of the season. Guys who fall off sharply in their long games tend not to rebound much the next year. Kevin Na finally had his break-out season and no one seemed to notice. After an injury riddled 2013, Na came back with the 17th best season on Tour – all because of a huge improvement off the tee and with his irons. Billy Horschel’s end of the season FedEx run was awesome. He was my last cut from the list, mostly because I want to see how he deals with being the guy with the target on his back this year. Chris Kirk had a bit of a break-out season as well, winning the McGladrey early and the Deutsche Bank late. It looks like a lot of his success was more of a putting surge than anything. My numbers still love Steve Stricker, but he’s going to be 48 and his long game cratered this year. He’ll still pop up a few times this year, but his run at the top is done. I could write a whole post on why I think Phil Mickelson is done as an elite player, but the below chart sums it up pretty well. His tee to green game has been in terminal decline for years, covered up by miraculous putting in 2012-13. He’s just so reliant on his short game/putting these days that it’s hard to see him contending that often.
#20 – Hideki Matsuyama
Matsuyama’s first full season on Tour was an obvious success. After a mixed bag in the opening few months (a pair of top tens to go with three injury W/Ds), Matsuyama broke through with his first victory in a playoff at the Memorial. At only 22, he’s already proven himself as one of the ten best ball-strikers on Tour – particularly on the short/medium approach shots. His putting was disappointing – 156th in SG Putting and pretty terrible on the short putts that really show off a golfer’s true talent – but that’s his only weakness. Perhaps most importantly his two year exemption from winning the Memorial means he’ll be able to compete this season without any pressure to retain his card.
#19 – Jimmy Walker
2013-14 was his true break-out, winning three times and earning a spot on the Ryder Cup team where he was one of the only Americans to impress. Walker’s early season run was built on wildly unsustainable putting success, and he regressed sharply to his career averages as the season went on. However his tee to green game got even better after his third win; even though he putted worse than PGA Tour average down the stretch, he still earned two top tens and finished T26 or better in six of seven events. He’s the prototype of a long, but wild hitter off the tee. His emergence the past two seasons has been down to his vastly improved iron play. It’s really unlikely he has anything like the success on 2013-14, but another trip to the Tour Championship and a Presidents Cup spot wouldn’t be surprising at all.
#18 – Zach Johnson
Zach Johnson really fell off the radar this year. His only win came at Kapalua in January when no one is paying attention, then suddenly he was playing in the Ryder Cup. The culprit for Zach this year was just not making putts. He’s been one of the best putters on Tour for years, but slumped this year. I have no doubt he’ll putt better this season and if he does I expect we’ll hear from him a bit more often because his tee to green game was as sharp as ever last year.
#17 – Graeme McDowell
G-Mac benefited the most last season from a lucky and/or much improved putter. His career SG Putting was around average entering the season, but he finished #1 on Tour in SG Putting by the end of the season. Everything I’ve ever researched regarding changes in putting performance suggest he’s going to regress sharply next season. However, McDowell was already consistently excellent at long putts, and his improvement was almost entirely in putts inside 15 feet – the kind of putts where talent shows more strongly over a season. Long story short, G-Mac’s putting improved a lot, but I think he has a good shot at retaining a lot of that improvement and really establishing himself as an above-average putter.
#16 – Keegan Bradley
I think there was a lot of sense this year that Keegan Bradley wasn’t living up to expectations. He was consistently strong all season, but never really contended in a major event and missed the cut at the Masters, PGA, and Players. All in all though, he was a solid top 20 player on Tour – he just missed out on the wins. I expect he’ll find a win this year and earn his way into the Tour Championship without much problem.
#15 – Charl Schwartzel
Schwartzel was another guy that just wasn’t on the Tour’s radar at all this year. He delivered the kind of elite tee to green performances that it takes to win at the Memorial and WGC-Bridgestone, but the putter let him down both weeks. He’s always really strong tee to green, especially with his irons. Predicting a win is always tough – especially for guys like Schwartzel who always play strong fields – but no one should be surprised if Schwartzel wins this year.
#14 – Henrik Stenson
After last summer/fall’s run where Stenson won both the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup and the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, he still managed to record one of the best seasons on Tour, though without a win this year. Stenson’s game is built around long, accurate driving – he’s one of the top five on Tour off the tee – and is great with his irons as well. His length and accuracy also give him the green light to attack most par 5 greens in two, making him one of the more aggressive players on Tour. His only flaw is his putting; it likely cost him a win at Bay Hill this year.
#13 – Jordan Spieth
There were few guys in the world getting better results over the first half of the season than Spieth. By the time he finished 2nd at the Players, he had six top tens in fourteen starts and had contended down the stretch at two huge tournaments. He didn’t play awful in the second half, but he struggled off the tee and his approach shots weren’t that great. Struggles in those long game components tend to stick around for awhile, so priority #1 for Spieth has to be getting his tee to green game squared away. His short game and putting were really solid again this year, so no problems on that front. I’m going to regret ranking him here if he gets his long game squared away because he was a legit top five in the world player early in 2014.
#12 – Tiger Woods
Now we get to the biggest question mark of the season, how will Tiger return? I think there’s some sense that Tiger wasn’t a stud in 2012-13 because he didn’t win a major (we forget he had three top tens in eight tries in majors). Based off that and how terrible he was when injured this year, people are expecting the worst for Tiger next year. I’ve even weighed him from an analytics perspective and highlighted how aging is going to prove his highest hurdle in the coming years. Let there be no question that Tiger has shown the ability since 2009 to be the best golfer in the world. Between 2012-13, after he got healthy and adopted his new swing under Foley, he was the best golfer in the world. He won eight times on Tour – including against strong fields at the Players and WGC events – and posted the best scoring average relative to the field over those two seasons.
The question is whether he can get healthy again. He’s missed significant time due to these nagging injuries twice now in the last four seasons. If he can get as healthy as he was in 2012-13, I expect him to play to the level of no worse than 2nd best in the world. That means 2-3 wins and contending consistently. I think it’s unlikely he ever returns best in the world, simply because Rory has been essentially equal to him the last few years and aging from the late 30s on saps a lot of golfers’s performance. And he’s not going to equal or best Jack’s record unless he has a lengthy run of healthy seasons.
#11 – Bubba Watson
Bubba was nuclear hot early in the season – 2nd in Phoenix, win at Riviera, 2nd at Doral, and win at Augusta. Later on, he was an errant drive away from likely winning the Memorial and his tee to green game was dominant enough to win at the BMW Championship, but he couldn’t make a putt all weekend. I still think there’s some sense around the Tour that Bubba’s driving makes him a one trick pony. That might have been fair in 2010, but he’s improved his short game and putting so that they’re not dragging him down, and his irons are good enough. He’s also much less wild than normally perceived – he was about average in hitting fairways this year and cut his number of Other drives (tee shots that land out of bounds, in the water, or in the trees) down to nearly Tour average this year. His ability to out-hit the field will always make him deadly on Augusta’s comically wide fairways, but he performed great at the Memorial this year and that course probably has the toughest rough of the normal Tour season.
#10 – Dustin Johnson
Suspension or “leave of absence” aside, Dustin Johnson was having his best season as a pro in 2014. He beat a great field in China to start the season before some near misses to Jimmy Walker (Pebble Beach), Bubba (at Riviera), and Patrick Reed (Doral). He only missed three cuts all year and had high finishes at both the US Open and Open Championship. Assuming he comes back healthy and focused from this sabbatical, there’s no reason why he can’t continue to play at a top ten level. His hypothetical six month suspension expires just before the Tour heads to Pebble Beach – the course he’s had both his most professional success and worst professional moment.
#9 – Bill Haas
I’ve written fondly about Haas’s game quite a bit the last few months. His performance this year was nearly flawless, with only a W/D at the Heritage to mar 27 made cuts in 28 starts. Haas isn’t just making cuts either; he had five top tens and seventeen top 25s. Inexplicably left off the Ryder Cup team, Haas figures to be a sure bet to make the 2015 Presidents Cup squad with another similar season. Despite winning five times in the last five years and taking home the FedEx Cup, there are still people sleeping on Haas as an elite player. He earned just over $2.8 million last year and I’d peg him as extremely likely to eclipse that total if he stays healthy this year.
#8 – Rickie Fowler
After the start to the season Rickie Fowler had – five missed cuts by March and only a 3rd at Match Play – people were obviously way down on him. He and Butch Harmon had changed his swing and his game was a mess, especially the putting. Starting with the US Open though, his swing clicked and he started to hole nearly every putt, and only Rory and Furyk were better from June to September. He’ll be lucky to ever putt that well over a few months, but his tee to green game really improved over previous seasons. He’s at a level right now where he’ll be a stud even when the putting regresses to normal.
#7 – Jim Furyk
I’ve written at least half a dozen posts about aging this year, and with each one I marvel a little more at what Jim Furyk has been able to accomplish. Ignore that he hasn’t won in four seasons; this guy is as good now as he was ten years ago and just had his best season since his mid thirties. He continues to churn out top ten tee to green seasons. His game is just perfectly calibrated to hit fairways, hit greens, and scramble in the rare case he misses one. He had four seconds this year! At 45! I think he’ll fall off a bit this year, but he’s still going to be a huge factor every week.
#6 – Matt Kuchar
Kuchar’s season can be summed up in two hole-outs. First, he lost in Houston when Matt Jones holed out to win their sudden death playoff. Kuchar then holed out to win the Heritage two weeks later. Kuchar never seriously contended for the rest of the season (though he added four more top tens – 11 for the season). Only Jason Day has a better all-around game; Kuchar’s solid off the tee, hits his irons well, and his short game is good. He really shines with the putter, where he’s around the top ten on Tour consistently. In terms of week-to-week earnings, Kuchar’s as solid as anyone on this list but McIlroy because of how many starts he makes. One of these days he’s going to run into a major win or FedEx Cup.
#5 – Jason Day
Given the thumb injury Day was suffering through for almost the entire PGA Tour season, it’s remarkable he was able to have so much success. Day ended up top twenty on Tour tee to green, despite that injured digit, and turned in another great putting season. Fully healthy, there’s no doubt Day is going to improve off the tee and with his irons, and his short game is already ridiculously good. Add in that he’s a legitimately great putter and there’s not much doubt that Day’s going to be a stud in 2015. He’s consistently been a monster in majors, so it’s a question of when, not if, he’s going to win one.
#4 – Sergio Garcia
Sergio went winless on Tour this year, an amazing fact since he played two of the ten best tournaments of the season relative to the field. Unfortunately, Rory McIlroy beat him both times (Open Championship and WGC-Bridgestone). This was a textbook Sergio season; he was one of the best in the world with his irons and continued his recent success with the putter. If there’s ever a season where he’ll win a major, 2015 looks like the ideal one. Sergio has always been strong at the links set-ups, and this year the majors visit three links style courses. Sergio is as good a pick as any to win one of them.
#3 – Justin Rose
There’s really not much to say about Rose. He’s simply one of the best ball-strikers in the world and has emerged the past few seasons as one of the best players in the world. This year might’ve seemed like a bit of a disappointment after the US Open win in 2013, but he won twice (at Congressional and the Scottish Open) and dominated at the Ryder Cup. Like the guys right above and below him on this list, he’s right in the middle of his prime and playing great. He’s a threat to win any time he can string together four above-average rounds with the putter.
#2 – Adam Scott
In the rush to anoint Rory as The Best in The World (and he is), everyone missed the season Adam Scott put together. He only won once (Colonial), but his worst finish this year was T38 at the Players and he didn’t fall below T16 after that. Early in the year he rode a hot putter, but when that cooled down down the stretch he was still stockpiling top tens. He has a top five long game in the world, and has shown the past few years that he can be just average with the putter. This year he’ll likely start experimenting with some modified putting technique because his method of anchoring will be illegal in 2016, but I doubt he’ll face any long term trouble from that. More importantly, he’s coming off a dominant three year stretch where only Rory and Tiger have hit higher heights and he’s smack in the middle of his prime. Another major title and multiple wins should be the goal this year.
#1 – Rory McIlroy
Rory had a season for the record books. The best season by my ratings since Tiger Woods in 2009, the best driving season in the Shot Link era, two major wins, and two more victories in huge events. Most importantly, he absolutely killed the narrative that he can’t hold onto a lead – he responded to blowing great first rounds at the Memorial and Scottish Open by pulling away from the field in the 2nd round at the Open Championship. His combo of distance and accuracy is ridiculous; he not only can outhit the field by 20+ yards every time, but during his run in July-September he almost never lost a drive out of bounds or in the water. Typically the long hitters are restrained by that inaccuracy, but Rory knows he’s going to be able to keep those 310 yard bombs in play.
The rest of his game was great this year. When you’re gaining over a stroke on the field just off the tee, you can afford an average short game. His irons were top ten on Tour, which is just unfair. And I’ve written about his putting. It’s impossible to putt as well as he did in July-August long-term. What he did in the FedEx Playoffs when he was essentially Tour average is much more indicative of his long-term putting abilities. That’s fine, but it’s what separates him from ~2000 or 2005-08 Tiger Woods. That version of Tiger was the best in the world tee to green, but also was one of the best putters in the world. Rory still has time to work on his putting and get to that level, but all of his putting improvement this year was on long putts. Performance on long putts is extremely noisy even over multi-year samples. Despite all that, Rory enters every tournament as the favorite from now on.