Justin Thomas turned statistical goals into POY reality

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Justin Thomas turned statistical goals into POY reality

PGA Tour

Justin Thomas turned statistical goals into POY reality

After winning the FedEx Cup in September, Justin Thomas revealed a list of 13 goals for his 2016-17 PGA Tour season that he saved on his iPhone in February. He achieved most of them, including qualifying for the Tour Championship, winning a major championship and making the U.S. Presidents Cup team.

Thomas, 24, also exceeded several of the analytic goals he set for himself, which included finishing the season with a strokes gained: tee-to-green average above 1.0 (he finished at 1.33) and a strokes gained: putting average above 0.25 (he finished with 0.289).

Having won five times last season, including his victory at Quail Hollow in the PGA Championship, Thomas was the obvious choice as PGA Tour Player of the Year. But as strong as his season was, compared to previous Player of the Year award winners in the ShotLink era, Thomas’ 2016-17 PGA Tour season was not exceptional.

Let’s make one thing clear – this is not a knock on Thomas. He clearly deserved to win the Jack Nicklaus Award. But if you compare his performance statistics to the last 12 Players of the Year, Thomas’ season did not stand out.

The former University of Alabama All-American had the second-highest scoring average among the POY winners since 2005, with only Matt Kuchar’s 69.606 average in 2010 higher than Thomas’ 69.359.

Comparing season scoring average across the years is an imperfect science, because courses change and players compete in different events, especially top players who compete in all the majors and World Golf Championships. That is where strokes gained categories come into play, because it provides a better apples-to-apples comparison because each player is gauged against the Tour mean for the season.

As seen in the tabular chart above, Kuchar and Vijay Singh are the only players with a strokes gained: total average lower than Thomas’ 1.619. Strokes gained: total is derived by adding a player’s averages in strokes gained off the tee, approach the green, around the green and putting. It is not a statistic that is referred to often, but it provides a sense of how a player’s overall game compares to the average golfer during that season.

As can be seen in the same chart, the gold standard among Player of the Year seasons since 2005 is Tiger Woods’ 2006 campaign. Woods won the British Open at Royal Liverpool and the PGA Championship at Medinah, and he had a ridiculous strokes gained: total of 3.443. Most of that number came from his long game (his strokes gained: tee to green was 2.982). Woods ranked 21st that year in strokes gained: putting, and his 68.115 adjusted scoring average was 2.981 shots better than the PGA Tour average.

Two of the goals Thomas failed to achieve during the 2016-17 season – being ranked in the top 30 in scrambling and being under par on the par 3s – might be near the top of his list of analytic goals for the 2017-18 season, but focusing too much on achieving those goals might be a mistake.

Thomas generates a lot of clubhead speed with his driver and averaged 309.7 yards off the tee last season, eighth best on the PGA Tour, yet he is not benefiting as much as he should from his power. Dustin Johnson (1.002), Jon Rahm (0.935) and Rory McIlroy (0.878) each finished last season with a strokes gained: off-the-tee average that was twice as large as Thomas’ 0.398.

Thomas should look at that stat as a great opportunity.

If he could hit a few more fairways each event and elevate his driving accuracy percentage from 55.05 percent (ranked 162nd) to 60 percent (ranked No. 101 last season), he likely would hit more greens in regulation and improve his scoring average.

So while Thomas’ 2016-17 Player of the Year season may not be as strong, analytically, as others, maybe the scary thing for his competition is there clearly are parts of Thomas’ game that can (and probably will) get better.

(Note: This story appears in the Oct. 9, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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