By The Numbers: History shows Justin Thomas’ POY performance difficult to repeat

LAHAINA, HI - JANUARY 04: Justin Thomas of the United States plays his shot from the third tee during the first round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Plantation Course at Kapalua Golf Club on January 4, 2018 in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

By The Numbers: History shows Justin Thomas’ POY performance difficult to repeat

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By The Numbers: History shows Justin Thomas’ POY performance difficult to repeat

Justin Thomas, who defends his Sony Open title this week at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu, Hawaii, is coming off a breakthrough season. The 24-year-old former All-American at Alabama won five PGA Tour events, including his first major, and was the FedEx Cup champion. When it came time for the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year voting, Thomas was the obvious choice.

As Thomas begins his 2018 campaign, is it realistic to think he will maintain the level of play that moved him from No. 22 in the Official World Golf Ranking at the end of 2016 to No. 3 at the end of 2017?

Last week, before the start of the Sentry Tournament of Champions (which he also won in 2016), Thomas said he had talked with Jordan Spieth about what to expect after having a highly successful season. He said Spieth’s advice was predictable.

“I’m going to expect a lot more, not only from fans and peers, but from (the media) and probably (am) going to be reminded of that quite often,” Thomas said. “I just have to deal with it. I can’t compare any years to past years or last year. It’s just golf, so I just have to go out and do what I’m doing and just don’t get affected by that stuff. I think that was the main thing I took out of it. And I’m obviously going to be pulled a lot more different ways now than I was last year or the year prior, so I need to learn how to manage my time better. And in reality, just figure out what I need to do and what I don’t need to do to make sure that my game is where it needs to be.”

It sounds like good advice, but as the table below shows, every Player of the Year since 2010 has seen a regression in his average strokes gained: total the following season. (Tiger Woods, the 2013 Player of the Year winner, is not included here because he played just seven events the following season and did not qualify for official PGA Tour stat rankings.

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Since 2010, Dustin Johnson’s decrease in overall strokes gained average (8.8 percent) was the smallest among players selected Player of the Year the previous season.

The most significant falloff in strokes gained performance came from Rory McIlroy, whose average slid 144 percent after he won his first Player of the Year award. McIlroy had a monster year in 2012, winning four times (including the PGA Championship) and collecting 10 top-10 finishes in 16 PGA Tour starts. But the following season he had just five top-10s, one runner-up finish and failed to win. All of McIlroy’s strokes gained averages decreased in 2013.  They are listed here.

Rory McIlroy 2012 (rank) 2013 (rank) Percent +/-
Off Tee 1.072 (2nd) 0.624 (6th) -44.8%
Approach Green 1.002 (2nd) 0.420 (32nd) -58.2%
Around Green 0.273 (21st) 0.032 (83rd) -24.1%
Putting 0.058 (88th) -0.093 (118th) -15.1%
Total 2.406 (1st) 0.985 (21st) -144.3%

Spieth won his Player of the Year award in 2015 with titles at the Masters and U.S. Open, and nearly won the British Open at St. Andrews. While he putted better the next year, from a statistical standpoint he was not as good in 2016. They are listed here.

Jordan Spieth 2015 (rank) 2016 (rank) Percent +/-
Off Tee 0.494 (15th) 0.402 (32nd) -9.2%
Approach Green 0.618 (11th) 0.145 (87th) -47.3%
Around Green 0.471 (7th) 0.264 (24th) -20.7%
Putting 0.571 (9th) 0.758 (2nd) 18.7%
Total 2.154 (2nd) 1.569 (5th) -37.28%

As a group since 2010, the Player of the Year winners saw a 65.8 percent average decrease in their strokes gained: total the year after winning the award. That would knock Thomas’ strokes gained total from 1.618 to 0.553, which would have ranked 50th on Tour last season.

“Obviously I would take the year I had last year, I mean from start to finish, every year in the rest of my career,” Thomas said. “I would be fine with it, but I know that’s not going to happen.”

If recent history repeats itself, Thomas is right – last year won’t repeat itself. Gwk

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