2001: Who was hot in 2001?
By Jeff Rude
Tsuneyuki (Tommy) Nakajima owns a strong and interesting résumé. He won the Japan Order of Merit four times in 1982-86, capturing nine tournaments in one year and seven in another. He has finished in the top 10 in several majors, including third at the 1988 PGA. He has made both 13 and 3 on the par-5 13th hole at the Masters. And he contended for three rounds in the 1987 U.S. Open at Olympic Club until he hit his second shot into a cedar tree by the 18th green.
Now, at 47, Nakajima adds another eye-catching entry to his dossier. The man known as one of Japan’s best players made by far the biggest move in the 2001 Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index among those ranked on Jan. 1. From the start of the year to now, Nakajima improved 766 places, rising from No. 862 to 96, showing it’s never too late to get better.
A player’s significant rise or fall normally is related to health, short game or one ball-striking category. Attitude and momentum also matter.
In Nakajima’s case, his iron shots, putting and ability to get up-and-down for par improved drastically from 2000 to this year. On the Japan Golf Tour, he went from 109th (54.17 percent) to fifth (69.48 percent) in greens in regulation; 95th (1.84) to 11th (1.76) in putting average per GIR, and 88th (54.6) to eighth (64.04) in recovery. As a result, his stroke average fell three shots to 70.16, he made the cut in all 22 starts, and he moved from No. 116 to ninth in earnings.
“My game is much better than before, even better than when I was young, except my putting,” Nakajima said.
Though 26 years Nakajima’s junior, Justin Rose of England also is blooming later than expected. Rose, of course, tied for fourth in the 1998 British Open at Royal Birkdale just before turning professional and 18. Then he missed the cut in his first 21 PGA European Tour events as a pro in 1998-99. But Rose worked hard through the adversity, improved his driving accuracy considerably and flashed his promise in 2001, moving up 545 spots to No. 130.
Closer to home, here’s the long and short of it: Powerful John Daly made the biggest advance, 394 places to 53rd, among players who started 2001 on the PGA Tour. And one of the Tour’s shortest hitters, Corey Pavin, showed signs of a comeback himself. Pavin moved up 185 positions to 82nd. The reason? Work on the greens. Pavin improved from 99th in putting average in 2000 to 27th this year.
Daly led the Tour in driving distance for the 10th time in 11 years, this time with a record 306.7-yard average. But his rise has to do with improvements in iron play (175th and 62.1 percent in 2000 to 70th and 67.3 percent in GIR this year), putting (161st to 42nd), scrambling (52.2 percent to 56.3 percent) and hitting fairways off the tee (57.5 percent to 60.7 percent). As a result, Daly finished No. 61 in earnings after placing 158th or worse in three of the four previous years.
Myriad reasons lie behind the self-taught Daly’s comeback. He worked harder on his game, especially with distance control inside 100 yards, than in recent years. The recovering alcoholic took advantage of the small practice facility he had built at his Dardenelle, Ark., home, complete with putting green and range big enough to hold full wedge shots. He switched from a draw to a fade in July and improved his driving control, taking trouble left out of play. Moreover, newly married and seemingly more mature and at peace, Daly also handled the adversity of over-par holes better than in his temperamental past.
“He’s as happy as I’ve seen him in a long time,” said Bud Martin, Daly’s agent for more than a decade. “And he’s exponentially better inside 125 yards. Combine that with the weapon of his driver and he’s really a different player.”
At the other end of the spectrum was Japan’s Hisayuki Sasaki. He slipped 692 spots, from No. 173 to 865. Sasaki, playoff loser to Davis Love III in the 1995 World Cup and now winless for four years, regressed in all areas and missed cuts regularly (17 of 26 starts) on the Japan Golf Tour. He finished no rank better than 77th in any statistical category, and his putting was especially off (115th; 1.86 putts per GIR).
Among PGA Tour players, those who fell the furthest were part-timer Larry Rinker, who made one cut in seven starts and slipped 516 spots to No. 760; injured Notah Begay III (down 481 spots to 536), the 2000 Presidents Cup team member whose back problems limited him to only 12 starts and 197th in earnings; partially exempt Mike Springer (minus 436 to 667th), limited to 10 events; and 2000 Kemper Open champion Tom Scherrer (minus 375 to 494th).
Scherrer’s game slipped in most categories. His ball-striking and putting regressed. He went from 68.2 percent to 62.9 percent in fairways hit, 67.9 percent to 62.5 percent in GIR and from 79th to 167th in putting rank. As a result, he slid from 35th to 167th in Tour earnings and never finished better than 17th.
Scherrer pins the blame on a swing change that didn’t work. Even though he had four top-10 finishes in 2000, he wasn’t pleased with his ball-striking. So, under the guidance of renowned instructor David Leadbetter, who had helped him improve over three years, Scherrer tried to close the clubface on the downswing and open it after impact, a holding action similar to that of Paul Azinger and David Duval.
But on June 28, after shooting 75 in the first round of the Greater Hartford Open, Scherrer told his father, George, “I couldn’t cheat and make this cut, so let’s go see Craig Harmon (his longtime instructor and head professional at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y.) and start the rebuilding process.” Scherrer went back to fundamentals, has focused on getting the clubface square back and through, and says he’s optimistic.
“I think the world of David; he did a lot of great things for me and we’re friends,” Scherrer said. “But maybe we went down the wrong path. It was something that didn’t work for me.
“It’s the same story you hear all the time. In trying to improve, a player makes changes, then loses confidence and then has to build himself back up. I was working so hard on swing changes, I neglected my chipping and putting. I just want to wipe 2001 from my mind.”
Among other January-to-December movements in the 2-year-old Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index, which is based on results of the most recent 52 weeks, emphasizes stroke differential between players and especially rewards consistent high finishes against strong fields:
Remaining in the top 10 were Tiger Woods (No. 1 all year), Phil Mickelson (No. 4 start and finish), David Duval (3 to 6), Davis Love III (10 to 3), and Paul Azinger (5 to 7).
Falling out of the top 10 were Ernie Els (No. 2 to 24), Tom Lehman (6 to 21), Jim Furyk (7 to 19), Lee Westwood (8 to 197) and Steve Flesch (9 to 51). Lehman fell despite leading the PGA Tour in GIR (74.5 percent). Westwood’s plunge was most alarming. The Englishman missed the Masters because of the birth of his first child, spent more time at home than usual and never got back on track. Further, he decided to change his swing with instructor Pete Cowen and that hasn’t paid off. Hence, his stroke average went up two strokes from 2000, to 71.69, tied for 109th in Europe.
Moving into the top 10 were Vijay Singh (13/2), Scott Verplank (23/5), Chris DiMarco (44/8), Rocco Mediate (29/9) and Scott McCarron (124/10). McCarron attributes his climb to two years of work with Houston instructor Jim Hardy.
Chad Campbell moved from unranked to No. 73 after winning three times and leading the money list on the Buy.com Tour. The former Nevada-Las Vegas player also led Hooters Tour earnings in 1998-2000. Having dominated the developmental leagues, Campbell, 27, seems a good bet for 2002 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, if not future stardom. An accurate ball-striker, Campbell led the Buy.com in total driving and ranked fourth in GIR.
The pack narrowed the gap on Woods. His power-rating lead over No. 2 (now Singh) shrunk to .90. Fourth-place Mickelson went from 2.19 behind on Jan. 1 to 1.11 back. For an indication of how many strokes one player would be favored over another over 72 holes, multiply two players’ power rating differential by four.
The strength of Woods’ 52-week window is from the first half of 2001, when he won five of six starts worldwide. In the last six months, Woods’ lead is only .30. In other words, if Woods stumbles in early 2002 and a highly ranked pursuer comes on, Woods could be unseated at the top.
Everybody’s player to watch, long-hitting Charles Howell III, moved up 119 spots to 20th in his first full season as a professional. He won the NCAA in 2000, then played his way from a no-status position on the PGA Tour to $1.52 million in earnings in 24 starts. His nonmember earnings would’ve ranked No. 33 on the PGA Tour money list.
Other players besides Begay plummeted because of injury. David Sutherland, who underwent shoulder surgery and made only two PGA Tour starts (though he did win a Buy.com event), went from No. 122 to unranked. Franklin Langham, who tried to play through injury before undergoing left elbow surgery, dropped from 72nd to 235th. Tom Kalinowski, No. 22 on the 2000 Buy.com money list, sat out three summer months, made only three of 12 cuts and fell 565 places to No. 754.
Padraig Harrington of Ireland appears poised to become a major threat in major championships. He advanced 32 spots to No. 11, the fruits of a complete game. Harrington won three key statistical categories on the PGA European Tour – stroke average (69.23), putting average (1.723) and GIR (co-first at 77.1 percent).
Casey Martin, suffering from a congenital leg defect, won a Supreme Court decision in 2001 to use a cart in Tour-sanctioned events. But his game didn’t hold up. Martin slipped 364 spots to No. 652.
The good news for Lebo Ramokhosi of the Sunshine Tour in South Africa is that, in relation to all players ranked, he dropped only one spot. The bad news is he went from second to last (1,049 of 1,050) to last (No. 1,087).
Jerry Springer’s TV ratings might be high, especially in trailer parks, but Jerry Springer of the Canadian Tour is down in the rankings. He slipped 87 spots to 1,067.
Two men whose names are all but unpronounceable made among the hugest ascensions (we’re talking eye-chart stuff here): Thammanoon Sriroj went up 522 spots to No. 277 and Yui Ueda improved 319 slots to No. 689.
The once-great Seve Ballesteros led the European Tour in putts per round (27.9) for the third time in four years. But that meant nothing, save perhaps that he doesn’t hit greens, for Ballesteros dropped 29 places to No. 943.
With his two wild-card picks, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Curtis Strange in August selected the two highest available players in the Performance Index: Verplank (now 5) and Azinger (7). European captain Sam Torrance also picked the highest available in Sergio Garcia (now 13) and Jesper Parnevik (17).
The following further examines major rises and falls of selected PGA Tour players, putting their reasons and numbers behind the changes. First, those who improved:
Brett Quigley (+188 spots to 68th place): He qualifies as the poster-boy model for any fantasizing golfer anywhere who wants to drive the ball some 20 yards farther. Quigley lived the dream in 2001, improving his Tour driving-distance average by 22.1 yards. Golf’s new power player, at only 5 feet 11 and 160 pounds, averaged 298.5 yards, second on Tour to Daly.
As a result, the 32-year-old, having finished 127th to 152nd in earnings in four previous PGA Tour seasons, vaulted to 56th on the money list with almost $1 million.
Quigley says he is driving so much farther for three main reasons: His back was finally healthy, his switch from the Titleist Prestige to Titleist Pro V1 ball, and he used one swing thought: Try to hit the ball as high and hard as possible.
Work with a chiropractor up to three times weekly helped improve his posture and alleviate chronic spinal pain. He says his Advil usage went from 10 capsules per week to about 10 for the year.
Quigley won a Buy.com event in late April and was planning to play the Buy.com Tour the rest of the year. But then he tied for second at the PGA Tour’s Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic the next week and changed his focus.
“That gave me confidence and trust in my ability,” he said. “If I didn’t finish fifth or better at Greensboro, I would’ve stayed on the Buy.com Tour.”
Scott McCarron (+114 to 10th): McCarron missed an average of 11 cuts annually in his first six Tour seasons, but his work with instructor Hardy reaped high-level consistency in 2001. He made the cut in all but two of 25 starts, had 15 top-25 finishes and moved from 101st and 97th in earnings the two previous years to 23rd. Moreover, he won his third Tour title, first in four years.
“I just have a lot better handle on the game,” he said. And much improved connection between arms and body through the swing. To reinforce that feeling, McCarron practiced while using the Peter Jacobsen-designed Swing Jacket and putting towels under his arms.
The improvement was drastic. McCarron, 36, jumped from 47th to third in the all-around stat category, 87th to 13th in total driving,157th (63.3 percent) to 25th (70 percent) in GIR, and 180th (60.8 percent) to 91st (68.8) in fairways hit.
Billy Mayfair (+90 to 41st): He raised his game in all areas, most notably in putting. He went from 161st to 42nd in putting average and also converted more on par saves. As a result, he earned $1.25 million more than in 2000.
“If you’re putting well, you’re playing well,” Mayfair said.
Mayfair worked more last offseason on his short game – putting, chipping and pitching. “It paid off on the West Coast and the rest of the year I was confident.”
Short-game wizard Phil Mickelson, fellow resident of Scottsdale, Ariz., helped Mayfair on his flop shots last winter.
“Between chipping and putting, I saved three of four shots in a week, sometimes in a day,” Mayfair said.
Willie Wood (+256 to 166th): He also recovered from back problems, which began in 1999 and had a prolonged negative effect on his swing. Partially exempt as a past champion on the PGA Tour, Wood made the cut in 10 of 16 starts but finished No. 173 largely because of the limited access. “I need to play in 28-30 tournaments to have a chance at the top 125,” he said.
He did improve his game at least slightly in all areas. He ranked 46th in putting average (1.754 from 1.766 in 2000). And he hit more fairways (60 percent, from 57.7) and more greens (62.5 percent, from 57.5).
“The big thing is I feel fine physically,” Wood said. “I’m driving the ball a lot better, but that’s because I can finally put a good aggressive swing on it.”
Steve Stricker (+143 to 47th): He lowered his scoring average almost a stroke and returned to the Tour Championship because he improved his putting. He improved from 74th to 11th in putting average, and it all started the first week of January when he won the $1 million first prize at the WGC-Accenture Match Play.
“I made a lot of putts at the match play and it got me in a good frame of mind,” Stricker said. “I had a lot of confidence out of the gate.”
Confidence with a different putter, too. Stricker switched back to an old Odyssey DF550 at the start of the year after using various Ping putters in 2000. It so happened he made more putts and three-putted less often.
Bob Tway (+164 to 22nd): He set himself up in 2001 with better ball-striking. His driving distance improved from 131st (270.6 yards) to 99th (279.4), fairways hit from 65.2 percent to 70.3 percent and GIR from 69 percent to 71.9 percent.
“It’s just such a fine line out here,” Tway said. “A shot here, a shot there, makes all the difference and last year those shots were going the other way. This year everything has been a little better. I’m driving better and hitting more greens, which gives me more opportunities for birdie. I didn’t do a good job of that last year. That’s the big difference.”
Many were not as fortunate. Some took major tumbles. Here’s a look at the slippage of four Tour players:
Steve Pate (-156 to 224th): A member of the winning U.S. Ryder Cup team in 1999, Pate suffered back problems early in 2001 that bothered him all year. As a result, all of his statistics suffered. His driving accuracy especially took a hit, from 70.3 percent to 64.6 percent.
“Obviously when you’re hurt it affects every part of your game,” Pate said. “I’ll try to rest (the back) for a few months and hopefully turn things around (next year). I won’t be exempt (151st in earnings), so I plan on writing a lot of letters (to sponsors for exemptions). They’ll be hearing from me, you can be sure of that.”
Woody Austin (-182 to 320th): The 1995 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, Austin has been off his game since 1996. This year, he held on to the last exempt spot (125th in earnings) despite dropping from 51st to 152nd in total driving.
But Austin seems more concerned about his temperament than his driver.
“I’m just a mental case,” he said. “I let every little thing get to me. But that’s the way I’ve always been. I just need to get my head straight and quit getting down on myself. Of course, for me, that’s a lot easier said than done. But it will be a goal of mine next season, just like it seems to be every season.”
Scott Dunlap (-115 to 156th): Dunlap’s strength always has been ball-striking, but this year it let him down, especially with irons. He dropped from 19th to 117th in GIR and from 14th to 71st in total driving.
“I’ve been fighting myself the whole time,” Dunlap said. “It’s not been ugly, just not sharp. I haven’t given myself many good birdie opportunities. My putting wasn’t that good, but that wasn’t the problem. Usually my game is hitting the ball well enough to take the pressure off my putter.”
Dunlap also had trouble finding grips that suited him.
“I seem to be very sensitive to the thickness or whatever,” he said. “I was changing grips constantly (same manufacturer type) and nothing felt comfortable. I was started to think I was insane.”
Brad Elder (-14 to 183rd): Even a drop of 14 spots in the rankings can have major impact on one’s life. Elder hit few fairways and greens and lost his full exempt status, falling from 68th in earnings as a rookie to 128th.
The swing was the thing.
“Last year I just went out and played golf,” Elder said. “This year I think I started trying to get too technical with everything. I saw a couple different instructors and just got too caught up in a lot of things. I got to where I was trying to analyze everything.”
Elder, however, regained his card by finishing tied for eighth at Q-School earlier this month.
– Lance Ringler and Ron Balicki contributed to this report.