Last season it all came together for Justin Thomas. In 2017, every part of his game clicked and he won three times before Valentine’s Day. In August, the former University of Alabama star won his first major, the PGA Championship, and a few weeks later won the Dell Technologies Championship and the overall 2017 FedEx Cup. At 24, Thomas won the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year award.
The only negative thing that comes after a season like that is the challenge of backing it up. It’s hard to have a great season, but it is even harder to sustain the level of play that earns a Player of the Year award.
One measure of how well a golfer is playing is his strokes gained total average. It shows how much better or worse than the field average a golfer plays on the same course and in the same events. The table below shows the season-ending strokes gained total average for each player who has won a Player of the Year award since 2008, and they are all outstanding. It also shows each player’s average the following year, and several excellent players faltered after winning the award.
Vijay Singh, who is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, had the fourth-best strokes gained total average in 2008 (1.467), but he dropped to 104th the following season. After leading the Tour in 2012 with an average of 2.406, Rory McIlroy’s slid to 0.985, which was still good but ranked 21st. Jordan Spieth and Luke Donald also saw significant drops in their strokes gained total average the season following their Player of the Year seasons.
Since 2008, only two players – Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson – have won the Player of the Year award and finished the next season with a higher strokes gained total average, but it appears Thomas is poised to join the group.
Going inside the numbers shows Thomas’ short-game performance has dipped slightly compared to last season, and his putting, which had also been down marginally heading into the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, is now fractionally higher. His strokes gained around-the-green and strokes gained putting averages are positive, so he still has a statistical edge over the average player in those areas.
The main reason Thomas’ putting had been down 0.052 strokes heading into last week’s event was he had been one-putting less, three-putting slightly more and holing significantly fewer putts from 15-20 feet. Last season Thomas made more than 23 percent of his putts from 15-20 feet, but this year he is making just less than 14 percent.
More importantly, Thomas’ driving and play from the fairway are still improving. He’s added 4.5 yards to his average driving distance, and his greens-in-regulation percentage is up 2 percent to 69.25, which ranks 33rd on Tour. Those gains have offset his slightly weaker performance around the greens, so his strokes gained total average has risen from 1.724 to 1.987, which ranks third on the PGA Tour heading into the PGA Championship.
The bottom line is that Thomas, statistically, is playing even better than he did last season, which means he is a threat to win any golf tournament he enters. His driving and iron play will give him a lot of chances to make birdies, and his 4.32 birdies per round ranks fifth on Tour. As long as his putting and short game do not nullify those advantages, there is no reason to think Thomas will leaving the top 10 any time soon. Gwk