In golf, statistics are as cold and heartless as a stare from Brooks Koepka on the first tee, but they don’t lie. They can be twisted and contorted, but in the end, statistics tell the truth whether a player is willing to admit to it or not.
With the PGA Tour’s 2018-19 season now complete, all of the numbers have been entered into ShotLink, the tour’s database that has tracked every shot struck in nearly every PGA Tour event since 2003. Comparing this year’s season-ending statistics to last season’s reveals which players were able to improve the most while also trying to win championships. We can also see which players struggled the most and saw their performances drop in different areas of the game.
Every golfer on the PGA Tour has goals and aspirations, and to achieve those things they focus on improving different aspects of their game. Maybe it’s proximity to the hole from 125-150 yards or driving accuracy or even three-putt avoidance. In this four-part series, we’re going to focus on the main strokes gained statistics: off the tee, approach the green, around the green and putting.
Strokes gained measures how well (or poorly) a golfer compares to the field average, measured in strokes. So, for example, Rory McIlroy, the winner of the 2019 FedEx Cup, finished the year ranked No. 1 in strokes gained off the tee with an average of 1.195. That means over the course of 18 holes, McIlroy typically earned more than a one-shot advantage over the average player in the field.
Conversely, Phil Mickelson finished the year ranked T-165 in strokes gained off the tee with an average of -0.307. That means the 49-year-old, five-time major winner’s driving cost him about one-third of a shot against the average player. But over the course of a 72-hole tournament, if everything else were equal, McIlroy would typically beat Mickelson by about six shots because his driving was so much better than Lefty’s.
The chart below shows all the players who had official PGA Tour stats at the conclusion of the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, along with how they either improved or worsened in strokes gained off the tee. If you hover your mouse over a dot or touch it on a touchscreen-enabled computer, you can see the player’s name, his season-ending strokes gained off the tee average and his year-over-year change in strokes gained off the tee.
The dot on the chart that is farthest to the right is McIlroy, the tour’s best driver. What many fans may not realize, but the chart shows, is that while Rory ranked sixth in strokes gained off the tee two seasons ago, he improved his driving significantly last season. In fact, he had the sixth-largest improvement on tour (0.434).
The biggest jump in strokes gained off the tee was made by Cameron Tringale, who is represented by the lone dot at the top of the chart. He improved by 1.243 shots, and while Tringale was still a slightly-below-average driver this season, his improved driving helped him finish the year inside the top 125 in FedEx Cup points for the first time since 2016.
Other players who made solid gains off the tee include Sung Kang (0.653), Paul Casey (0.476), Jhonattan Vegas (0.450), Jason Day (0.359) and Xander Schauffele (0.216).
The largest drop in strokes gained off the tee was made by Jordan Spieth. His average went down by 0.723 shots. A year ago he finished tied for 50th in this statistical category, but his 2018-19 average of -0.452 ranked 176th.
Spieth was not the only big name to struggle this year off the tee. Henrik Stenson had the second-largest drop in strokes gained off the tee, down 0.72 shots, and 2018 British Open winner Francesco Molinari fell 0.585 shots. Billy Horschel dropped 0.393, Justin Rose was down 0.372 and U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland was down 0.331 from last season.
Next week: The biggest movers in strokes gained approach the green.