With the Run for the Roses in the rearview mirror and a significant mile marker, The Players Championship, on the horizon, the idea of handicapping seems appropriate. No matter what the performance charts suggest in either horse racing or golf, there is no question the task of picking a Derby winner from a field of 20 is far easier than picking a tournament winner from a PGA Tour full-field event of 156, particularly given the any-given-week talent present in golf today.
Measurables are in vogue in all of sports, and four months into the calendar 2017 season some trends may not be as Daily Racing Form predictive, but they are at least a direction to consider.
- The PGA Tour’s wraparound season is actually the two seasons it always has been. The seven events in October and November of the preceding year are merely a preface, not a chapter in the annual story. Of the 14 winners in the last two year’s early-season events, only three have gone on to win again in the remainder of the schedule. Justin Thomas, Russell Knox and Hideki Matsuyama posted wins after their fall successes.
- You can’t rely on anyone over 30. In the 17 individual events staged in 2017 prior to The Players Championship, a dozen winners were age 30 or younger. Three of the five wins for the older crowd were by one player, world #1, Dustin Johnson.
- World rankings continue to lag actual performance as a predictor of current success. Leading into The Players, 13 of the top 20 players in the world golf rankings were without a win in 2017, including #2 Rory McIlroy and #3 Jason Day. Only one player in the second 10, Jon Rahm, has a calendar win. Two of those with top-10 rankings, Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia, were not in the top 10 leading into the week they posted a win.
- Length off the tee is a plus but not a reliable indicator. Only Dustin Johnson (#1 at 315.2 yards) and Justin Thomas (#6 at 306.5 yards) are in the top 10 in driving distance and have recorded a win in 2017. If you stretch that number to include every player averaging over 300 yards this year on Tour, only Sergio Garcia (304.2), Jon Rahm (304.1) and Rickie Fowler (301.5) have also collected wins.
- Accuracy off the tee is an overrated quality, even with the limited success of the tee bombers. Of the top 45 players on Tour in 2017, only one, Sergio Garcia, has won a PGA Tour event this year. That number is all the more shocking when extended to the top 100, which features only five 2017 winners.
- Accuracy with irons into the greens is heavily weighted at the top of the Greens in Regulation chart but doesn’t really radiate through the first 20 spots. Dustin Johnson (#1), Jordan Spieth (#2) and Sergio Garcia (#4) have five wins so far this year. Matsuyama, Thomas and Russell Henley are in the second 10. Both Johnson and Garcia have an opportunity to pull one of the rarest doubles in PGA Tour measurables. Both have a chance to lead in both distance and GIR.
- Excellence on the greens belies the adage about “putting for dough.” None of the first five in putting on Tour so far this year have used their talent with the short stick to record a Tour win. The case is stronger in the second five with Fowler (#6), Henley (#7) and Marc Leishman (#9) members of the winner’s circle so far this year. Surprising to many may be that the player rated the best putter among the elites in the game, Jordan Spieth, currently sits 31st on the list. And a player many questioned for years on the greens, Dustin Johnson, is eight spots higher at #23.
So where can you go for the most reliable indicator of picking a winner for your fantasy field for The Players Championship. Two Tour categories are both obvious and top-heavy with winners.
- If you score better than the rest, you almost certainly win more than the rest. Of the first 10 names for 2017 in scoring average, only Justin Rose (#4) and Thomas Pieters (#8) are still winless through the start of May.
- What used to be called the All-Around Statistical Leader on Tour has been refined in recent years to factor in more measurables and is now called Strokes Gained. The numbers there are equally as strong with winners in the first 10. Johnson, who is in the top 10 in six of the Tour’s major lists, ranks #1. Only Tyrrell Hatton (#4), Kevin Kisner (#7) and Rose (#9) have failed to convert their statistical excellence into a win this year.
The TPC at Sawgrass has a reputation for taking the driver from the hands of the game’s longest drivers. Place your bets wisely.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.