Top golfers of 2021: These 10 stars on the PGA Tour have been statistically higher than the rest over the course of the year

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There are a thousand ways to rank golfers in a given year. Most wins, most top-ten finishes, most money earned or best performance in major tournaments are all variations on answering the same question: Who played the best golf of the season? There are times when all the answers are appropriate, but today there is a different quantification, and you may not be fully aware of it.

Earned strokes is a scary phrase that has a very simple definition. It is, at its most reductive, how much better than the field average you are in any given golf tournament. If the field average (total of all scores divided by all golfers) is 280, and you shoot 276, you’ll get four hits or one putt per round against the course. This won’t win you many events (typically the winner is 12-20 strokes better than the field average in a given week, depending on field quality), but it does give you a better understanding of the most common (and best) places in golf.

For today’s workout, there are a few things you need to know. Data Golf adjusts its earned limits to take into account the quality of the field and then produces numbers across single rounds, single events and full years. These numbers, while not perfect in individual categories such as strokes gained while driving and pinning since not all courses are laser powered to account for those specific events, are generally quite accurate. You don’t need lasers to just look at the leaderboard and count hits earned, in fact, we could do it 100 years ago as long as we had the numbers from a given event.

The top 50 golfers in the world average just under a stroke gained per round. The top 10 golfers in the world average just under 2 strokes earned per round. The top five players in the world average two strikes per inning. These are your criteria as we look at the top 10 of 2021 for golf with some comments on them below. Here’s a look at the list, according to Data Golf.

1

Jon Rahm

2.28

2

Patrick Cantlay

2.14

3

Daniel Berger

1.85

4

Victor Hofland

1.73

5

Brison Dechambeau

1.71

6

Jordan Spieth

1.69

7

Paul Casey

1.69

8

Louis Oosthuizen

1.68

9

Justin Thomas

1.66

10

Colin Morikawa

1.64

Here are some notes about what these numbers mean and why some of them may (or may not) be surprising.

  • Ram has been doing well in 2021. Very well. Incredibly, he was also the best golfer in the world according to strokes earned from January to December of 2020. He sat a little higher that year (2.36 overall), but the stats tell a unifying story: For many years now, he’s been the Ram in terms of Statistically he was the best player on the planet. The only reason he hasn’t had more than one US Open win is because although he’s been great across the board for 11 straight months, he’s only had two elite weeks. In golf, as Collin Morikwa has proven, the game is more surreal for four-day stretches than it is for higher-level 10- or 11-month rounds.
  • Cantlay’s number isn’t nearly as surprising, but it’s interesting to note that he did it all without being in the top 10 at a major. He was incredible in the non-majors.
  • Daniel Berger in third place is pretty amazing. I didn’t see that one coming. He’s only won once but finished in the top 10 in nine of the 20 events he’s played over the past year. Probably the most incognito player in the world.
  • Roughly 60% of Bryson DeChambeau’s earned hits have come with the driver.
  • Paul Casey is the highest-ranked player on this list who has not won a PGA Tour event in 2021.
  • Louis Oosthuizen is the highest-ranked player on this list who hasn’t won a PGA Tour or European Tour in 2021. This probably isn’t too surprising given the summer he’s had — three top-five finishes on the majors — but it also speaks to the level of golf he’s played. It’s crazy that it didn’t yield any wins at all.
  • Justin Thomas had a better statistical year than people probably think. Something to watch until 2022. Interestingly, he and Colin Morikawa have nearly identical statistical years. Playing an elite approach, solid numbers from the tee and passive putters. I definitely felt like Morikawa had a better 12 months overall.
  • This, again, amounts to what I mentioned earlier. In golf, unlike a lot of other sports, it can be better to be elite for two or three weeks and then bad for the rest of the year than to be solid for 52 straight weeks. This is the story of Phil Mickelson. Lefty has lost strokes in 13 of his 19 events this year, and then he’s had plenty of strokes in the week of the PGA Championship. While I think the number of hits earned proves, for example, that Oosthuizen played much better golf than Mickelson did throughout 2021, Mickelson still holds a trophy that Oosthuizen doesn’t.

That reality must be maddening for golfers who compete at this level, but it also makes this game so much fun to talk about as we head into the new year. Who will fill Michelson’s position for the next 12 months? Could Morikawa still show up to two or three wins a year? Does JT need to improve his situation? Is the Oosthuizen Clip Sustainable? And if so, does it result in a win? All of these answers simply generate more questions as one year goes on. This can sound infuriating at times, but to me it only leads to more intrigue as 2022 presents us with another year to solve the problem and another set of players, events, and themes to try and figure it out.

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