Ingredients for success in 2019

January 11, 2019
Dan Zelezinski

Different courses suit different players. That’s something we’ve come to accept as golfers. You only have to look as far as Rory McIlroy’s schedule for the upcoming season to recognise that the best players are seeking any edge, including schedule optimisation, matching courses and layouts with playing styles. Whilst the world’s leading tours endeavour to serve up a variety of courses throughout the year, offering opportunities to all players (not just the bombers!), it’s very apparent the leading players share certain characteristics in their style of play. We take a closer look at what is driving the performance gains of the very best. What elements are non-negotiable for those aspiring to reach the top of the rankings? Who are the outliers? Where should they double down efforts on the range? and who do we expect to make a big splash in 2019.

What does a top-player need in his game?

Profiling the 10th best player in the world in 2018, 15-20% of their total strokes gained on the field is derived from approach shots from 125-225 yards, at +0.4 SG on the field. Two consistent performers and major champions, known for their ball striking and approach play, Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson gained +0.84 and +0.83 on these shots in 2018.

The top guys gain a further 25-30% of their strokes are gained off the tee, the vast majority of the +0.70 SG advantage resulting from distance. Similarly, and unsurprisingly, Thomas and Johnson were near the top of the stats in driving distance last season, at an average drive of 311.8 and 314 yards respectively.

Looking at these two key aspects of the great game, distance and ball striking from 125-225 yards, we can see that the very best are particularly strong. Somewhat counterintuitive and potentially controversial reading, for those of you that are long term subscribers to the ‘drive for show, putt for dough’ school of thinking. We previously debunked this myth in a recent contribution to the Global Sports Survey report.

Can the mould be broken?

There are of course exceptions to the rule. It’s certainly not about the power game for last years Players’ champion, Webb Simpson. He’s far from a bomber by modern standards despite averaging a very respectable 293 yards off the tee last year – putting him way outside the top 100 on tour. But what he lacks in power, he makes up for in precision. Simpson is one of the worlds best when in close proximity to the hole. Combining his approach game, short game and putting, he ranks in the top 25 in strokes gained for each respective discipline. If he could find a formula to add another 20 yards to his driving, statistically at least, no one on tour would compete. I would expect him to have spent plenty of time with his trainer in the gym over the past couple of months!

Concentrated efforts for big rewards

Jason Day has previously climbed to the pinnacle of the sport and is currently world number 11, how can he best make a run for the top this season? He gains little to nothing on the field week in, week out with his approach shots, however his combined putting and short game is up there with the very best. He averages 310 yards off the tee (top 15 on the PGA tour last season) So with the power game firmly in the locker and sitting inside the top 5 for both strokes gained around the green and strokes gained putting, a focus on his approach play is a must. He ranked well outside the top 100 on tour last year, losing 0.14 strokes on the field. Looking back at Jason’s game in 2015 (when he was no.1) the major difference is his approach play where he was previously ranked 25th on tour, gaining 0.46 strokes on the field. With the knowledge he has one of the best short games in the world, can match the longest guys on tour, I would expect Jason to be wearing out grooves on his mid irons this winter! Motivated by the fact that shifting his current performance (-0.14) by a relatively small margin would have him challenging for top spot once again.

One to watch

Having identified the relative importance of driving distance and approach play, who do we expect to make big strides in 2019? The first week of the new calendar year gives us a great indication. Reviewing the second half of last season we identified Gary Woodland rapidly ascended from +0.31 SG on approach shots (Jan-Jun) to +1.04 for the second half of the year. Combined with his prodigious power off the tee, ranking 7th on tour at 313.5 yards, he possesses all the ingredients of a very potent winning formula for 2019. Following last season’s PGA Tour Championship he has produced five top-10 performances, placing second twice, including last week, losing out to a red hot Xander Schauffele who shot 11 under on Sunday! If Woodland’s performance continues on its current trajectory he’ll be a player who’s going to make great viewing in 2019.