Comparing high-flying Wolff and his impressive peers

July 22, 2020
Justin Ray

With a homegrown swing and explosive talent, Matthew Wolff burst onto the professional scene last summer in style, winning the 3M Open in just his third PGA Tour start as a pro.

Then just 20 years old, Wolff became just the third player to win the NCAA Division I individual title and a PGA Tour event in the same year, joining Ben Crenshaw and Tiger Woods. Since World War II, only Jordan Spieth had won on the Tour at a younger age. One of golf’s next great stars had arrived even quicker than expected.

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Like the duo of Spieth and Justin Thomas that preceded them, Wolff will invariably be linked to a pair of other players who emerged from college stardom onto the pro stage in 2019: Collin Morikawa and fellow Oklahoma State Cowboy Viktor Hovland. But while Wolff was the first of the three to break through into the PGA Tour winner’s circle, Morikawa and Hovland have been the more consistent performers in the year-plus since turning professional.

That may be a bit of an unfair comparison, though, for Wolff. Hovland and Morikawa have been among the best players in golf since last summer, ranking 8th and 11th respectively on the PGA Tour in scoring average during that stretch. Both players rank in the top-15 since last June in strokes gained total, off the tee and tee to green.

Where those two have separated themselves, though, is on approach play. Both Hovland and Morikawa are flashing early iron statistics parallel to generational-level talents. Morikawa (+1.08) leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained approach per round since last June, while Hovland (+0.87) is third. Justin Thomas, the leading winner on the Tour over the last four seasons, is sandwiched between the two phenoms.

Wolff is the youngest of the three men – Morikawa is 23, while Hovland is 22 – which may explain a bit of the differences in consistency of play. But make no mistake, Wolff is by no means a slouch since turning pro.

While his statistical rankings since last year’s Travelers Championship aren’t quite at the level of the other two, Wolff is excellent off the tee (ranked 25th) and gaining strokes on the field in every ball-striking category. He’s also been the best putter of the trio, gaining strokes per round while the other two have not.

COURSE CHARACTERISTICS

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TPC Twin Cities will feel like a vacation compared to the stern test Jack Nicklaus administered a week ago at the Memorial Tournament. In 2019, the 3M Open saw the field make nearly 2,000 birdies for the week – the most yielded by any single course all season. Last week, the field posted just 36 rounds in the 60s at Muirfield Village. At the 3M Open last year, there were 255.

The most significant approach shot distance at TPC Twin Cities is from 175 to 200 yards away – only four courses on the PGA Tour had more approaches from that range last season. More putts roll in here than normal, too: this course ranked in the bottom 25 percent on Tour last year in three-putt percentage, putting average and birdie conversion rate. Expect a total shootout this weekend in Minnesota.

NOTES ON PLAYERS IN THE FIELD

Dustin Johnson just assembled one of the more head-scratching back-to-back performances in recent professional golf memory. Two starts ago, he picked up PGA Tour win number 21 at the Travelers. Last week, he shot 80 in consecutive rounds, posting the worst 36-hole total of his decorated career.

Don’t expect much of a carryover from Muirfield, though. Three times in DJ’s career, he has won immediately following a missed cut: the 2011 Barclays, 2015 WGC at Doral, and two summers ago at the Canadian Open.

– Making his first start anywhere post-quarantine, Tommy Fleetwood is back in action this week. When we last saw the world’s 12th-ranked player, Fleetwood had his remarkable cuts made streak end at the Arnold Palmer Invitaitonal. Fleetwood is a five-time European Tour winner, but currently holds the title of highest-ranked-in-the-OWGR without a PGA Tour victory. Over the last four seasons, only Tony Finau has more top-three or top-ten finishes without a win than Tommy does.

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Finau was 12-under-par walking to the 13th tee at Muirfield Village on Saturday afternoon, but played his last 25 holes of the tournament in 10-over and finished in ninth place. Since the beginning of last season, Finau is ranked 7th on the PGA Tour in scoring average from rounds one through three. He’s 139th in the final round, his average more than a shot and a half higher.

– Eleven summers ago, Lucas Glover had the best week of his career, winning the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage. This summer hasn’t been bad either: since the season restart, among players with ten or more rounds, Glover is ranked 7th in birdie average, 10th in scoring and 11th in strokes gained tee to green. He closed with 62 at last year’s 3M Open and finished in a tie for seventh place. He’s worth considering for fantasy lineups this week in Minnesota.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

Jon Rahm reached world number one last week for the first time. Rahm could stay in the top spot every week until August of 2033 and still not reach Tiger Woods’ career total of 683 weeks at number one.