Wolff keeps knocking on history’s door

October 14, 2020
Justin Ray

Wielding his unique swing and unlimited confidence, Matthew Wolff enters week two in Las Vegas on an absolute heater.

At Winged Foot, Wolff was the youngest player to hold the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open since Jim Simons in 1971. If not for Bryson DeChambeau’s historic performance (22.4 strokes gained total, the most in the U.S. Open since Rory McIlroy in 2011), it might have been Wolff holding the trophy at week’s end. Wolff gained 16.4 total strokes on the field, more than 11 different U.S. Open winners since 1990.

Wolff lost in a playoff last week at the Shriners, nearly becoming the youngest two-time winner on the PGA Tour since Sergio Garcia in 2001. There is something Wolff did accomplish, though, to join the likes of the 2017 Masters champion. When Wolff finished runner-up for the second start in a row (solo 2nd at the U.S. Open, T-2 at the Shriners), he became the youngest player since Garcia to finish either first or second in back-to-back PGA Tour starts. Over the last 25 seasons, only Sergio and Tiger Woods have done it at a younger age than Wolff.

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Since the PGA Championship, Wolff has averaged +2.15 strokes gained tee-to-green per round, second best of any player on Tour with a dozen or more rounds played in that span (Dustin Johnson is first, at +2.47). Wolff is one of four players to average +2.0 strokes gained total per round since the PGA, along with Johnson, Jon Rahm and the red-hot Peter Malnati. His consistently good play has rocketed Wolff up the World Ranking – from outside the top-100 on July 1 to 12th this week.

KEY PLAYERS IN THE FIELD

– If you think Wolff is young, try this on: 18-year-old Joohyung Kim, ranked 125th in the world, makes his fourth career PGA Tour start this week. Born in 2002, he has won five professional events worldwide – including on the Asian Tour last November and the Korean Tour this July. Kim was born five days after Tiger Woods won his eighth major, the 2002 U.S. Open.

– With Dustin Johnson’s withdrawal (COVID-19), world number two Rahm is the highest-ranked player in the field this week in Vegas. Rahm had a spectacular statistical campaign in 2019-20, leading the PGA Tour in strokes gained total (+1.82 per round) and finishing second in scoring average (69.13).

While Rahm’s ball striking numbers have been elite since he turned pro, his putting improvements have let him grow into one of the best, most consistent performers on the planet. In 2017-18, Rahm ranked 147th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting (-0.15 per round). That number leapt to 36th in 2019 and then to 22nd in 2020. Rahm’s propensity to three-putt – once a stain on his game (he ranked 153rd in 2017-18) has all but disappeared. Only three players had a lower three-putt percentage last season on the PGA Tour than Rahm did.

– Fresh off his win at Wentworth last week, Tyrrell Hatton is in the field in Las Vegas. Hatton gained 14.7 strokes on the field tee-to-green in his BMW PGA Championship win, nearly three full strokes more than any other player.

– One intriguing player this week at Shadow Creek: Russell Henley. He’s missed only one cut in his last nine PGA Tour starts, and finished top-30 in each of the last four. But at a PGA Tour venue that’s never hosted an event before, it is Henley’s consistent ball striking that is most interesting: since the beginning of last season, only one player has averaged more strokes gained approach per round than Henley (+0.88) – Justin Thomas (+0.96).

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– While strokes gained tee-to-green is a good barometer for a player’s ball-striking success, it’s not without one flaw that lessens its punch of specificity. While the metric consists mostly of players tee shots and approach play, it also incorporates shots around the green – like shots from greenside bunkers and short chips from the rough.

Strokes gained ‘long game’ works almost exactly like ‘tee-to-green,’ but removes those greenside, ‘around the green’ shots. Since the beginning of last season, Thomas leads all players in strokes gained long game, racking up 1.32 per round. Collin Morikawa (1.29), Johnson (1.23), Rory McIlroy (1.22) and Corey Conners (1.21) are right behind him.

– All year long, Sergio Garcia has permeated the top of PGA Tour ball-striking statistical lists. Since the beginning of the 2019-20 season, only four players have averaged more strokes gained tee-to-green per round than Garcia. His strokes gained long game ranks seventh in that time span, as well.

As has been the case for most of Garcia’s career, his golf swing consistently delivers – and when his putting matches, it’s a problem for the field. Since the beginning of the 2017-18 PGA Tour season, Garcia has had seven different tournaments where he averaged +0.5 strokes gained putting per round or more. In four of them, he finished seventh or better – including his win two weeks ago in Mississippi.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

Dustin Johnson’s next official start will be the 300th of his career worldwide. DJ has won 23 times through 299 starts, more than elite players like Davis Love III (15 wins through 300 starts), Vijay Singh (16 wins) and Phil Mickelson (21 wins). Tiger Woods won 81 times in his first 300 official worldwide starts.