The 2016 Tour season's opening verse has been written, and there’s a pair of familiar faces on top of the game.
Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson topped the strokes versus the field charts, beating the PGA Tour average by about 2.75 strokes per round. I considered all rounds across the PGA Tour, European Tour, and elsewhere worldwide. I adjusted for the quality of the field in the non-PGA Tour events, because some, like the field Fowler beat in Abu Dhabi, are PGA Tour-worthy, while others, like the Singapore field where Spieth finished T2, are significantly weaker. For comparison, in their dominant 2015 seasons Spieth and Jason Day gained around 2.7 strokes vs. the field per round.
Fowler's early-season dominance stands in stark contrast to how he's played in the early months in his six past seasons. His scoring average in January and February from 2010-15 was more than one stroke worse per round than his scoring average over the ensuing 10 months, but Fowler’s early victory in Abu Dhabi and runner-up finish in Phoenix have gotten him off to a great start in 2016. He traditionally plays his best golf in the summer, so this could be a monster year for the young star.
Mickelson hasn't been able to snap his nearly three-year winless streak yet, but everything points to a return to the winner’s circle soon. He was a hard-luck loser at Pebble Beach, where he beat the field by 4.3 strokes per round. Based on historical PGA Tour data, that kind of performance results in victory almost 75% of the time. Even more promising, two of his five best events since capturing the Claret Jug have come in 2016, a good sign for new coach Andrew Getson. He has improved across the board; early Strokes Gained numbers (from only nine rounds) show him improving in every category -- Driving, Approach Play, Short Game, and Putting -- vs. 2015.
Early season performance isn’t a guarantee of major success, but Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, and Dustin Johnson all ranked in the top 10 in strokes gained vs. the field through two months last season, and last year’s top 10 to start the year combined for 14 titles over the rest of the season.
Look for Rickie and Phil to crash the Big Three's party this summer.