After Jason Day won the PGA Championship and three other events this summer, the hot topic became the sudden emergence of a new Big Three: Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. It seemed a perfect fit. The trio currently holds five of the last six major championships, they finished the season as the top three around the globe in adjusted scoring average, and they are all under 30 and poised to play great golf for years to come. The only remaining question is whether there’s anyone else out there who has a shot to round out the foursome.
The most likely candidate right now is Rickie Fowler. Roughly the same age as the Big Three -- he turns 27 on December 13th -- Fowler proved this year that he has the skills to win the big events, capturing the Players Championship, widely regarded as the “5th major,” and the Deutsche Bank Championship, an exclusive FedEx Cup playoff event. Those wins and several other high finishes pushed him into the top five in the Official World Rankings, but heading into 2016, Fowler still lacks the major championship title the Big Three all possess, and his two best full-season PGA Tour scoring averages to date left him ranked 20th in 2011 and 21st in 2015. So if Fowler truly expects to compete on the Big Three’s level, he’ll have to raise his game in several areas.
A key benchmark in assessing the overall dominance of the new Big Three is a look at their stroke differential vs. the field average, a measure of an individual golfer’s score against the rest of the field in every round played. In 2015, McIlroy, Spieth and Day bested the field by an average of more than two strokes per round while Fowler was just 1.11 strokes better than everybody else. Fowler must find a way to pick up that elusive stroke at least once a round.
Fowler’s biggest advantage tends to be on the greens, as he has ranked better than the Tour average in strokes-gained putting in five of his six seasons since turning pro. From 2011 to 2015, Fowler picked up an average of .25 strokes per round on the greens, ranking 38th overall, which is better than McIlroy (89th) but still well-behind Spieth (16th) and Day (9th.) But despite his consistency, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to putt his way to the top as it’s simply too difficult to consistently pick up a full stroke a round on the greens. After all, Brandt Snedeker is a good bet to be the best putter on Tour next season, but even he has only gained 0.61 strokes per round on the field between 2011 and 2015.
Fowler has already made huge improvements over the last two seasons. As my colleague Mark Broadie wrote this time last year, Fowler gained the most distance off the tee between 2013 and 2014 after he and Butch Harmon changed his swing. Fowler is now generating more club head speed (34th) and hitting the ball further (28th in driving distance). But while it’s possible that he could squeeze a bit more out of his 5' 9’’ frame, he’s already punching well above his weight with this new swing. So once again, the gains he needs to catch the Big Three aren’t likely to come off the tee.
Fowler has also made big strides in his short game, improving his proximity to the hole from around the green -- which tracks the distance of par putts after recovering from missed greens -- from 80th in 2011 to 31st in 2015. But when you look at the overall strokes gained in his short game, he doesn’t really move the needle, having picked up an average of just 0.1 strokes per round on shots from inside 50 yards over the last two seasons. Of course, approach shots were one area in which both Spieth and Day dramatically improved between 2014 and 2015, each gaining over 0.3 strokes per round, a big reason they were both able to claim their first major titles this year.
Fowler also hasn’t distinguished himself from 125-200 yards out. This is obviously a wide range of shots and clubs, but it’s critical because the pros face an average of roughly 10 of these shots per round, and it’s precisely the distance from which the best ballstrikers separate themselves by hitting greens and getting close to the pin. The top 10 in this category reads like a who’s who of the game’s best iron players -- Sergio Garcia, Jim Furyk, Henrik Stenson -- while Fowler ranked 71st in 2014-15. If he truly hopes to earn a spot among the Big Four this season, this is the area that will require the most improvement.