Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler: Inside the numbers behind their improvement

October 9, 2014

Golf isn't getting much easier or harder for the world's best, or for you. Year after year, the average PGA Tour score is right around 71. Meanwhile, the weekend golfer continues to shoot about 90. With all due respect to the Beatles, golfers are not "getting better all the time." (I do have some good news on the improvement front — more on that shortly.) While overall scores aren't falling, it's instructive to identify those who have improved significantly in key Tour categories.

I've combed through ShotLink data and compared 2013 and 2014 to identify the biggest improvers year-on-year. All results are through the PGA Championship. (Note: The break between seasons is a natural marker for identifying significant improvement, but it won't necessarily identify golfers who have raised their level of play midway through a season.)

Let's start with those who have most improved their driving distance (see ranking at top right). It's important to note that the average drive (defined as a tee shot on a par 4 or par 5) at, say, TPC Scottsdale is nearly 40 yards longer than the average drive at Harbour Town. So, to more accurately weigh driving distance, I've measured each tee shot relative to the field's average distance in each round.

The biggest improver from 2013 to 2014? Rickie Fowler! He increased his drives by an average of 6.8 yards, a remarkable gain relative to the rest of the Tour. Fowler — who in 2014 became only the third player to notch top-5 finishes in all four majors in a year — credits his work with Butch Harmon for getting his swing "more efficient and creating a bit more speed."

Another telling stat is improvement in Total Strokes Gained ( bottom right), which measures a golfer's scoring average relative to the field. A score of 69, when the field average is 71.5, represents a gain of 2.5 strokes.

(To account for the importance of the four biggest events, I gave rounds in majors double the weight of other tournaments.) It's no surprise that Rory McIlroy, with two major wins in 2014, improved his scores by 1.84 strokes per round. A big portion of this gain came from his better performance off the tee on par 4s and par 5s: This year, McIlroy has hit (slightly) longer drives, more fairways and fewer wayward drives into penalty situations. His 1.84 stroke-per-round improvement leads the Tour by a large margin. Driving performance was the biggest factor in his progression, with putting a close second.

So what are your chances of improving? Better than you might think. I examined USGA data on more than one million rounds played by 15,000 golfers over two seasons, looking at the top 25 percent of improvers among different playing levels. Those who averaged a score of 80 in one season saw their scores decrease by a stroke or more the following year. For higher-handicappers, the news is even better: Golfers who averaged a score of 90 in one season saw their score drop by two or more strokes the very next year, and that figure jumps to three strokes dropped, season to season, for about a quarter of all 100-shooters.

Take heart! Rory and Rickie can improve, and so can you.