Who on the PGA Tour is the best at getting better?

January 20, 2017

Can a 100-shooter get five strokes better in one season? Of course. Can the same feat be achieved by an 80-shooter? Much less likely. And the same learning curve applies to the pros. From year to year, the biggest scoring improvements tend to come from the Tour’s “worst” players—those near the bottom of the statistical heap. So here’s a compelling question: Who among the Tour’s best players are the best at getting better? To find out, I measured gains made over the course of the 2016 season.

Among the Tour’s “better than average” pros (those with plus-Strokes Gained totals the season before, in 2015), Charl Schwartzel improved the most, with a huge 1.1 strokes better per round in 2016 than in 2015. Four years after his 2011 Masters victory, Schwartzel languished at No. 108 in the FedEx Cup rankings. In 2016, he finished 25th overall.

Rickie Fowler was the most improved among better-than-average drivers. In 2016, he was 0.4 strokes per round better off the tee than he was in “15. What was the difference maker? Getting a couple of yards longer helped, but mainly, in a lesson for us all, Fowler hit fewer tee balls into the hay—and made hay because of it.

In Strokes Gained Approach Shots, Phil Mickelson vaulted 100 positions in 2016, improving by 0.8 strokes per round. After his epic duel with Henrik Stenson at the Open Championship, Lefty said he was able to hit his “iron shots right on line, draws and fades…from getting my swing back on plane.” Another lesson worth noting.

Bryce Molder, already a short-game ace, improved by a half stroke per round last season, finishing second in Strokes Gained Short Game. Alas, Molder was winless in 2016, proof that greenside greatness can’t make up for subpar driving and approach shots.

A potent mix is strength both on the green and from tee to green. Jason Day, a fine driver, finished 2015 ranked sixth in Strokes Gained Putting. It’s rare to get better from such great heights, but Day did just that, improving his putting by a Tour-leading 0.5 strokes per round to finish 2016 with the best Strokes Gained Putting season since 2003 (the start of the ShotLink era).

Even the best can get better.