The Year Ahead: Which Players Will Break Through in 2017?

December 12, 2016

Looking ahead to 2017, our analytics expert boldly picks the pros most likely to raise their first Tour trophies.

It’s easy to predict that Jason Day, Rory McIlroy or Dustin Johnson will win in 2017. It’s a lot harder (and a lot more fun) to try to pick the non-winners who will hoist that first trophy. Well, here goes.

First, about last year. My 2016 pre-season predictions weren’t perfect, but my top three choices for players who would win their maiden Tour events came through: Daniel Berger, Tony Finau and Branden Grace.

As for my analysis, it goes beyond scoring average, which isn’t great for forecasting. It’s harder to shoot 65 in a major than it is on an easy course in calm conditions. My main predictive tool is Total Strokes Gained, adjusted for the strength of the field. (If a player shoots 65 when the field average is 69.2, his Total Strokes Gained is 4.2.) Score versus the field factors into course difficulty. I also account for field strength. If 69.2 represents the average score of a strong field—say, the Tour Championship, where players are about 1.3 strokes better than an average Tour field—then a 65 gains 5.5 strokes relative to an average field. All of this lets us accurately compare scores across different courses, conditions and fields.

Heading into 2017, there are more than 70 non-rookie non-winners on Tour. Topping my list of Most Likely to Break Through are, in order: Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Jon Rahm, Francesco Molinari, Soren Kjeldsen and Kevin Chappell. Cabrera-Bello is 32, finished third at the Match Play and earned 2.5 points for the European Ryder Cup team. Rahm, 21, was the No. 1 ranked amateur for 60 weeks, finished as low amateur at Oakmont, and had a T2 at the Canadian Open.

There are 25 incoming Tour rookies, and Cody Gribble already notched a win in October, at the Sanderson Farms Championship. My best bets for other rookie breakthroughs are, in order: Wesley Bryan, Grayson Murray, Andrew (“Beef”) Johnston, Ryan Blaum and J.T. Poston.

It will be especially fun to watch Bryan and Johnston. Bryan and his brother George achieved a degree of fame with their entertaining YouTube trick-shot videos. And the smiling, bearded Johnston became a fan favorite after his eighth-place finish at last year’s Open Championship. Oh, and he’s got a great nickname.

Where’s the “Beef”? In 2017, look for him in the winner’s circle.