Are We Too Quick To Shrug Off Recent Developments?
04 Sep,2023

By Tim Liotta


Are We Too Quick To Shrug Off Recent Developments?

What if what we saw the second half of 2023 was not an aberration?

What if the recent results golf fans have dismissed and shugged off about the game at its highest level do not return to the way our collective mindset had previous constructed it?

History can be like watching a painting being created one drop of paint at a time. What looks like one thing at one point in its development turns out to be something entirely different. 

If we take a step back from the last 5-6 months of watching the game of golf at at its highest level, and we ask, "What if ... ?" maybe what we have to re-assess a few things. 

What if Viktor Hovland really is the best player in the game?

The 25-year-old from Norway who became the third-youngest player ever to win the PGA Tour Championship has blown away his competition over his last five rounds. 

Hovland posted a final-round, back-nine score of 8-under-par 28 to win the BMW Championship, marking the first time in nine years a PGA Tour pro won an event (any event) with that kind of finished. 

At the Tour Championship, Hovland became the first player in the last 30 years to win a PGA Tour event (any event) leading or co-leading the field in driving accuracy, greens hit in regulation, and scrambling percentage.

"I feel like I've taken a lot of steps this season, contending in more major championships, I finally won in the U.S., I won a big tournament, Jack's event, and honestly, after that I felt like I've gotten so much better and it was very pleasing to see.

"And then obviously the last couple weeks have just superceded that. It's been pretty surreal. ... Obviously you dream about it, but these things happen when you don't really expect them to."

Viktor Hovland's Major Championship Record

What if Scottie Scheffler really can't putt?

At the Tour Championship, Scottie finished 30th out of 30 in Strokes Gained: Putting, just the latest in his struggle to win a golf tournament since The Players in March. 

The most interesting part of his final tournament of the 2023 PGA Tour season was that he finished T20 in Strokes Gained: Approach, a statistical category in which he's been so much better than his competition that he's brought on comparisons to Tiger Woods. 

On track to becoming the first player ever to lead the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee and Strokes Gained Approach in the same season, Scheffler ranks 150th out of 181 in Strokes Gained: Putting.

Scheffler simply has not been making putts at the level a top player needs to. He ranks 160th on putts between 10 and 15 feet, 168th on putts between 4 and 8 feet.

Scottie Scheffler's Major Championship Record

What if Jon Rahm's PGA Tour playoffs is a precursor of things to come?

Jon Rahm's victory in the Masters capped a run a four wins in nine starts that had the pundits buzzing about his taking over the No. 1 ranking in the world. His 4-stroke victory at Augusta National included Rahm hitting 85 percent of his fairways and 72 percent of his greens in regulation in the championship, a combination not achieved by a Masters champion since Ben Crenshaw in 1995.

After finishing T2 at the Open Championship, completing an amazing major championship season in which included his Masters victory and a T10 in the U.S. Open, Rahm finished in the three PGA Tour playoff events, T37 out 70, T31 out of 50, and T21 out of 30. Very un-Rahm-like. 

The nick-picking pundit might also point out that Rahm had an inconsistent finish to his 2023 major championship season. His excellent final-round, 5-under-par 65 at the U.S. Open followed three rounds in which Rahm burned plenty of edges en route to a 2-over-par score. 

In the Open Championship, his brilliant third-round, 7-under-par 63 was surrounded by three rounds totaling 4-over-par. 

Jon Rahm's Major Championship Record

What if Rory McIlroy never wins another major?

The tales of divided seasons for Scheffler and Rahm only further point out that McIlroy has been the game's best player after Tiger week in and week out. Yet, something keeps him from finishing off a fifth major championship. 

Since McIlroy won the 2014 PGA, he has recorded 20 top-10s in major championships. Since the Masters began in 1934, giving the sport the four annual championships recognized as majors - Rory is the only player in all that time with 20 or more top-10 major championship finishes without a victory. 

McIlroy has finished eighth or better in seven of the eight major championships in 2022 & 2023.

"Over the last two years would I have loved to have picked one of those off that I finished up there? Absolutely," McIlroy said after the 2024 Open Championship.

"But every time I tee it up or most times I tee it up, I'm right there. I can't sit here and be too frustrated. My game is in a -- you think about my performances in the majors between like 2016 and 2019, it's a lot better than that.

"Again, I'm optimistic about the future, and just got to keep plugging away."

Rory McIlroy's Major Championship Record

What if Collin Morikawa is really past his best days, and can't hold a lead?

When Morikawa became a two-time major champion by his 2021 Open Championship - to go with 2020 PGA Championship - at 24, the possibilities seemed endless. The two years he's had since then was not what he or anyone in the golf world expected. 

Since his Open championship, Morikawa has gone winless in 48 starts on the PGA Tour. Sure, he's posted 11 top-5s and 15 top-10s, however, he's blown a 7-shot lead en route to finishing second in The Sentry Tournament of Champions in January, and his playoff lost to Rickie Fowler at the Rocket Mortgage in July saw him struggle through a final-round, 2-over-par 74 when the other six golfers in the top 7 all shot 68 or better. 

Collin Morikawa's Major Championship Record

What if Jordan Spieth is no longer relevant at a major championship?

Since his up-and-down T4 at the Masters - where he followed up a third-round 76 with a final-round 66 - Spieth finished T29 at the PGA, missed the cut at the U.S. Open when pundits thought the course set up perfectly for his game, and a T23 at the Open Championship. 

Since his loss on the third hole of a sudden-death playoff to Matt Fitzpatrick at the RBC Heritage in April, Spieth has posted one top-5, two top-10s while missing four cuts in 10 PGA Tour events. After finishing T6 at the FedEx St. Jude, he finished T34 out of 50, and 27th out of 30 in the final two rounds of the PGA Tour Championship playoffs. 

Spieth's statistics for this season point to a level far below what has been expected in the past. He finished 58th (out of 181) in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee, 66th in Strokes Gained: Approach, and 80th in Strokes Gained: Putting.

Anyone who remembers Spieth at his major-championship zenith, which earned him four major titles, remembers almost other-worldly putting performances. 

In 2023, Spieth ranked 169th on putts from 20-to-25 feet, 162nd on putts from 15-to-20 feet, but, most alarming of all, 162nd on 3-foot putts. He has averaged 68 feet, 9 inches of putts made per round so far in '22-23, with puts him 162nd out 181 among PGA Tour pros.

Unthinkable for the Jordan Spieth we've known up until now. 

Jordan Spieth's Major Championship Record

What if Justin Thomas is through as a top-flight player?

The drama surrounding his making the Tour Championship playoffs - which he missed by a stroke - is such a different story than we expectly when he won the 2022 PGA Championship for his second career major title. 

In his 16 starts since finishing fourth in Phoenix in February, Thomas failed to finish better than 9th, missing the cut in five of his last eight events. 

His deteriorating play was evident in the four majors this year. After missing the cut by a shot in the Masters, and finishing T65 in the PGA, Thomas missed the cut by 8 shots at the U.S. Open, and by 12 shots at the Open at Royal Liverpool. 

Statistically, in the 2021-22 season, Thomas ranked 16th in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee, and 8th in Strokes Gained: Approach. In the 2022-23 season, he ranked 51st and 42nd in those categories. 

Add to those Thomas ranked 144th out of 181 in Strokes Gained: Putting. 

Justin Thomas's Major Championship Record

Golf at its highest level is always a moving moving target. We've had bright lights like Matthew Woolfe who faded as quickly as he arrived. We've written off players like Rickie Fowler, Jason Day and Lucas Glover, only to see them work their way back.  

What if the amount of effort a player needs to put into competing - and winning - at the game's highest level, and the amount of mental strain the surrounding golf world puts on that player means their window at the top will close much more quickly than in the past?

We've adjusted to players being able to win  more quickly - even major championships - so much earlier in their careers? Maybe we have to also understand that the time at the top for those players may pass more quickly as well.