At the risk of stating the obvious, 2022 was an eventful year in golf. So eventful, in fact, that there are dozens of ways to review and explore everything that went on—as you'll see us do the next couple weeks with our Newsmakers package.
One of those is by breaking down a bunch of stats that sum up the season. And that's what I've done here … in a manner of speaking. What you'll read below, though, aren't conventional "stats," because 2022, while eventful, was also hardly conventional. To recap the madness of this year, I needed to go looking for my own data and uncover some numbers with nuance. The goal with each is to highlight an old story in a new way—and put into context one of the strangest golf years in memory.
The rise of LIV Golf was the defining story of the year, and there are plenty of numbers to choose from to help tell it. Most of them include dollar signs: The $8 million Pat Perez earned in six LIV events, despite an average finish of just 32nd. The $125 million Bryson DeChambeau got for signing on to the tour. The $1 billion Greg Norman claimed the tour dangled at Tiger to join.
Instead, the number that best encapsulates the LIV drama, especially early in the season, was 106: That was how many words appeared in Dustin Johnson's statement last February in what was at the time a succinct and devastating rejection of the upstart tour.
Not long after, Rory McIlroy pronounced the Saudi-backed league "dead in the water," and LIV officials feared internally he was right, that DJ’s rejection would lead to the imminent collapse of the entire endeavor. As it turns out, golf’s civil war wasn't over before it began, just merely delayed.
Each year, a club comes along that captures the conversation. In 2022, it was TaylorMade’s Stealth driver.
The red-faced driver is constructed with 60 layers of a lighter carbon-fiber material, which frees up weight that can be displaced lower and further back into the driver head. McIlroy and Tiger Woods, among many others, switched at their earliest opportunity. So did Scottie Scheffler, setting the stage for a historic season to come.
4 wins in 6 starts
Scheffler came into 2022 an interesting and exciting young talent, but also a winless one on the PGA Tour. Yet in the space of six events between February and March, the 26-year-old former University of Texas All-American was the green-jacket wearing World No. 1. Players have gone on hot streaks before, but few have burned so furiously as Scheffler’s, the wins coming in disperate places (TPC Scottsdale and Bay Hill), different formats (Match Play win at Austin C.C.) and in a major. His barnstorming form, paired with a laissez-faire attitude about what may happen next, proved a simply unbeatable combination.
It's almost hard to remember, but 2022 marked the year Tiger Woods assumed his formal place in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Ordinarily a stiff and cordial affair, the induction ceremony in March was an emotional, powerful moment for Tiger.
Tiger was introduced by his daughter Sam. When he assumed the podium, he spoke candidly about his life in golf, and powerfully about the racism he endured as one of the few people of color playing junior golf. Tiger revealed how he would answer those moments with the kind of calm and icy fury we’ve grown accustomed to with, asking just two simple questions: What’s the course record? Where’s the first tee?
29 water balls
Saturday at the 2022 Players Championship was, without doubt, the most fun I’ve ever had watching golf. The rain-plagued tournament finally resumed its second round on the weekend, and when it did, the wind gusted to 40 mph. It made TPC Sawgrass’ famed 17th hole almost unplayable—29 balls found the water over the course of the day. Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele and Scottie Scheffler shot 81, 79, 78 and 76, respectively.
Yet out of the carnage we saw a round of creative brilliance from Justin Thomas, whose bogey-free 69 was complete with a pitching wedge that flew 185 yards downwind, and a 5-wood that traveled 193 into the wind.
The same month of the Players, the USGA released its annual distance report. There were lots of compelling nuggets in there, but perhaps the most interesting was the USGA’s revelation of the average driving distance for amateur golfers. According to the report, male golfers with a handicap between six and 12 drive the ball 219 yards on average, while their female counterparts average 177 yards.
That’s probably shorter than you expected, and if you’re wondering why, the answer is actually quite simple: Yes, those golfers are capable of hitting the ball far further. But for every 260-yard drive they hit, they add in a topped shot or wicked slice into the trees, which brings the overall average down. It’s inconsistency, the report explains, that's the real distance killer for the rest of us.
Golf is a game of misses—except for Jin Young Ko. En route to victory at the HSBC Women's World Championship in March, the 27-year-old South Korean went on an unholy streak of hitting 66 consecutive greens in regulation. Her secret, she says, was avoiding the trap of chasing pins. Instead, she stayed laser focused on the fattest part of the green.
Though Ko went on the hottest greens-in-regulation streak, Lexi Thompson remained the tour’s greens-in-regulation queen. A generational ball-striker, Thompson finished second in the stat in GIR and hit more than 77 percent of them in 2022, marking her 11th consecutive year inside the top 11 in that statistic.
Coming into 2022, Nelly Korda looked unstoppable. The 23-year-old had clocked four LPGA wins, including her first major, in addition to her gold medal victory at the Olympics a year earlier. But just as the season started to heat up, Korda was sidelined with a shocking injury: A blood clot on her right arm. She was hospitalized, skipped the first major of the season and forced to wait 119 days before returning to competition.
Douglas P. DeFelice
It was a brutal momentum-stopper for a woman who in early January had surpassed Stacy Lewis as the American to have spent the most weeks ranked No. 1 in the world. Yet by November, she was a winner once more, taking the title in the LPGA's penultimate event in 2022 and briefly returning to the top of the Rolex Women's Ranking.
Golf fans had been eagerly anticipating Jordan Spieth’s return to form. In 2022, we got our first glimpses of it. Spieth popped into contention at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am (where he finished second), then won the RBC Heritage in April before finishing second again the following week at the Byron Nelson.
Spieth came into the season sporting a new eye-catching practice swing that he said would help him recover his swing’s “DNA.” Spieth’s goal was to feel the club steepen on the backswing and then shallow on the downswing before turning aggressively though the ball. ”I want to feel like I hit the ball with my pivot,” he said. Whatever the feeling, it worked. The previous season, Spieth missed right almost 18 percent of the time, ranking him 175th on tour.
In 2022, his miss right percentage dropped to less than 14 percent. It helped Spieth gain strokes off the tee with his driver for the first time in four seasons and provided a platform for him to build on going forward.
Back to LIV, which, by the time the U.S. Open rolled into Brookline, Mass., had totally, utterly and completely dominated the conversation in golf. Dustin Johnson had performed his U-turn by this point, and the first event had been played outside London.
The dog days of summer were a frustrating time to be a golf journalist, forced into an unwinnable situation of needing to ask about LIV to players who were either not speaking honestly about it or frustrated at being asked in the first place. Nevertheless, that was the scene ahead of the U.S. Open. The transcripts tell the story: From the 12 official pre-tournament press conferences, the word “LIV” was mentioned by players or media an astonishing 65 times.
Thankfully, there was, indeed, golf played that week at The Country Club, and the winner emerged as the golfiest golfer of them all. It’s easy to forget that Matt Fitzpatrick was embroiled in a momentary controversy with Bryson DeChambeau in the aftermath of Bryson's Winged Foot victory in 2020.
“It’s not a skill to hit the ball a long way in my opinion,” Fitzpatrick said. “I could put on 40 pounds. I could go and see a bio-mechanist and I could gain 40 yards; that’s actually a fact. I could put another two inches on my driver. I could gain that, but the skill in my opinion is to hit the ball straight. That’s the skill, he’s just taking the skill out of it in my opinion.”
Fitzpatrick walked back those comments—so much that he eventually decided to adopt the blueprint altogether. He employed the use of DeChambeau's same biomechanist consultant, Dr. Sasho Mackenzie, ditched his fade for a lower-spinning draw, packed on some extra muscle and adopted a speed training routine. He couldn’t beat them, so he joined them.
And it worked.
Between 2021 and 2022, Fitzpartick gained seven mph of ball speed on his driver, 10 yards in total, and had his hands on the same trophy Bryson had two years prior.
Will Zalatoris finished second to Fitzpatrick at Brookline, his second-consecutive major runner-up. The 26-year-old, just starting his third full year on the PGA Tour, is often maligned as a sub-standard putter, especially from short range. By tour standards, I suppose that’s true. But it’s worth remembering how good a substandard putter on the PGA Tour actually is.
Zalatoris finished second on tour in approach putt performance, and made 926 of his 1,065 putts—just shy of 87 percent—inside 10 feet over the course of the 2021-22 season. He finished 161st in the stat, but the difference between Zalatoris being a statistically sub-standard putter on tour from this range, and an above average one, was about 10 putts. If he had holed 10 more putts from this range, which equates to one every eight rounds, the narrative doesn't hold up any more.
The margins on tour rest on the thinnest razor’s edge. Zalatoris found himself just on the wrong side of it majors this year, but his time will come.
Rory McIlroy, by all accounts, had a fantastic season. Three wins on the PGA Tour; a second, a third, a fifth and an eighth in the four majors; and a return to World No. 1. It feels wrong to focus on a less-than-flattering statistic after a yearly performance like that, but as the talent ceiling gets raised, so goes the bar of expectation. McIlroy cast a frustrated figure after his fifth-place finish at the U.S. Open—“Another top-five in a major. I guess it doesn't really mean anything,” he said after his final round. He spoke of needing to stay positive and patient, that those qualities will soon be rewarded. Through three rounds at the Open Championship the next month, he looked like he’d be proven right.
And then, McIlroy took 36 putts during his final round, the second-worst of any player in the field that day. He lost by two shots, and the only two birdies he made on Sunday came on two-putts on greens in hit under regulation. It underlined a common theme from McIlroy in majors: A story of quality, marred with unforced errors and submission.
In some ways, Rory seems too intelligent and mature for his own good. Along the way, he’s forgotten his own formula for best golf: That he plays his best when he plays less like Tiger, and more like Phil. With an air of reckless abandon. A freewheeling, screw-the-stats, something-to-prove irrationality.
McIlroy is a lifelong Manchester United supporter, so he knows that after years of success on the pitch came to a grinding halt upon the retirement of manager Sir Alex Ferguson, the team spent years mired in a more more conventional, conservative approach. The thousands of fans watching in the stands soon adopted a commanding chant: “Attack, Attack, Attack!” Watching McIlroy defend his way around a gettable St. Andrews that Sunday, I found uttering the same thing.
The man who finished between McIlroy and eventual winner Cameron Smith at St. Andrews was Cameron Young, who this season established himself as one of golf's brightest rising stars. Young is a prototypical "new school" golfer who has built his game around aggressive driving: His ball speeds are among the fastest on the PGA Tour, routinely surpassing 190 mph.
He covers a whopping 70.22 percent of the yardage on par 4 holes with his tee shots, and the hang time on his drives averages a tour-leading eight seconds (seriously, count properly to seven seconds and think about how long that is for a ball to stay in the air).
Earlier this year, I asked his father and coach what he thought junior golfers, and their parents, could learn from Youngs. He came up with three sage piece of advice: Avoid getting technical early, make sure their grip is in a neutral spot, and build good athleticism early by playing other sports.
Once the season was out, my boss, Sam Weinman, crafted for himself a truly fascinating experiment with tour player Joel Dahmen: What might an 11 handicap shoot if a tour player hits all his drives?
Were it not for a few flubbed chips, missed putts and poor decision making, it could’ve been lower. But of course, that’s exactly the point with amateur golfers. Through some combination of sloppiness and a specific skill deficiency, we always find a way to leave something on the table.
A second-consecutive victory for Viktor Hovland at the Hero World Challenge was a reminder that the Norwegian has all the making of a future World No. 1. What makes that such a fascinating idea is that unlike other elite players in the game, he’ll do so with clear weakness in his game. Hovland ranked 191st on the PGA Tour in SG: Around the Green, losing more than half a stroke per round. Earlier this year his coach, Golf Digest Best in State Jeff Smith, shared some fascinating insight into why.
It’s that the qualities in Hovland’s golf swing that make him one of the best ball-strikers in golf pose some unique challenges around the green. The leading edge will often dig into the turf, which can lead to chunks and other inconsistencies.
To fix it, Hovland needs to re-learn a new technique. You can’t take the good without the bad, and no matter what level you play this crazy game, the journey to getting better never ends.