7 players who were having underappreciated PGA Tour seasons before the coronavirus
Time is a blur as our lives are on pause in many ways amidst COVID-19. Though the PGA Tour season might not often be front of mind for most of us, golf fans who hear that eight weeks have passed since the Players Championship was canceled could reasonably feel as if that happened both a preposterously long and surprisingly short time ago.
Memories of the 22 events that had already taken place during the 2019-’20 PGA Tour are either fading slowly or quickly. They are, however, fading. In anticipation of the tour season re-starting (fingers crossed) next month, we spent some time (re)taking stock of the season as it stands now. In the process, we couldn’t help but notice a handful players who were having seasons that stood out better than we remembered—you know, as best we can remember all the way back to early March.
Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard - Final Round
ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 08: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland reacts as he waits on the 10th hole during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard at Bay Hill Club and Lodge on March 8, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)
OK, we know what you’re thinking. Maybe it has been eight weeks, but we know nobody was overlooking the accomplishments of the No. 1 player in the world heading into TPC Sawgrass. And to that, we are in agreement. If anything, McIlroy was getting too much scrutiny for failures to close out tournaments on Sunday given the number of times he was in contention heading into the final round.
But when we say underappreciated, this can still apply to McIlroy. In six PGA Tour starts, his worst finish was a T-5. Front door, back door, or any door you want to enter the conversation in, the 30-year-old from Northern Ireland was producing at an exceptional level. Consider that when play does resume on tour, McIlroy will be ranked in the top three of the following categories:
Scoring average: 68.437 (first)
Scrambling: 70.4 percent (first)
Par-5 scoring average: 4.40 (first)
Strokes gained/total: 2.537 (second)
Strokes gained/tee-to-green: 2.400 (second)
Driving distance: 320.2 yards (second)
Eagles: 54 (second)
Going for the green: 86.76 percent (second)
Strokes gained/approach the green: 1.216 (third)
FedEx Cup points: 1,179 (third)
Driving distance (all drives): 308.1 yards (fourth)
Par-3 scoring average: 2.94 (fourth)
Longest drive: 412 yards (fifth)
Par breakers: 25.93 percent (fifth)
Birdie or better percentage: 25.93 percent (fifth)
Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard - Round 3
ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 07: Sungjae Im of Korea smiles while celebrating a birdie putt on the 18th hole green during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard at Bay Hill Club and Lodge on March 7, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)
As is the case with McIlroy, to say Im wasn’t getting any attention is a misnomer. His maiden PGA Tour victory at the Honda Classic was one of the more anticipated (and celebrated) wins of the early season. And the 22-year-old sits at No. 1 in the FedEx Cup points list; hard to underappreciate that now, isn’t it? But the stat that remains his most impressive is the number 14. As in 14 starts, most of any on tour, where the average was nine. At some point, all that golf would seemingly cause a player to hit a point of diminishing returns. But not for Im, who was just getting hot when the season came to a sudden halt.
What will be interesting is how Im performs when play does ultimately resume. The player who famously doesn’t have a home in the United States, but instead lives out of hotels with his family, has been forced to settle with a friend in Tampa the past several weeks and has even developed a new hobby.
“I have never fished in my life before, but I went several times during the break and it was pretty exciting,” Im told told the Associated Press last month. “Caught some catfish! Next time I would like to try deep-sea fishing and catch something bigger!”
Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard - Final Round
ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 08: Tyrrell Hatton of England smiles as he walks to the 10th hole green with his caddie during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard at Bay Hill Club and Lodge on March 8, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)
The 28-year-old Englishman only had played in four PGA Tour events on the current season, and only two in 2020. But he had recorded three top-10 finishes in those starts, including his first tour victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, with his worst showing being a T-14.
Though four starts constitutes a small sample size, it was large enough for Hatton to officially rank first in strokes gained/total (3.078) and strokes gained/tee-to-green (2.606). In his two previous seasons on tour, Hatton failed to finish inside the top 25 in either category. And his play in just four events was good enough to place him 10th on the FedEx Cup points list.
With two wins and a spot on the victorious 2017 U.S. Presidents Cup team, the former PGA Tour Rookie of the Year appeared destined to be a mainstay along fellow American young guns like Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler. But the end of the 2018 season brought a nagging right-hand injury that spread to his wrist and carried over into 2019, where he had just one top-10 finish in 20 starts, costing him a spot in the FedEx Cup playoffs.
Healthier after resting to help recover, Berger already posted three top 10s in just nine starts in 2019-’20, with his last three finishes before the pause in play being a T-9 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, T-5 at AT&T Pebble Beach and T-4 at the Honda Classic. More importantly, the down time helped him recharge mentally as well.
“It’s been a blessing to come back and do what I love,” Berger told PGATour.com in January. “I used to always say I never really liked golf; I was just good at it. But when you take some time off, I realized I really like golf a lot. My main goal now is to put myself in contention to win. It is tough out here, so you’ve got to continue to get better. I feel like this offseason I did a lot of good things and I am hitting the ball way better than I have in a long time.”
After earning a PGA Tour card at the Korn Ferry Tour Final Series in the fall, Griffin took quick advantage of his new status with a victory at the Houston Open in October. For a 31-year-old who had bounced between the PGA Tour and the KFT, the win provided his career some much need ballast. Yet rather than lean back on the title and slow down, Griffin has leaned into the victory and been aggressive in following it up. He played in 11 events after the win, earning four more top-15 finishes. He continues to rank in the top-10 on the FedEx Cup points list and with the truncated schedule for the remainder of the 2019-’20 season, it will be difficult for him to fall out of the top 30, thus all but guaranteeing a spot in the Tour Championship and qualifying for all four majors in 2021.
A lot was made of the fact that the best part of Morikawa’s game as a standout college/amateur player at Cal-Berkeley was his ball-striking, an attribute that translates well to success on the PGA Tour. But the fact that the transition to the pro level came as seamlessly is highly impressive. The 23-year-old ranks fourth in strokes gained/approach the green, eighth in strokes gained/tee-to-green and 29th in greens in regulation. If anything, you can probably make the argument that Morikawa’s raw stats should place him higher than 41st on the FedEx Cup points list (a 71.45 final-round stroke average, which is 1½ strokes higher than any other round, might have something to do with that). Still, how can you complain when you have yet to miss a cut in a PGA Tour start since turning pro?
Let’s start with the fact that the 36-year-old Aussie might had posted the most impressive round of 2020 so far with a closing 65 to win the Farmers Insurance Open. That was the second of three top-three finishes on the season, one in which he has yet to miss a cut in eight starts after withdrawing from the season-opening event at the Greenbrier. Once again, it’s early, but Leishman is having a career year in strokes gained/approach. If his short-game returns to its more usual form (he is a surprising T-132 around the green), he’d have a few more top-20 finishes. Even so, seventh on the FedEx Cup points list to date is nothing to be upset about.
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