One-Year Wonders: The best out-of-nowhere great years in modern golf history
When my editor approached me with the concept for this story, I immediately loved it. We’ve all heard of one-hit wonders, and when it comes to golf, we can reel them off with ease: Think Todd Hamilton, Shaun Micheel, Ben Curtis and the rest of the anomalous major winners. But what about ONE-YEAR wonders? We’re talking about tour pros who had more than just four right-place, right-time rounds, but rather experienced a sustained run of greatness (or something close to it), stacking up big results in PGA Tour events in a way they could never manage again in an entire career? He came armed with a list of names: Bob Tway (1986), Jodie Mudd (1990), Hamilton (2004), Mark Brooks (1996), Y.E. Yang (2009), Rich Beem (2002), Wayne Grady (1990), Bob Gilder (1982), Denis Watson (1984) and Bart Bryant (2005).
They were all worthy picks, and it got me wondering: Could you actually use statistics to measure, uhhh … One-Year Wonderness?
I immediately began turning over concepts and formulas in my head, and almost as quickly realized that I needed to turn to the expert. Mark Broadie is a Columbia Business School professor and all-around golf statistics savant who helped develop Strokes Gained, the stat that revolutionized how we watch the sport and how the golfers play it. In the past, we’ve collaborated to find out which PGA Tour events produce the best leader boards, which players step up the most at majors, and who played the single greatest round in PGA Tour history. If anyone knew how to quantify One-Year Wonderhood, it was him.
It didn’t take long before Mark came up with a method that was better and more comprehensive than anything conceived in my wildest fever dreams. Here’s the quick summary:
1. First, create a points system: 100 points for a major win, 60 for a second-place showing, and so on. Non-majors have their points scaled down by strength of field. This creates a ranking that’s a combination of OWGR and FedEx Cup, and it can be calculated back to 1983. As Mark explained, the big advantage of doing it this way is that you can count every finish, good and bad, rather than just compiling wins and top-10 performances. And it doesn’t rely on money, which has changed too much over the years to provide a good point of comparison. (Remember, again, we're talking strictly about player performance in PGA Tour events.)
2. Sort for players who have played at least four PGA Tour seasons, with at least 15 events each. Among this group, find the player with the biggest difference between his best season, by points, and his second-best season. That way, it shows us the golfers who out-performed themselves.
3. For a player to qualify, his best career season must exceed 125 points. That would mean that the performances are among the top 15 percent of all seasons since 1983. Fall short of that, and it’s not a “wonder season.” Also, the player’s second-best career season can’t exceed 125 points. This latter cutoff is important, since it keeps golfers with stunningly good seasons, like Tiger Woods in 2000 or Vijay Singh in 2004, from qualifying. (No one in their right mind would call them a one-year wonder!) In other words, the exceptional year for each golfer had to be their only exceptional year.
Here’s what he came up with:
As you see, Hamilton and Beem are far and away the greatest of the one-year wonders, which tracks well with the golfers we think about when we consider lightning-in-a-bottle success.
Forgotten in the wake of his Open Championship win at Troon in 2004 was that in March, Hamilton outdueled Davis Love III at the Honda Classic to grab that trophy, too. Hamilton also finished T-6 at a WGC event in the fall, had a eight total top 25s and qualified for the Tour Championship. The two wins were the only ones of his PGA Tour career (he made a killing on the Japan Golf Tour, especially in 2003), and as the chart shows, he never came close to equaling it again. Hamilton’s next-best effort saw him land just one top 10 while finishing 115th on our points list in 2009. In Broadie’s system, Hamilton’s point differential is almost double his second best. It’s fair to say we’ll likely never see a season this anomalous again.
Todd Hamilton shows the claret jug to members of the gallery after winning a playoff by one stroke against Ernie Els at the 2004 Open Championship at Royal Troon.
That said, Beem wasn’t far off. His 2002 season—with a major victory in the PGA Championship at Hazeltine National, another win and five top 10s—was so much better than his second-best season a year later that he almost caught Hamilton despite the fact that 2003 was an above-average year for Beem, too.
After Hamilton and Beem, we see Rex Caldwell, who earned his only PGA Tour victory in 1983 and also made a playoff in two other events that season. Then there are a pair of modern players in Chris Kirk and Robert Streb, both of whom had torrid stretches in the middle of the last decade. Streb is particularly close to my heart, having notched nine top 10s in 2015 to lead my fantasy team. And I was on site for both of Kirk’s 2013-’14 season victories, which practically book-ended that season. Even with a win at the Colonial the next season, Kirk’s success lands him with one of the 10 greatest differentials ever.
It will be no surprise for anyone to see Bob May at No. 7, considering the fight he gave Woods at Valhalla in the 2000 PGA, and along with Hamilton and Beem, my editor correctly guessed that Denis Watson’s 1984 season would be high on the list. Then there’s William McGirt, who I remember following with interest in 2014 during a strong season, but who eclipsed it to a great degree in 2016 when he secured his only PGA Tour victory at the Memorial in a playoff over Jon Curran.
It’s also interesting to consider names who didn’t make the top 20. Erik Compton is of particular interest, considering the almost unbelievable litany of medical and personal issues he’s endured. Compton was a major story in 2014, coming off a heart transplant to post six top-25 finishes, including a memorable runner-up at the U.S. Open. Had Martin Kaymer not lapped the field at Pinehurst, Compton might have taken home a major. It was a terrific story, but things fell off after that, and the three top 10s he posted that year are more than he’s managed in any other season combined.
Finally, it was time to unleash the hounds. What would happen, we wondered, if the parameters completely opened, so that there was no restriction on a player having a good or even great second-best season. Would Tiger from 2000 make the list? Vijay in 2004? Were those years so ridiculously good that they could still qualify as anomalies despite having been accomplished by superstars?
The answer was yes, as you see from the list of other notable seasons:
Not only does this bring in Vijay and Tiger (it seems to me that we’ll never stop finding new ways to recognize the greatness of that 2000 season), but also Jordan Spieth, Fred Couples, Hideki Matsuyama, Padraig Harrington, Luke Donald, Henrik Stenson and even Justin Thomas. Clearly, none of these players would ever be called a “one-year wonder.” However, this new list also highlights two conspicuous absences from the other list—Micheel (2003) and Tway (1986).
Bob Tway celebrates after holing a bunker shot on the 18th hole at Inverness Club to win the 1986 PGA Championship.
Micheel’s number was shockingly low—Broadie only included him on the list since he knew people would be curious. Tway, though, had a massive disparity between his best and second-best seasons, greater even than Hamilton or Beem. Everyone remembers Tway’s win at the PGA at Inverness, but tend to forget he was T-8 that year at the Masters and U.S. Open, T-10 at the Players. The first four of his eight career tour wins came that season, 13 top-10s and 21 top 25s in 28 starts. What kept him off the first list was his 1998 season, which was good enough (nine top 10s, more than $1 million earned) to make his 1986 streak less exceptional.
It’s no easy feat to be a one-season wonder, and all of them–from Hamilton to Beem to the forgotten men of the 1980s—deserve a tip of the cap. To belong in this company may seem like a dubious distinction, but it’s better to have been great once than never at all.