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Three golfers dominate the narrative after the opening two of four FedEx Cup playoff events. Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson have the inside track on the $10 million FedEx Cup prize because they stood at Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively, in the points race heading into the BMW Championship.
Johnson, the world’s top-ranked player, won the Northern Trust by defeating Spieth in a playoff. The following week, he grabbed the first-round lead after shooting 66 at TPC Boston but faded to finish tied for 18th, while Spieth was tied for the lead with six holes to play. But this time he was defeated by Thomas, who the week before finished T-6.
It does not take a deep dive into the numbers to understand all three of these golfers are playing at a very high level. But analytics can help us appreciate exactly how they are elevating their game and separating themselves from the pack.
Johnson finished the PGA Tour’s regular season ranked ninth in strokes gained: approach the green with an average of 0.657. That means over 18 holes, Johnson was typically about two-thirds of a shot better than the average PGA Tour player based on his iron play and ballstriking. That equates to 2.627 shots better over the course of a 72-hole tournament. But when Johnson won at Glen Oaks, his daily average was a mammoth 1.807, which created a 7.228-shot edge over the average player over 72 holes.
Johnson’s average proximity to the hole improved dramatically in the first playoff event. He ranked 29th on the PGA Tour in proximity to the hole during the regular season at 34 feet, 7 inches, but he led the field at the Northern Trust with an average of 25 feet, 1 inch.
This week is the first week that I felt like my game was in really good shape and is back to where it was, where I feel like I’ve got complete control over it, Johnson said after winning the Northern Trust, mentioning the early part of the season in which he won three times before injuring himself in a fall at Augusta, Ga.
Johnson’s downfall at the Dell Technologies Championship was inconsistent putting. His ballstriking stats were fine, but in three of the four rounds his strokes gained: putting average was negative (-1.607), which means he performed significantly worse on greens than the average player.
In contrast, Spieth’s putter has been red hot throughout the playoffs. Most fans think of Spieth as one of the game’s great putters, and he has certainly made plenty of clutch putts in his still-young career. But the 2016-17 PGA Tour season saw a drop in his putting performance. Spieth’s strokes gained: putting average for the year was 0.265 (52nd), but at the Northern Trust it was 1.422 (third), and at the Dell Technologies Championship it was 0.795 (15th).
The 24-year-old Texan ranked second on the PGA Tour this season in strokes gained: approach the green (0.894), and his ballstriking has been exceptional in the playoffs, too. His strokes gained: approach the green average at Northern Trust was 1.156 (eighth), and at TPC Boston it was 1.602 (third).
Despite those stats, Spieth is having trouble on the par 3s. At both playoff events he finished at 2 over par for the week on the par 3s.
I’m very close to the level I played in 2015. These two weeks I just had were way better than 2015, said Spieth, who missed the cut in the first two playoffs events before winning the FedEx Cup in 2015. I went home early both weeks (in 2015). When I’m comparing it to my best year, I’m on a very similar level to the way I was playing,.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, statistically, has been Thomas’ short game. Strokes gained: around the green tracks a player’s performance on shots hit from within 30 yards of the green but not on the putting surface. The former Alabama star finished the regular season ranked 52nd in the category (0.154), but his average was 1.695 (second) at the first playoff event and 0.094 (sixth) at the tough second event.
Thomas also putted much better at TPC Boston than his season average, making 367 feet, 2 inches of putts and improving on his regular season’s strokes gained: putting average, going from 0.335 to 1.122.
I don’t like when my friends beat me, said Thomas, referring to good buddy Spieth among others. I don’t like when people beat me. So I’m putting in work to hopefully beat all of them.
Thomas might have found a way to get into the playoff at the Northern Trust with Johnson and Spieth if his iron play had been sharper that week. A glaring shortcoming in his stats, his strokes gained: approach the green average that week was 0.086, which was more than half a shot worse than his 0.659 season average.
Johnson, Spieth and Thomas are beatable, and each of them is capable of having an off week. But based on the numbers, someone is going to have to play at an extremely high level to join this threesome and contend for the FedEx Cup.
(Note: This story appeared in the September 2017 issue of Golfweek.)
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