I finally put every season of strokes gained data into one spreadsheet. This provides a cornucopia of information as well as several intriguing takeaways. The first and most obvious is that Tiger Woods is maybe better than we thought he was, but there are several other (more modern and relevant) takes, too.
Strokes gained is a stat that was formally implemented by the PGA Tour starting with the 2004 season. It has evolved since then and is the primary way we measure a player’s ability compared to the fields he plays against. The way I’m looking at these numbers is in strokes gained per round. So if, in any given season, Tiger gained two strokes per round, that means he’s on average two strokes better than the field average.
Here are five takeaways from the data.
1. Tiger the GOAT: As if there was any doubt. Woods has the top three seasons (2006, 2007 and 2009) recorded and six of the top 10. He’s the only golfer to clear three strokes gained per round, and he did it three times. Only one other golfer (Jim Furyk in 2006!) has ever even cleared 2.5 per round for an entire season. And we’re not even including Tiger’s most prolific season in which he unofficially hit nearly four. Lastly, Tiger’s average finish on the season-long strokes gained list is 2.33. The next best is Tommy Fleetwood at 10 and then Rory McIlroy at 10.1. That’s incredible.
2. So … Rory’s 2019 season: The genesis for this mini-project was to try and contextualize Rory McIlroy’s year so far. McIlroy is averaging 2.7 strokes gained per round, which is the best non-Tiger number of the 3,040 seasons I looked at. It’s also the fourth-best strokes gained ever officially recorded. And again, we’re talking about somebody who many people have (hilariously?) said is having an up and down season.
3. The triumvirate: If you toss Dustin Johnson in with Woods and McIlroy, you get 11 of the top 13 strokes gained seasons since 2004. The only other golfers to crack the top 13 were Furyk in 2006 and Luke Donald in 2011. It gets difficult to square this with what Brooks Koepka is doing in major championships — where strokes gained are often not measured — but in terms of pure golf for entire seasons, we have an undisputed top three.
4. Bottom of the food chain: Because I know curious minds are curious, there have been two seasons of -3.0 strokes gained or worse. Steven Bowditch posted -3.2 in 2016, and David Gossett posted -3.5 in 2004. Bowditch actually has two of the bottom three with his 2017 checking in at -2.9. Only two golfers have ever hit 0.00 right on the nose. John Mallinger in 2007 and D.A. Points in 2013.
5. Back to this year: Here’s what fascinated me maybe more than anything. There are currently four 2019 seasons inside the all-time top 20. McIlroy’s 2019 is No. 4 all time, Johnson’s 2019 is No. 12 and then it gets wild. Patrick Cantlay (2.19) and Adam Scott (2.16) are No. 18 and No. 19 respectively all time. The season has yet to come to a close of course, and these figures could go down at some point, but they could also go up. Because that pair has just one win between them, they aren’t getting the attention they probably deserve. Winning does in fact matter — I get that — but man, those are two really impressive seasons from a pair of unbelievable ball-strikers.