Now that golf is over for 2020, it’s time to look back on a year that featured numerous stops, starts and other bizarre happenings to see who played the best golf of the year. On paper, an exercise like this should be fairly straightforward, but it gets weird quickly when you have to take into account multiple global tours, two different PGA Tour seasons and reach all the way back to January — which feels like it took place approximately 19 years ago.
The candidates here are the usual suspects in addition to being the biggest names in the sport. The year (and decade) opened, fittingly, with a Justin Thomas victory in Hawaii and ended what sort of felt like two separate times, once with a Dustin Johnson victory at the Masters and then with Viktor Hovland’s second win at the Mayakoba Golf Classic.
So let’s reach back to Jan. 1, use all the data at our disposal and figure out who exactly was the best golfer in this no-good, very bad year that was 2020. Here are the candidates.
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The obvious candidate here, although you wouldn’t have said so when he was in the middle of a run that included shooting a pair of 80s and a 78 at the Memorial Tournament and the 3M Open. Since that WD at the 3M, though, he’s finished outside the top six one time (a T12 in Memphis). He’s led the world in OWGR points earned, strokes gained, wins and also took the Masters by five. So yeah, he’s in the mix here.
Strokes gained: 2.36
OWGR points earned: 464
Majors: Win, three top 10s
Thomas won Kapalua in a playoff over Xander Schauffele and Patrick Reed, and the Decade of J.T. was underway. Interestingly, he went on to win just one more time throughout the rest of the year — a Sunday at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational when he dropped a 65 on the weekend. He was solid at the majors, though, and had two other tournaments (the Workday Charity Open and Zozo Championship) he probably feels like he should have won. J.T. capped his year with a solo fourth at the Masters and locked up a fourth (!!) straight year of 2.1 or more strokes gained (only D.J. even has three).
Strokes gained: 2.31
OWGR points earned: 335
Majors: Two top 10s
There are a million ways to measure the idea of goodness or badness in golf, but Rahm was the co-leader in my favorite way: strokes gained. According to Data Golf, Rahm and Johnson both gained 2.36 strokes per round for 2020. That is, on average, they were 2.36 strokes better than the field in every round they played for the year. For Rahm, this resulted in two wins, two seconds and a third worldwide but only one top 10 at a major championship (which feels like it should matter). The wins were big daddies, though: The Memorial Tournament — which when he won felt like a major — and the BMW Championship, which he won in a playoff over D.J. Though he won three times in each of the previous three years, I think you could make a legit argument that this was Rahm’s best year ever.
Strokes gained: 2.36
OWGR points earned: 329
Majors: One top 10
He’s really the only other candidate in this space. I supposed I could listen to arguments for Xander Schauffele (though he didn’t have a recognized win), Webb Simpson, Tyrrell Hatton or Collin Morikawa (who won a major championship), but DeChambeau is one of just four golfers who gained over 300 OWGR points on the year (the other three are just above), and he so uniquely changed the game that he deserves to be recognized here. His win at the Rocket Mortgage Classic which literally broke ShotLink — the PGA Tour’s laser system that delivers deep data on tournaments — was impressive, but his six-shot victory at the U.S. Open was transformational in ways we might not even feel for another 10 or 20 years. That matters, though it’s still probably not enough to overcome D.J.
Strokes gained: 1.98
OWGR points earned: 314
Majors: Win, two top 10s
Verdict: It has to be D.J. Although DeChambeau had maybe a more transformative year when you look at the bigger picture, and Rahm and Thomas were possibly more consistent, D.J.’s Masters win alone is enough to put him in the conversation and his OWGR points earned and strokes-gained number push him over the top. What’s scary for the rest of the golf world is how normal it all seemed for the No. 1 player in the world, and how easily it appears that it could happen all over again in 2021.