Rickie Fowler's success deserves to be measured by more than just career win total
Big Rick is one of the most consistent golfers on the PGA Tour every year
As I watchedat the Waste Management Phoenix Open, I thought of all the takes that would be born from his 3-over 74 with the chips down at TPC Scottsdale in a rainy final round.
He can't close. He doesn't have what it takes. He's not a winner.
Fowler, it turns out, was thinking about these, too, which he revealed in his post-round press conference. They have followed him around for the past few years as maybe nobody on the PGA Tour has received more criticism for the gap between his potential and his production. Throw in the fact that he's arguably the most marketed (and marketable!) golfer in the world, and you get the biggest anomaly in golf. I simply don't know how to categorize him.
The easiest way, of course, is the old-fashioned way. Wins and losses. Fowler has played 220 PGA Tour events and won just five of them. It's a fine record, but the numbers certainly don't match his Q-rating.
That seems too simplistic, though. We can (and do) measure everything in the modern sports world, but for some reason, we're stuck on wins and losses in golf. This would be like looking at baseball players and judging them only by whether they reach the playoffs and not what their individual statistics are. I get it, golf is a game of one person and not nine on the field at the same time, but because of the data we have, I think modern players deserve a little nuance. It's no secret within golf that Fowler has lost to some historically great performances, and golf is one of the few sports in which you have no control over what your opponent does.
Because of that, I think it's helpful to look outside of wins and losses to measure some of these players. We overvalue winning in golf, and thus undervalue Fowler's career. Does closing on Sunday matter? Yes. Does his record with 54-hole leads matter? Sure. Has he been worse than his average in final rounds over the last few seasons? Absolutely. But these aren't the only things that matter. We ignore the first 54 holes of events and disproportionately value the last 18.
Thankfully, there's another way.
The strokes gained stat is the points per game of the PGA Tour. If we can look at James Harden, Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid and determine that they are the best players in the NBA based on how many points per game they score, why don't we do the same with PGA Tour players? You can see how much this helps Fowler's case when we do. Here's a look at all of the golfers who have finished in the top 15 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained over the past four years.
- Dustin Johnson
- Jason Day
- Justin Rose
- Rickie Fowler
That's the entire list! The problem for Fowler is that, in that span of time, those other three guys have amassed 24 total wins while he has just three (not including this season's stats or wins). Interestingly, Rose only has three as well, but he apparently gets a pass here (or people just don't care as much about him as they do Fowler, who knows).
To complete the comparison, only seven NBA players have finished in the top 15 in scoring over the last four seasons: DeMarcus Cousins, Durant, Steph Curry, Harden, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis and LeBron James. I get that it's not an apples-to-apples comparison, but maybe it should be more than we're making it.
As more competition in golf engenders more parity, using advanced metrics to properly sort out the best players from the next best players will only become more pertinent. This is to Fowler's advantage because by pretty much every measurement other than winning (which, again, can be arbitrary and out of a player's control), he has been one of the best players in golf over the last half decade.
A world exists in which Fowler experiences a windfall of PGA Tour wins late in his career at a time when most players are tapering off. That may or may not take place, but his statistical profile says it's at least on the table. Whether that happens, though, Fowler deserves more credit than he's probably gotten for the run of golf he's put together over the past few years. Even if he doesn't have the trophies to prove it.
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