When Harris English won the Tournament of Champions last week, it was not a surprise to those who have followed professional golf closely for the past few years. English completely revamped his career trajectory following a trip to the Korn Ferry Tour Championship at the end of 2019 and ripped off four top 10s in six events to end the fall on the PGA Tour.
That he didn't win in 2020 was hardly the point. English played at a top-10 level in the world for most of the year. How do we determine that he played at a top-10 level in the world? Data Golf has a neat tool that shows that top 10 players in the world are about 1.75 strokes per round (or 7 strokes per tournament) better than the PGA Tour average. English lived here (or higher) for all of 2020, and when you live in that zip code long enough, wins usually start to fall at some point (though Tony Finau is another article for another time).
Since the PGA Tour restarted in June, English is one of just seven players who have been at 2.0 strokes gained per round or higher (or eight strokes better than the PGA Tour field average in a given event). Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Bryson DeChambeau, Daniel Berger and Xander Schauffele are the other six. If you're keeping company here, you're likely lifting trophies, like English did last Sunday in Hawaii.
But English is simply one of a handful of players who have improved their games immensely over the last year. I decided to look recently at strokes-gained numbers for the top 150 players from January to December 2019 compared to January 2020 until now to see which players had made the biggest year-over-year improvement. To nobody's surprise, English tops the list.
Biggest Improvement from 2019 to 2020
|Player||2019 SG||2020 SG||Improvement|
The big ones here are English, Berger and Henley, who all jumped into that top-10 player in the world range. For guys like Huh and Davis, the difference was personally significant, and they popped up on leaderboards every now and then, but it didn't materially change the outcome of many PGA Tour events.
Henley and Zalatoris represent a middle ground in which they weren't quite at the English level, but their significant improvement got them on multiple leaderboards throughout the summer and fall.
If we flip things around the other way and look at those who fell the most, some interesting names emerge. Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson all experienced decreases of at least 0.85 strokes gained per round, and Tiger Woods fell off by an eye-popping 1.9 strokes gained per round. In other words, Woods was eight strokes better than the PGA Tour average in 2019 and right at PGA Tour average in 2020.
For McIlroy, though the decline was sharp, he was still at 1.9 strokes gained per round overall, or roughly the same mark English increased to. This is a testament to just how absurdly good Rory was in 2019.
All of this is interesting, but I'm not sure any of it is instructive. We couldn't have known that the eight golfers above would be among the most improved over the last calendar year just as we can't know which eight will hold that title come this time next year. Will it be struggling vets like Brandt Snedeker and Marc Leishmen? Or maybe young players on their way up like Doug Ghim and Doc Redman?
Golf often feels more volatile than Bitcoin, which is one of the most fun things about it (and covering it). Eight (or more, or fewer) guys will reshape the way we think about them over the next 12 months and change their career destiny in the process, and some of them may be folks you have never even heard of. There is a delight in that mystery, and I'm excited to see who they are and what they do over the next year.