The Year in Men's Pro Golf: A Data-Based Review

Words by
Dan Davies
The Year in Men's Pro Golf: A Data-Based Review

What will 2023 be remembered for in men’s professional golf? The ongoing wrangles, rumblings and rumours of the PGA Tour vs LIV Golf split again provided the main topic of discussion. Thankfully, there was also plenty to celebrate on the course. 

Here, we round up our 10 big takeaways, highlights and curiosities from the season, examining them through the lens of Clippd’s data insights. Note: we would love to do the same for the women’s game but do not yet have the tournament data to do so. Here’s hoping that changes in 2024!

1. Jon Rahm: Officially the best of 2023

No golfer topped Rahm's highest Player Quality score in 2023

While speculation over and then coverage of his departure for LIV has dominated the headlines in recent months, the Spaniard has been the dominant player of the year. A season of contrasting emotions reached its zenith with Rahm's win at the Masters, where he claimed a second major title after out-duelling Brooks Koepka, the quintessential major closer.

By the time he arrived at Augusta National, Rahm had already won three times, including the Genesis at Riviera. Rahm’s Player Quality hit 117 in January (100 represents male tour average), a month that saw him win two PGA Tour titles and finish 7th in the other tournament he played in.

Fittingly, given the fact he was arguably the best player of the year, it was the highest Overall Player Quality number reached by any golfer in Clippd in 2023.  It's only a shame we now won't have the data to track how much better he can become.

2. Viktor Hovland's dramatic improvement

It was Hovland's appraoch play rather than his chipping that drove his improvement

Viktor Hovland won three big tournaments on the PGA Tour (the Memorial, the BMW Championship and the Tour Championship) on his way to claiming the financial bounty that is the FedEx Cup title. He also stepped up in the majors, recording a T7 at the Masters, finishing an unlucky runner-up to Brooks Koepka at the PGA Championship, and posting solid top-20s at the US Open and the Open Championship.

The commentary on his improvement has centred on his short game but Clippd reveals it is his approach play that has driven this rise. The Norwegian started the year with a Player Quality for Approach of 100 (tour average) and finished it at 109. His gains in approach shots of 180-plus yards have been more impressive still.

Will 2024 be the year that he makes the next big breakthrough and wins his first major? The data suggests it might well be. 

3. Rory McIlroy: Consistent excellence

How much better Rory is than the average tour pro

Although Rory’s major drought now stretches to nine long years, he must be commended for another remarkably solid campaign. Despite all the politics and off-course distractions that made demands on both his time and energy, 2023 saw him bag two wins (in Dubai and Scotland), come agonisingly close at the US Open, and record 14 top-10 finishes in the 21 tournaments he entered.

The low point was his missed cut at the Masters; the high point was ending as the leading points scorer at the Ryder Cup, where he confirmed his role as Europe's talisman. The Ulsterman’s superiority and consistency is now taken for granted but the charts above underline how much better he really is. One unfortunate by-product of this continued excellence is the clamour around his fifth major title will just get louder.

4. Brian Harman: Boss of the Moss

At Hoylake, Harman missed one out of 59 putts from 10 feet and less

Brian Harman might not have been everyone’s choice as a major champion but his play at Royal Liverpool in the 151st Open Championship added up to arguably the most complete and dominant performance of the season. The 36-year-old Georgian took charge with a second round 65 and never gave any of his rivals a glimpse, cantering to a highly impressive and richly deserved five-shot victory.

Every part of Harman’s game functioned supremely at Hoylake, not least his putting. He one-putted 56% of greens in round one and 61% in round two, and his Average Shot Quality with the putter across the four rounds was 112, which translated as 11.57 Strokes Gained Putting across the championship. It was not until Sunday afternoon that he missed a putt from 10 feet and under.

5. The incredible rise of Ludvig Aberg

Beware: Ludvig continues to get better and better

Ludvig Aberg came into the year ranked 3024 in the world. Texas Tech University's star player gave early warning of what was to come in his very first outing in a professional event, shooting 65 in the opening round of the Hero Dubai Desert Classic in January.

After turning pro in June, the young Swede continued to make cuts in big events on the PGA Tour. In the summer, he decamped to Europe to compete for a Ryder Cup place, claiming his first professional win in Switzerland to seal his pick and then repaying his captain's faith by playing a starring role at Marco Simone. When he returned to action in the US, he promptly bagged his maiden victory on the PGA Tour.

Remarkably, the rookie missed just one cut in 19 events on both tours across the year. Since mid-August, when an uncharacteristically poor final round cost him a win at the DP World Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, his improvement has been even more impressive. It has also come in all areas of his game. The data strongly suggests he’ll be a factor when he makes his much anticipated debut in the majors in 2024.

6. Scottie Scheffler: The Players' Player

Scottie just refuses to hit bad shots, as his dominant performance at The Players demonstrates

One can only imagine how many tournaments Scottie Scheffler would have won if he’d only been able to putt like Brian Harman. Both his driving and approach play were ranked the best on the PGA Tour. After his first round 63 at the Travelers Championship in June, Scheffler’s Player Quality for Approach play hit 120 in Clippd, the high water mark for any player in 2023.

Unfortunately, his putting was well below tour average, relegating him to 162nd on the PGA Tour’s stats. And yet despite driving his car on three wheels for most of the year, Scottie did not miss a cut and recorded 14 top-5 finishes.

Two wins seems like a poor return for his approach play, but they were big wins all the same. The first came when he defended the WM Phoenix Open, the second was a dominant display at The Players Championship. Across the four days at TPC Sawgrass, the Texan demonstrated his other great asset: his golfing intelligence. Of the 270 strokes he played (he also had one penalty drop), Scheffler only hit five bad ones (scoring 40 or below for Shot Quality). If his putting at the Hero World Championship in December is anything to go by, everyone else could well be playing for places in 2024.

7. Ryder Cup: Europe’s data-driven triumph

Blue denotes the sessions in Europe out-played the US in approach play. Red shows where Team USA was better

The reasons for Europe’s crushing 16.5-11.5 Ryder Cup win over the USA have been debated long and hard. But the simple fact is Luke Donald’s team played better than their opponents in almost every department and at almost every distance. Their advantage was, at times, considerable.

Team Europe was better in Off The Tee in every session and 20.7 Strokes Gained better across the matches). In approach play in Friday’s opening foursomes session, Team Europe was nearly 12% better than the US, and 17% better in the foursomes on Saturday. In the Friday morning foursomes whitewash, Europe’s tee shots on Marco Simone’s par-3s were collectively more than 33% better than their opponents; they won the par-3 7th no less than five times in eight visits on the first day.

A case can be made for the Marco Simone course being Europe’s secret weapon but that’s only because Luke Donald’s men were better prepared and had a strategy, heavily informed by Eduardo Molinari’s analysis, that they stuck to.

Notable mentions

8. Matt Wallace’s record-equalling birdie blitz

Wallace made nine birdies in a row, with an average Shot Quality for approach play of 145.

“I’m playing solid,” said Matt Wallace, putting himself in contention for the understatement of the year award. The Englishman was speaking after the third round of the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in November. He had just birdied every hole on the back nine of the Earth course in Dubai, equalling the European Tour record for most consecutive birdies (9) and most birdies in a round (12).

Wallace’s approach play was that elite on his inward nine he was only required to hole a total distance of 15 feet and 8 inches of putts for his final six birdies. It all added up to a round of 60, 12 under par, and put him firmly in contention for the title.

Unfortunately, he neither won the tournament or claimed a share of the records as the tour said they would not be considered a record because of preferred lies from overnight rains. He can console himself with the data from his incredible streak, which saw him average 145 for Shot Quality with his approach play on the back nine, a whole 40% better than tour average.

9. Min Woo Lee: Rising Star

The young Australian has become a firm fans’ favourite with his ball-striking and shotmaking prowess, his engaging personality, and his refreshingly old-school determination to play a truly global schedule.

He got off to a fast start with a runner-up finish in Abu Dhabi before further impressing with a T6 at the Players Championship and a T5 at the US Open. Rock solid ever since, he’s added wins on the Asian Tour in Macao and in the Australian PGA Championship, where in the final round he donned his chef’s hat and sparked a mass thunder-clap on the par-3 17th.

Now ranked 33 in the world, Min Woo is on a sharp upward trajectory, which is reflected in his Clippd data. From July 1st, he didn’t have a single round where his Average Shot Quality for Off the Tee dipped below 100 (tour average). He peaked with an average of 120 in the third round of the BMW PGA Championship, where he shot a 67. On that day, his Average Shot Quality for Around the Green hit 122, including his now viral flop shot from behind the 18th green.

10. Eric Cole: From mini tour star to big league player

Up until the Farmers Insurance Open in the last week of January, there was nothing to suggest that mini tour specialist (51 career wins) Eric Cole was set to do anything in his rookie season on the PGA Tour. The son of Laura Baugh and Bobby Cole, tour players who both won, respectively, the US Amateur and the British Amateur as teenagers, the 35-year-old had missed his first four cuts in the 2022 wraparound season and recorded a best finish of T27 in six other events. 

Then, it all clicked. He was T15 at Pebble Bach, lost a playoff at the Honda Classic and suddenly transformed himself into a model of consistency. After narrowly failing to make it into the Tour Championship at East Lake, Cole has gone from strength to strength, recording four top-5s in five events.

The most significant improvement he's made is in his driving, where he’s gone from an OTT Player Quality of 93 in at the start of 2023 to a solid 102. He’s now up to 41st in the world and looking forward to playing in the majors next season.