2023 PGA Tour Preview: Season-Long Matchups Among Golf’s Elite
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images. Pictured: PGA Tour golfer Jon Rahm of Spain
I first decided to write this piece entering the 2022 campaign, the idea behind the exercise being that I’d match up similar players and attempt to predict which one would have more success.
The final results? I nailed Scottie Scheffler over the comparable Sam Burns. I got only Justin Thomas over Rory McIlroy if majors are weighed too heavily. And in the battle of Brooks Koepka against Bryson DeChambeau, well, we’d have a lot of explaining to do if we ever ran into the early 2022 versions of ourselves.
In any case, I did like the idea and enjoyed the process of what I referred to at the time as “full-year matchup bets.”
So, let’s run it back.
Obviously, the margin between each of these matched-up players is razor-thin – it wouldn’t be much of a debate if I paired up, say, Rory against some rookie. On any given day, week or even year, any of these guys can beat the player he’s up against here, but this should at least help us start thinking about which ones we like a little bit more over the long term.
Let’s start it off with perhaps the toughest of the bunch.
Jon Rahm or Justin Thomas?
I’ve long maintained that the separation between the world’s top-tier of players and those just a notch below is that the most elite can win anytime, anyplace. Using this logic, I’ll usually shy away from top-of-the-board matchup bets on a weekly basis, just because any of the game’s biggest stars are capable of flipping a switch and beating anyone/everyone else.
That uppermost echelon includes both Rahm and JT, of course. We can argue where each player would rank based on pure talent alone, though if we’re placing either outside the top five then we’re doing it wrong.
I spoke with Thomas recently on my SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio show “Hitting the Green,” and he admitted there was some residual disappointment and frustration from this past year, when his lone victory was a second career major championship. While I love that his mindset will forever resist complacency, I find myself pulled in the direction of Rahm for the simple reason that I still don’t think the masses quite grasp just how good he really is. He finished 2022 with two wins in his last four starts while posting top-eight finishes in each of his last five and seven of his last eight.
We all know Rahm is among the world’s best drivers of the golf ball, ranking No. 1 in strokes gained off the tee last season, and his placement of 38th in approach shots leaves room for improvement, especially considering he was eighth the previous season. Perhaps most surprising is that a player who “struggled” with his flatstick at times ranked 28th in putting, which should be a good omen moving forward.
Currently ranked fifth in the OWGR, I’d make the argument that it might be years before we see him drop much lower, and I believe he’ll catch Thomas as a multi-major winner very soon.
My Pick: Rahm
Tony Finau or Viktor Hovland?
If you dumped a golf neophyte onto a PGA Tour driving range and asked them to assess swings based on the naked eye, well, chances are they’d think everyone was superhuman.
If there are two who might look just a little more bionic than the rest – especially with a driver and long irons – it’d be Finau and Hovland, each of whom has an extra gear with the bigger clubs.
When assessing their impending prospects, though, I can’t look beyond Finau. Nothing against Hovland – all right, one thing against Hovland: I can’t bring myself to choose a top-tier player who still owns one glaring weakness. As the worst player around the greens last season, I need to see a little more of the wedge game improvements that have him ranked sixth so far in this campaign.
If there were a weakness in Finau’s game, it might have come between the ears, as for years he struggled to parlay his talent into victories. That’s all changed now, with four wins in the past 16 months and three in his last eight starts. The confident Tony we’re accustomed to watching on Thursday mornings is now showing up on Sunday afternoons, which is bad news for anyone with designs on beating him down the stretch.
Quite frankly, there aren’t many players I’d choose over Finau, as I believe his ceiling remains massive and that elusive first major title is coming soon, perhaps at Augusta National or LACC.
My Pick: Finau
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Scottie Scheffler or Sam Burns?
No, this matchup isn’t left over from last year – OK, it sorta is, but there’s a reason why I rematched the reigning Masters champion and erstwhile No. 1-ranked player against a guy who’s yet to finish better than 20th in a major.
For the past year, I’ve maintained that the differential between these two buddies isn’t as wide as it might’ve seemed. They both now have four wins at the highest level, the most recent of which for Burns came at Colonial, ironically enough in a playoff over Scheffler.
Looking at their stats from last season, Scheffler was better from tee to green, while Burns was better on ‘em. It was all close enough, though, that there isn’t an egregiously easy selection between the two of them.
All of this rhetoric might have you believing I’m about to choose the underdog in this one, but I can’t pull the trigger. I’m giving Scheffler the nod here based on two things: 1) His major championship record – six top 10s in his last 10 starts – is lightyears beyond Burns, and 2) Victories at TPC Scottsdale, Bay Hill, Austin CC and Augusta National prove he can win on completely different tracks, which can’t be definitively said for Burns.
I still think this one is closer than most observers would think, but I’m sticking with Scheffler for another year.
My Pick: Scheffler
Tom Kim or Cameron Young?
Two of the biggest leaps in professional golf were taken by these rookies last season, as Kim went from 131st to 15th in the OWGR and Young went from 134th to 16th.
If you’re picking with your heart over your head, it’s tough not to choose the fiery Kim, a multilingual dynamo with the charisma to become a global superstar, over the reserved Young, whose facial expression never quite suggests whether he’s in the process of shooting 61 or 81.
Of course, if you’re picking with your head over your heart, it might be similarly difficult to fade Kim, who owns two wins and is already considered by some to be a top-five talent in the world. What we’ve seen in his limited time on the PGA Tour is a lofty ceiling, one which had him finishing top 25 in eight of his last nine starts, including those two wins. There’s reason to believe, however, that his lack of power – he’s averaging just 292.7 off the tee so far this season – could keep him from contending on the longest courses.
Young, meanwhile, has quickly established himself as one of the top-five drivers in the world, trailing only Rahm in strokes gained off the tee last season. That helped lead him to seven top-three finishes, on venues as unique and varied as Riviera, Quail Hollow, Southern Hills and St. Andrews. It can’t be overstated just how impressive that is for a rookie who came into his freshman campaign without much fanfare.
Something tells me Kim is going to make me regret this one, but I’m sticking with Young here, based on the fact that he’s contended on that wide spectrum of courses, which included a pair of major championships.
My Pick: Young
Jordan Spieth or Collin Morikawa?
Drive for show, putt for dough.
That’s the old axiom, which has since been proven not just stale, but incorrect. Years ago, in the pre-analytics era, when such a matchup as this would’ve required more opinion than proof, I’m guessing the refrain might’ve sounded something like this: “Spieth can get the ball up and down from anywhere and he rolls in more 30-foot birdie putts than anyone, so you’ve gotta take him here.”
While that assessment isn’t incorrect, it fails to recognize the importance of consistency in the long game over brief flashes of brilliance in the short game. Spieth is a better iron player than he often gets credits for, improving his approach game in each of the last four seasons, culminating in a rank of 31st last year.
That said, he’s still not on the level of Morikawa. Of course, very few are. Morikawa ranked third in this category during a campaign when he actually labored with these clubs, and he’s yet to finish outside the top three in any full season since turning professional. The game’s best iron players will give themselves more opportunities for birdies, which in turn gives them more opportunities to post lower scores, which in turn gives them more opportunities to contend and win. This is no longer some secret science.
In this matchup, I’ll take the player who should give himself more of these chances throughout the year.
My Pick: Morikawa
Matt Fitzpatrick or Shane Lowry?
If Europe is to once again win the Ryder Cup on home soil this year, it’ll need some help beyond McIlroy, Rahm and Hovland – and Fitz and Lowry are next on that list.
Last year, the Englishman joined the Irishman as a major champion, capturing the U.S. Open title at Brookline, site of his U.S. Amateur victory, as well.
While it’s easy to remember that triumph, it might be more difficult for some to recall that his performance was hardly some fluky one-off. The truth is, with improved power off the tee, Fitzpatrick turned into one of the game’s best players last year – an observation borne on fact. He ranked 10th on the PGA Tour off the tee, seventh around the greens and 22nd in putting, all good for the second-best total strokes gained number, behind only McIlroy.
I love Lowry’s game – and love his casual demeanor even more – but the fact is that his game just isn’t on the same level as that of Fitzpatrick. The only category in which he bested him was on approach shots, but otherwise Fitz is the better player any way you look at it.
Again, as I’ve attempted to explain throughout this piece, that doesn’t mean Lowry can’t beat him on some given weeks; it doesn’t even mean Lowry won’t have the better season. Hey, things happen. Players change, swings change.
Using all the data we have, though, Fitzpatrick was superior to Lowry in ’22, and there’s no sign of that flipping for this coming year.
My Pick: Fitzpatrick
Patrick Cantlay or Xander Schauffele?
Here’s another repeat matchup from last year’s preview. Like the Scheffler/Burns one, I’m going back to this in order to prove a point, but this conclusion isn’t that these guys are close in talent level.
We knew that already. No, the point here is that even at the end of this year, we might still be debating who prevailed in some of these matchups. That’s because beauty is in the eye of the beholder – and whom you choose might have more to do with what you individually consider as success than their final results.
What does that mean? We only have to look back to last season to figure it out.
Cantlay won just a single individual title (they won together at the Zurich Classic), but posted 11 top 10s, while Schauffele won twice on his own with just five other top 10s.
So, which one had the better campaign? That’s a matter of opinion. What I do believe is true, though, is that Cantlay remains the consistent one who will post more top-10/25 results, while Schauffele owns the ability to get red-hot at some point and win a few titles.
This one is less about picking between the two players and more about picking what means more to you as an investor in their success.
My Pick: Schauffele (ceiling), Cantlay (floor)