Justin Thomas’s massive improvements came all over the course, not just off the tee

December 22, 2017

Among the parts of JT’s game that soared: his tee ball.

In the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Justin Thomas was a player with obvious potential, recording one win in the 58 PGA Tour events in which he competed. In the 2017 season, he added to his résumé five wins (including a major), the FedEx Cup championship and GOLF‘s Player of the Year crown. Statistically speaking, what explains his stunning surge?

In 2017, JT’s scoring improved by a massive 1.3 strokes per round, or more than five strokes per tournament. That’s enough to turn top 10s into wins. For a better-than-average Tour player, an improvement this big can’t come from a single shot category. Thomas had large gains in his driving (about 0.4 strokes per round), short-game shots from 100 yards in (about 0.4 strokes per round) and putting (about 0.5 strokes per round, with his greatest gains in the 10-to-20-foot range). That kind of improvement in one category is impressive; in three categories, it’s exceptional.

After capturing the FedEx Cup, Thomas looked back on his pre-2017 season ambitions. They weren’t vague goals like, “I want to get better.” They were specific and measurable. He said his strokes-gained-putting goal was +0.25 for the season (yes, he beat that), while his strokes-gained tee-to-green goal was +1.0 for the season (he beat that, too).

Thomas’s scrambling goal was to finish top 30. He finished 54th, but as we know, this stat doesn’t really measure wedge and putting performance. In the more exacting category of strokes gained scrambling (see my October 2017 column), Thomas ranked 106th in 2016 and 20th in 2017, so, properly measured, he also achieved this goal. His effective save rate increased from 59 percent in 2016 to 65 percent in 2017 (the Tour average is 60 percent), the sixth largest improvement last year.

There are a couple of ways a player can improve in a shot category. One is to have more “good” days; the other is to have fewer “bad” days. If we analyze Thomas’s good and bad rounds in each shot category in the last two seasons, we see that a significant difference in his Player of the Year campaign was the reduced damage from his poor driving rounds. In the worst 10 percent of his driving rounds in 2016, he lost an average of 2.8 strokes per round, compared with only a 1.7 strokes-per-round loss in 2017. That is, his worst driving rounds in ’17 were 1.1 strokes better than his worst driving rounds in ’16.

What made the most difference? Fewer tee balls hit into hazards. That’s a lesson that you and I can learn from as we make our own 2018 Player of the Year bids.