In this week’s postseason recap, we celebrate Viktor Hovland’s performance makeover, embrace a true offseason, and break down U.S. Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson’s six picks.
Viktor, Viktor, Viktor. It’s wildly apropos that the picture used for Viktor Hovland’s page on the world golf ranking website shows the Norwegian hitting a delicate chip shot. Two years ago, that picture would have been mildly ironic. The game’s very best follow a similar evolution. Arrive on Tour with a monsoon of talent and energy and improve 1% each season across the board. But Hovland’s journey to the top was much more dramatic. In his first full season on Tour in 2020, Hovland ranked 148th in scrambling, with a 56% average. This season, he was 41st, with a 62% average. Most players invest in the idea of incremental gains, but Hovland turned his greatest weakness into an unlikely and undisputed asset.
Offseason. For the first time in their professional careers, this generation of players will have a legitimate offseason, complete with a four-month break. Some, like Max Homa, who is committed to play the Fortinet Championship where he’s the defending champ, will add a start during the fall, which now serves as an avenue to retain playing privileges for those who didn’t qualify for the playoffs. Most, however, plan to fully embrace the break. The Tour’s move back to a calendar schedule with signature events has plenty of questions and concerns, but the most pressing is how players who have already locked up their status for next year will approach the fall, and the early answer seems to be leisurely.
U.S. Ryder Cup captain’s picks have cohesion in mind. Zach Johnson announces his six captain’s picks for the US Ryder Cup team and the Golf Today crew gives its analysis on golfers who are going to Rome.
Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)
Picking apart. Captain’s picks are the closest golf has to a true transaction and of Zach Johnson’s half-dozen selections this week, at least one was polarizing. The ultimate judge of Johnson’s picks will be decided by the relative success or failure of the U.S. team and most agree Jordan Spieth, Collin Morikawa, Brooks Koepka, and Rickie Fowler deserve a spot in the Rome locker room. Some can also agree that Sam Burns, who will be an easy partner for Scottie Scheffler, was a solid fit. Where most observers pushed back was on Justin Thomas. Johnson called him the “heart and soul” of the U.S. team and it’s clear his record in previous cups weighed heavily in his favor. That history was enough for Johnson to overlook Thomas’ worst year on Tour that included just three top-10 finishes and no trip to the playoffs. Perhaps even more telling is how Johnson likely ignored his “nerd heard” of statisticians and the need for a specific type of player at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club who excels at driving accuracy, greens in regulation, putting, and scrambling. Thomas ranks outside the top 100 this season in all four categories.
“Playoffs.” The quotes were added last week by Scheffler, who made his thoughts on the circuit’s postseason format abundantly clear. “I try to approach each round the same way, but I mean, yeah, it is a bit weird starting a tournament with the [starting-strokes] lead. I don’t know. It’s definitely an interesting format,” he said with an emphasis on “interesting.” It’s been five years since the Tour began using “starting strokes” at the Tour Championship and it’s clear that the format has not been fully embraced by everyone, including the world No. 1. With so many potential changes looming for the game over the next few months, and a clear shift to player empowerment, Scheffler’s air quotes send a clear message.
Player of the Year. It’s not often a true debate over the Tour’s Player of the Year award winner lasts an entire season, but based on random polling of players last week at East Lake there was still a question as to who would win the Jack Nicklaus Award. Most said the outcome at the finale could swing the vote. Unfortunately, neither leading candidate, Scheffler or Jon Rahm, were in the Sunday mix at the Tour Championship, which leaves voters to decide a POY race that has been strangely quiet since spring. Scheffler has been more consistent and his strokes gained: tee-to-green numbers are historic, but he hasn’t won since The Players in March, while Rahm has four victories including the Masters, but hasn’t won since April. Hovland played his way onto the ballot with back-to-back victories to close the season, but it appears to be a two-man race and neither man made the decision any easier at East Lake.
Straw man argument. One of the interesting side notes to this week’s picks by Johnson was some noise from across the LIV Golf divide that Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau didn’t show up on the captain’s radar. While Zach Johnson, like all captains, has left himself open to second-guessing his decision, not picking Dustin Johnson or DeChambeau wasn’t political; it was driven by performance. Dustin Johnson’s best finish in the four majors this year was a tie for 10th place at the U.S. Open and DeChambeau’s fourth-place finish at the PGA Championship was his only top-10 in limited Tour starts. Both players have a win on LIV Golf this season but also have more finishes outside the top 10 than they do inside, on the breakaway circuit. Zach Johnson’s selection of Koepka sent a clear message that despite the split in golf, the captain was clearly willing to do what he thought was best for the team. Not picking Dustin Johnson and DeChambeau was based on their play, not where they play.