PGA Tour depth has made winning harder than ever

ATLANTA – The PGA Tour’s statistical leader, the player compiling the best ball-striking season since Tiger Woods’ prime, was asked the other day how he reconciles having so many chances to win but having so little – you know, ONLY two titles – to show for it.

“I think it’s just quite difficult to win out here,” Scottie Scheffler said.

Imagine how the guys who have been completely shut out must feel.

It’s Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele.

It’s Jordan Spieth and Collin Morikawa.

It’s Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton.

In some cases, they’re playing the best, most consistent golf of their careers – and yet they arrive here at the season-ending Tour Championship primed to collect a fat check but still hungry for more.

It’s a reflection of how much we, as sports fans, value winners. Scheffler, Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy have combined to win nearly 14 percent of their Tour starts this season, but they’re so spectacularly gifted, and so occasionally dominant, that we can’t help but want more. For Scheffler to sink more putts. For Rahm to throw down the gauntlet like earlier this spring. For McIlroy to seize the moment in the game’s biggest events. That they don’t always deliver isn’t so much an indictment of their monstrous talents but rather a reminder of the Tour’s deep, diverse talent pool. No one since 2017 has won more than four events in a season.

“Everyone’s just really good,” Schauffele shrugged.

When Morikawa splashed almost immediately on Tour in 2019, his future seemed limitless. A lethal iron player and poised under pressure, he captured a pair of majors in the span of 11 months, with the promise of much more at 24 years old. But Morikawa hasn’t cashed in since then, narrowly missing his shot at world No. 1, and he’s grown increasingly frustrated lately as his ranking has dropped to 20th. He’s been passed by Scheffler as the game’s preeminent sharpshooter. He’s tinkered with different grips, styles and putters. And he’s worked with his trainers to shore up his body rotation and maximize every last inch of his slight frame.

On paper, at least, Morikawa is better than ever when compared to his peers; this season he ranks 11th on Tour in strokes gained: total, the best of his career to date, and in some ways, that’s validating.

“It shows that I’ve been working on the right things,” he said.

Zach Johnson will make his selections Tuesday, August 28th.

But Morikawa’s brand is winning, and what’s most memorable about his season, unfortunately, is the six-shot lead he surrendered at Kapalua and the playoff loss in Detroit. That’s what made him so energized by his record-breaking start here at the Tour Championship, his opening 125 rocketing him into a surprising tie for the lead: It was smart, clinical golf, effortless, a flashback to a few years ago.

“There’s a skill that you just can’t measure for winning,” he said. “You ask the best winners in history, and you can’t tell someone how to win. You can’t teach someone how to win. You’ve got to learn how to win.

“It’s still in there. I know it is. It’s just having things go your way and being consistent.”

Those lessons are still ongoing for Fleetwood. Any discussion of the classy Englishman’s competitive résumé always seems to come with a caveat: A proven winner in Europe, a Ryder Cup stalwart, but on the PGA Tour … . Yes, on the PGA Tour, he is still winless in 125 tries. No one in Tour history has earned more on the circuit without a victory, now $20.3 million and counting. But never has Fleetwood, 32, been closer to breaking through than now, about to cap off a season in which he was the fifth-best statistically.

“There’s clearly a lot of satisfaction from the way I’ve played,” he said. “I think there’s something very motivating about being with the very best players. That’s where I want to be around. That’s who I want to be competing against.”

Two years after finishing 137th in the FedExCup, Fleetwood arrived in Atlanta as the No. 11 seed having posted his most top-10s (eight) and matching a career high with three top-3s, including the agonizing playoff loss in Canada. He continues to drive the ball on a string and has made marginal but significant gains with both his iron play and putting to become one of the world’s best on the greens.

“We’ve been on a gradual incline,” he said, “but now I have more of an all-around game.”

That it still hasn’t been enough to get over the line this year on Tour has given him a dose of perspective.

And motivation.

“It shows that winning is not that easy,” said Fleetwood, whose lone victory since 2019 came last fall, at the European tour’s Nedbank Challenge. “I do think that winning is a habit, and I’m just not into that habit right now. But I plan on winning once, and then hopefully, I get over the line more and more.

“The depth out here is just unreal. Look at a week like this – nobody’s taking the foot off the gas, people are shooting 61s and stuff, and there’s just never any letup. You have to keep improving all the time. That pushes you forward. Even in my trying times, it accelerates you and makes you work so you stay at a higher level, and I think that shows that the standards get higher and higher all the time.”

Few players in the game have attained a higher standard over the past five seasons than Schauffele, who has never been worse than eighth in strokes gained: total since 2018 (No. 6 this season). The completeness of his game led to at least one victory every year over that span, including his first multi-win campaign a season ago.

So why has he gone dry in 2023, even with continually excellent performance?

FedEx St. Jude Championship - Final Round

It will be another week of triple-digit temperature at East Lake.

Schauffele wasn’t immediately sure. He called it a “weird year.” It began with the first injury scare of his career, in Hawaii, and even if it didn’t cost him any time – he still ripped off five top-5s through the first few months of the season – it may have derailed his momentum. When the wins didn’t come, when he didn’t feel as though he was building on last season’s success, he needed to be constantly reminded by his team that he once was fearful of a lost year.

And so, when asked what he was most proud of, Schauffele said: “For hanging tough. I was really scared, never having any issue ever. But you have really high expectations, and you obviously feel like you’ve let yourself down and your team down when you don’t really win much. But everyone seems to be pretty proud of me.”

For a player in Schauffele’s position, 29 and in his seventh season, the next steps in his career are obvious: Majors, player of the year-caliber seasons, stretches of dominance. It’s what Scheffler, Rahm and McIlroy (and their combined 14% win rate) are achieving. But not too long ago, Schauffele was in the position currently occupied by Fleetwood, and by Adam Schenk, both of whom have enjoyed an uptick in performance this season without the ultimate reward. It’s why Schauffele thinks there’s a mysterious art to accessing that next level.

“There’s a certain mental toughness, a certain grit, a certain skill level that’s required – there’s so many things that go into it,” he said. “There’s stuff that guys are born with, a mean streak in individuals where once they get a grip of something, they just won’t let go. They’re so stubborn, they’re so gritty, and it’s hard to learn that. But in order to win, you’ve also got to be really good.

“I feel like I’ve always never really been content, and that keeps you pushing, always wanting to have more. And even when you do win, you just look forward to the next opportunity. It’s never enough. I feel like I was born with the sort of grit that you need to pull things off.”

The only problem?

The Tour is becoming increasingly full of players with the same cutthroat intensity.

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