Scheffler and success at the WM: Is it him or the course?

Scottie Scheffler, WM Phoenix Open,(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Scottie Scheffler, WM Phoenix Open,(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images) /

Scottie Scheffler repeated at the WM Phoenix Open Sunday, his 19-under 265 coming home two strokes ahead of Nick Taylor in second place.

Last year Scheffler came home at 16-under, beating Patrick Cantlay in a playoff.

The repeat victory raises an interesting question: When a PGA Tour player does exceptionally well year-after-year at an event, is it due to some course characteristic that especially favors the player’s skill set at that event? Are there, as the saying goes, horses for courses?

Or is the reason for a player such as Scheffler’s regular success at a layout such as TPC Scottsdale more diverse than that?

The WM is a unique and excellent layout to explore that question because of what might be termed its exceptional loyalty rate. Nearly two-thirds of the players who teed it up this past week at Scottsdale were returnees from the 2022 field.

That all but ensures a plethora of candidates from which data can be mined to explore the question.

Indeed, a half dozen players who finished among the top 25 this past week were also top 25 a year ago. In addition to Scottie Scheffler, that half dozen includes Jon Rahm (t10 then third), Justin Thomas (t8 then fourth), Sam Ryder (t23 then t20), Scott Stallings (t21 then t23), and Xander Schauffele (t3 then t10).

If the Strokes Gained profiles of those half-dozen players essentially replicated themselves year-to-year at TPC Scottsdale, then it’s a good bet that there was some aspect of the TPC layout uniquely suited to bring out the best in their games.

If, on the other hand, the successful players’ Strokes Gained profiles varied widely from the 2022 WM to this just-completed one, then the likelihood is that their consistent success was not due to the suitability of their game to the layout itself. It’s more likely the players simply had hot weeks at the same time in back-to-back seasons for different reasons.

As the two-time champion, Scottie Scheffler is the prime lab rat for this study. His data presents a convincing case that the reason for Scheffler’s consistent success at TPC Scottsdale isn’t some particular affinity for the course itself but rather the many and varied strengths of Scheffler’s game.

When he won in 2022, Scottie Scheffler overcame a scattershot performance with his approaches. That aspect of his play actually spotted the field 1.583 Strokes Gained in 2022.

Scheffler still won because the other aspects of his overall game performed at a high level. He gained 5.221 strokes due to his play off the tee, added a 2.775 stroke margin in his recoveries around the green, and putted well enough to add another 6.495 stroke margin thanks to that aspect.

Fast-forward to the 2023 WM and we see a different Scottie Scheffler.

This year he dominated the TPC Scottsdale fairways, running up a mammoth 9.487 stroke advantage with his iron play. That alone is a swing of 11.070 Strokes Gained year-to-year in the champion’s favor.

It was a good thing, too, because most of the remainder of Scheffler’s game paled against what he had done one year earlier. His 5.221 Strokes Gained Off the tee from 2022 fell to 2.422 in 2023, his 2.775 score around the green dropped to 1.517, and his 6.495 putting advantage regressed to 4.157.

In short, Scheffler went from being a player whose overall game offset his fairway weakness in 2022 to being an approach game titan in 2023.

When we look at the other five players who were top 25 at Scottsdale both years, the individual skill performances vary…but the fluidity of the players’ excellence is a constant.

Jon Rahm

In 2022 Rahm finished t10 on the strength of a dynamite power display. He bettered the field average by 7.939 Strokes Gained Off The Tee. Rahm supplemented that with a score of +4.010 in his approach game, that combination helping him offset lackluster showings around (-0.718) and on (-2.470) the greens

On his way to this year’s third place, Rahm was a different, more subtle player. His advantage off the tee fell to just 2.52 Strokes Gained, a five-stroke dropoff. He lost another stroke and a half in his approaches.

But his recovery game improved by eight-tenths of a stroke, and his putting approached genius level. Rahm hit 6.035 Strokes Gained on the greens at Scottsdale, an improvement of more than 8.5 strokes from year-to-year.

Justin Thomas

Thomas succeeded in 2022 due to his iron play. He led the field that week with +7.137 Strokes Gained Approaching the Green. In 2023, that aspect of Thomas’ game was still good, but it did fall back to +4.110.

But he offset that by improving to 4.723 Strokes Gained Off the tee, and to 3.229 around the greens. Thomas still had not figured out Scottsdale’s greens last week, but at least he neutralized them. The 2.799 strokes putting he gave away in 2022 improved to a fractional -0.124 this past week.,

Sam Ryder

The striking aspect of Ryder’s comparative performances between 2022 and 2023 was the change in his putting. In 2022, Scottsdale’s greens were at best a neutral factor in his showing. He survived to a t23 finish despite netting only 0.862 Strokes Gained on those greens.

Last week, by contrast, Ryder was one of the field’s best putters, scoring +6.179 Strokes Gained on the greens. That dramatic improvement helped him offset substandard performances off the tee and around the greens.

Scott Stallings

Stallings was a master of the putting surfaces in 2022. In fact, only Scottie Scheffler bettered his +6.428 performance on the greens. That was the whole key to his t21 because the other aspects of Stallings’ game were at best just OK.

In 2023, Stallings reversed course. He was a substandard putter, spotting the field 1.123 strokes on the greens. That’s a 7.551 stroke year-to-year dropoff in that aspect of play alone.

Yet Stallings only dropped to t23 overall because he made large strides in both his approaches and his recovery shots. The net year-to-year gain in those two aspects alone was more than 6.3 strokes, nearly erasing his putting decline.

Xander Schauffele

In 2022, Schauffele could thank his magician-like recovery skills for his t3 finish. He was a field-leading 4.026 strokes better than the field average in that aspect of play. In 2023, Schauffele’s recovery play actually cost him 1.002 strokes, a net change of more than five strokes.

Yet he still finished top 10. How?

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The answer lies in his ability to hold the other aspects of his game together. Aside from his recovery play, Schauffele was decidedly the most consistent of the six players who were top 25 both years. His performance in the other three Strokes Gained categories only varied by about 1.9 strokes.

At Scottsdale, Schauffele was, then, the exception that proves the rule. And the rule is this: PGA Tour players are capable of winning on the same track by utilizing diverse skill sets as the need arises to do so. They do not need to rely on a track that is friendly to one particular aspect of their play.