Players primed for a breakout in 2018

The 2018 PGA Tour season starts in Hawaii next week. To get ready for the new calendar year, let’s take a look at who might have a breakout season. In 2017, the dominant storyline was the emergence of young stars, but quite a few veterans had career years. Players such as Brian Harman, Kyle Stanley, Adam Hadwin and Marc Leishman leaped their historical performance and became household names on the leaderboard. What caused these breakout seasons?

Digging into the statistics shows that an area that each of these players improved upon was their approach shots to the green. Below is a chart that breaks down the 16 players who made the biggest jump in Strokes Gained: Approach during the 2016-2017 season. An improvement of .1 shots per round may not seem like much, but it translated to an additional $342,000 on average from these players.

Looking ahead to 2018 and attempting to predict who could see a similar breakout two players standout, Jamie Lovemark, and Harold Varner. These players dramatically improved their approach game but failed to reap the rewards that most of their peers did. It could have been poor bounces or drastic deterioration of other areas of their game but Lovemark and Varner both improved overall. Lovemark's improvement approaching the green was second only to Jordan Spieth. Instead of earning more money, he actually lost money in comparison to his 2015-2016 campaign. Compared to the other players on this list, Lovemark under earned by roughly $2.3 million. Varner's story was a similar one, despite seeing drastic improvement on his approach shots he underperformed by $1.5 million. Lovemark and Varner represent outliers and probably were on the wrong side of variance in 2016-2017. With each player in their late 20’s, I foresee each to have a banner year in 2018. 

A little about each

Jamie Lovemark was one of the most dominant collegiate and amateurs in the last 20 years. A back injury derailed the early portion of his career but the last few years Lovemark has been injury free and a fixture on Tour.  He is now entering his 10th year of professional golf and is long overdue for his 1st PGA Tour victory. Last year, Lovemark had a tremendous mid-season run where he made 13 straight cuts and had 8 top 27 finishes. Lovemark is long off the tee and extremely gifted around the greens. If he can continue to be above average approaching the green, he will be a force on the PGA Tour.

Late in the 2016-2017 season, Harold Varner was outside the top 125 and in jeopardy of losing his card. A t10th at the Wyndham vaulted him into the FedEx Cup Playoffs and saved a season that statistically should have been better. After a strong rookie campaign on tour, Varner made strides in Strokes Gained: Approach which fueled an overall improvement from a statistical standpoint. Oddly, it resulted in a worse season for the 27-year-old. Varner proved he has the chops to win at the 2016 Australian PGA; I wouldn’t be surprised to see him earn a PGA Tour title in 2018.

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