At this point, I’m fairly certain that the 2016 PGA Tour season is over. And that means that players who switched equipment companies at the beginning of this season have had a full slate of events to get used to their new sticks.
Now, before I go all scorched earth and declare that PXG is junk science or that Callaway hasn’t made a good club since the War Bird 3 wood (a club which I still trust more than several family members), I realize that the first year with any new club isn’t the be-all and end-all. Transition years are a real phenomenon (see: Rory and Nike (RIP)), so I’m not saying that a change worked for one person and didn’t work for someone else. That being said, I’m interested in these transition years, and I think we can learn a lot from how a player handles a season with new clubs.
Also, I realize this might not be the sexiest topic on a year-to-year basis. The reason for this post was that in January of 2016, a handful of well-known players hitched their wagons to PXG, the high-end, bespoke golf club manufacturer started by billionaire GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons.
As soon as I heard the news that Parsons was starting a new equipment company from scratch, I was skeptical. The golf equipment industry isn’t like the NHL, you don’t just see new organizations cropping up left and right. After reading a few stories about the company, and coming across phrases like “no cost constraints,” “adjustable irons,” and “thermoplastic elastomer,” I was simultaneously more interested and more skeptical. I know that infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters would eventually churn out Macbeth, but could a handful of ex-Ping employees working overtime really create something to disrupt the golf establishment?
The short answer is inconclusive. The long answer will be explained in the following years, as more (or fewer) players jump on (or off) the PXG train and soar to wild success (or slump to bone-crushing failure).
Anyway, I tried to capture the results from these transition years in the charts below, where I put together very rudimentary statistical breakdowns of a few Tour players who fit my criteria. These criteria are as follows:
- Switched equipment companies in January of 2016
- Played a full 2016 schedule
- Played a majority of the past three years on the PGA Tour
This excludes Ryan Moore (switched to PXG April 2015) and recent Mayakoba winner Pat Perez (only made 11 starts in 2016). Both players have obviously seen success with their new gear, so I don’t want to leave them out of the conversation entirely.
In addition to the new PXG convertants, two players each switched to Callaway, TaylorMade, and Nike (RIP).The stats I picked are the ones that I feel give the best overall picture of a golfer’s year: wins, top 10s, missed cuts, total strokes gained, scoring average, and major results.
Let’s dive in.
Hahn’s switch from TaylorMade to PXG has had mixed results so far. In the “pros” column, Hahn notched another win and added three Top 10s in 2016. He also made the cut in all three majors in which he played, made about 300K more in prize money than the previous year, and ended the year at 39th in the FedEx Cup standings (as opposed to 51st in 2015 and 123rd in 2014).
On the other hand, the sabermetrics (such as they are) tell a slightly less rosy story. Hahn ended 2016 with a scoring average nearly a half stroke higher than the year before, and his total strokes gained dipped into the red after a healthy 2015 season.
If I’m playing armchair golf analyst, it almost looks like the new sticks may have been a detriment to Hahn. The improvements in his game year-over-year look like the kinds of things that happen as a young player figures out how to compete on a weekly basis on Tour – more Top 10s, better major results, etc. Conversely, his negative strokes gained and higher scoring average point to a potential discomfort with his equipment. Then again, it’s hard to win on Tour with clubs you don’t care for.
Perhaps best known for going absolutely ballistic at the end of 2014, winning the FedEx Cup, and not getting picked for the Ryder Cup (a situation which led to the creation of the last-minute “Horschel Pick” for the U.S. Ryder Cup team), Billy seems to be the rare golfer for whom the move to PXG worked out. After coming back to Earth in 2015, Horschel ditched PING for PXG and rebounded, delivering a career-best finish in the Masters to go along with five Top 10s, and great numbers in the scoring and strokes gained department.
Charles Howell III
Recent NLU podcast guest Chucky Triple Sticks has been grinding it out on Tour for a long while, and with his last win coming in 2007, the change from Mizuno to PXG might have been an effort to jump start a mid-career renaissance. And it kind of worked! Or at least, it didn’t not work. Three Sticks Mafia always has a habit of sniffing around the leaderboard on Sunday, and he carded his fair share of Top 10s in 2016 to go along with a strong scoring average and strokes gained statistic.
Two-time major winner Zach Johnson (sorry Soly) hopped on the PXG train after moving away from Titleist, and it didn’t seem to have any concrete results. No wins for the Iowan after taking down the Open Championship at the Old Course in 2015, and a respectable slate of major finishes (besides that Masters MC). Also, Johnson didn’t really stick to the change, using a Titleist fairway wood and 4-iron in July and switching back to a Titleist driver for the Ryder Cup.
While it’s true that it was going to be hard to live up to his strong 2014 and 2015 showings, Chris Kirk really fell off after switching to PXG from Callaway. The missed cuts increased, the Top 10s flatlined, and the majors were a mess. On the bright side, his strokes gained and scoring average statistics stayed pretty consistent, which means that he was putting together solid rounds, just not catching enough breaks and getting hot at the right times to get into contention.
I can almost definitely say that Koepka’s high performance 2016 had little to do with his switch from Titleist to Nike (RIP). We all remember Rory’s struggles after switching to the swoosh, and he might be the best in the world when he’s on his game. For Koepka to see the same kind of results in 2016 as he did the year previous speaks to his extraordinary talent more than his equipment choice. Also, it really looks like he’s trending towards winning that first major at the 2017 PGA Championship. You heard it here first.
Another mixed bag here from a young, rising talent on Tour. After Finau switched to Nike (RIP) from Callaway for his second full season on the big circuit, he picked up his first PGA Tour win at the Puerto Rico Open in March. However, his strokes gained fell and his scoring average increased. Plus, the missed cuts are a problem, and he couldn’t get it on track at either the US Open or the PGA Championship after making a serious run at them in 2015. Fortunately for Finau, Nike (RIP) is out of the equipment-making business, and Finau put these buttery Callaway MB1 blades in his bag recently.
The slightly less awesome Aussie replaced his Titleists with Callaways in 2016, and ended up with not much to show for it. He cut down on the missed cuts, which is always good for the pocketbook, and came up with a strong showing at Oakmont and a made cut at Baltusrol. Since 2010, Leishman never finished better than 44th in the FedEx Cup standings, and 2016’s 68th was his second worst finish in that span. All in all, nothing to see here.
If Jason Gore played on Monday Night Football, Jon Gruden would absolutely label the guy as a Gruden Grinder. After bouncing between the PGA and Web.com tours for most of his career, the squat Pepperdine Wave dropped his PINGs and picked up the Callaways. The breakdown here doesn’t do a great job of capturing his seasons, since he didn’t play in any majors in the past three years and spent most of 2014 on the Web.com Tour. But going back through his career, Gore has usually been good for a few Top 25s and maybe a Top 10 per season, with double digit missed cuts thrown in to balance it out. He fell just a bit short of those averages in 2016, making it a bit of a disappointing year. On the other hand, dude made over $400,000 playing golf while I sat in a cubicle and made less than 1/4 of that. So he still did all right.
Rounding out this post is Gary Woodland, a former college basketball player who possesses all kinds of pop. The bomber switched to TaylorMade from Callaway in 2016 with impressive results. He tied his career best finish in a major with a T12 at Royal Troon (which put him about 13 miles behind the scorching hot duo of Mickelson and Stenson), and improved his strokes gained and scoring average numbers. While Woodland hasn’t notched a win since 2013 (in the NLU-approved Reno-Tahoe Stableford Birdie Bonanza), his solid 2016 portends good things going forward under the TaylorMade umbrella.
So there you have it. A lot of numbers and words that don’t really tell us much beyond the fact that yes, these guys really are good, and that all top-end equipment manufacturers are putting out world-class clubs these days. While I hesitate to say that today’s pros can compete using bargain bin finds, I’m also not sure that switching equipment companies does more than get you a shiny new sponsor on your hat and a few more zeroes in your bank account.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Featured image via MyGolfSpy