2021 Tour Trends: Iron Play

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Collin Morikawa
    Collin Morikawa
    American professional golfer

Editor’s Note: Now, all our premium tools for Fantasy, DFS and Betting are included in one subscription at one low price. Customers can subscribe to NBC Sports EDGE+ monthly ($9.99) or save 20% on an annual subscription ($95.88). And don't forget to use promo code SAVE10 to get 10% off. Click here to learn more!

For years it was Tiger Woods that dominated the conversation on top iron players in the world. With Woods aging and sidelined last season, who is the new king of the castle?

Let's dive through some stats from the 2020-21 PGA TOUR campaign and find out.

Number One Iron Player

If you read article one of this Tour Trends series then you'll remember that Bryson DeChambeau dominated with the driver.

Is there an equally dominant player when it comes to approach play? Short answer, yes.

Collin Morikawa gained a whopping 1.17 strokes approaching-the-green, per round, last season. The next closest was Paul Casey (+0.895). That is a dominating performance from Morikawa and it's even more impressive when you remember that he ended the season with an injury that slowed him down for about a month.

Who else lined up behind Morikawa in the top 10 for strokes gained approach-the-green?

Collin Morikawa
Paul Casey
Justin Thomas
Keegan Bradley
Daniel Berger
Russell Henley
Will Zalatoris
Jon Rahm
Corey Conners
Cameron Percy

You could have given me 100 guesses and I wouldn't have gotten close to thinking of Percy. It was a remarkable year for the irons but he still settled for 135th in the FedExCup standings after going 17-for-24 with a pair of top 10s.

Combining this list with our list from the off-the-tee article, we notice Jon Rahm and Correy Conners cracked the top 10 in both ball-striking categories. Really great stuff out of them.

Most Consistent Irons

When I looked at driver stats, it was Jon Rahm that showed the most consistency from round-to-round in 2021. Who holds that title for iron play?

It's the Aussie I just spoke about above, Cameron Percy. He gained strokes on approach in a remarkable 74.1% of his measured rounds. There were only nine golfers that cracked the 70-percent mark last season. Percy (47) was the oldest of the bunch with Stenson trailing by two years.

Here are the top 10 when it comes to the percentage of rounds gaining strokes on approach during the 2020-21 campaign:

Cameron Percy
Keegan Bradley
Collin Morikawa
Matthew NeSmith
Henrik Stenson
Will Zalatoris
Justin Thomas
Paul Casey
Russell Henley
Daniel Berger

This list is nearly 100% overlap which wasn't really the case with driving stats (5 overlapped). I'm not sure what to make of that, just an observation.

NeSmith is a very interesting name to point out here. He had eight events last season where he gained 4 or more strokes on approach. He finished outside of the top 40 in half of those starts. There is a lot of room for improvement if he can tidy up the short game and/or pick up a few yards with the driver.

The App is Back! Don’t forget to download the NBC Sports EDGE app to receive real-time player news, mobile alerts and track your favorite players. Plus, now you can check out articles and player cards. Get it here!

Most Improved

We've looked at the top performers but what golfers saw the greatest improvement in their year-over-year approach numbers?

Leading the charge is Andrew Putnam who bounced back from a disappointing 2020 campaign. He continued to build on that momentum with a 5-for-7 effort in the fall.

Here are the rest of the top 10 in most improved approach play when comparing 2020 and 2021:

Andrew Putnam
Russell Henley
Matthew NeSmith
Patton Kizzire
Michael Gellerman
Cameron Percy
Collin Morikawa
Keegan Bradley
Charley Hoffman
Russell Knox

Henley is a really interesting case to study, as far as his career progression goes. He arrived as one of the top putters and was also standing out with the driver. Over the last few years, his putter and driver performance has dipped but he's made up for it by becoming one of the top iron players in the world. In theory, he could be a very dangerous week-to-week threat if he pairs up his early-career driving and putting with the current state of his approach game.

Biggest Decline

On the flip side, let's look at the biggest drop in approach play, from 2020 to 2021, in hopes of finding some potential bounce-back candidates.

Here is the top 10 in terms of biggest year-over-year decline in approach performance:

Cameron Champ
Kristoffer Ventura
Austin Cook
Scott Harrington
Bryson DeChambeau
Ryan Brehm
Keith Mitchell
Will Gordon
Martin Trainer
Sung Kang

DeChambeau is the only name on the list who still had a positive SG: Approach number in 2021, despite the big decline. He is always in the lab tinkering so we should continue to expect him to go in streaks based on him fine-tuning specific areas of his game.

Average Earnings by Tier

For this last checkup, we will divide the TOUR into three groups, based on their 2021 approach performance.

Tier 1 consists of the golfers that were at least one standard deviation higher than the TOUR average in strokes gained approach last season. In other words, the top iron players on the planet.

Tier 2 is basically the "average" golfer out on TOUR. These are all of the golfers that sit between Tier 1 (elite) and Tier 3 (not elite).

Tier 3 contains the golfers that struggle with an iron in hand. Everyone that is at least a standard deviation below the TOUR average.

Now let's see how much money each tier earned, on average, per start last season.

Tier 1 = $152,145
Tier 2 = $65,206
Tier 3 = $28,320

These lists stack up very comparably to the off-the-tee lists. The approach-play bottom tier did perform a bit better but nothing too drastic.

I will be very curious to see if the same earning gaps exist when we highlight around-the-green and putting play.