At the Stanford University football practice field, a banner reads, “You are getting better or you are getting worse; you never stay the same.”
Golf is no different. Year round, professional golfers must evaluate their performance and opportunities for improvement. How should a player prioritize development? Should he focus on his driver? Wedge game? Putting?
Increasingly, golfers recognize that spending disproportionate time on an area of their game does not always guarantee improvement. However, prioritizing one particular facet of the sport tends to yield the most reliable results: speed. And players know it:
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) October 4, 2022
I could spend months attempting to improve my consistency with mid-irons, yet ultimately my practice sessions may not pay dividends once I step onto the course. But if I spend months picking up swing speed and adding to my driving distance, I am guaranteed a distance advantage every time I tee it up.
Now consider the statistical profile of Sungjae Im, No. 19 in the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR). Im ranks just above Tour average in club head speed. Sungjae is not a short hitter compared to the typical player on tour, but he is relatively short compared to the top-ranked players in the world.
Below are his Strokes Gained rankings by category for the recently concluded 2021-22 PGA Tour season:
How should we think about the 24-year-old Sungjae Im’s career moving forward? How does he take a step forward and enter the OWGR top 10 for the first time in his career?
The bull case for Im is that he has an exceptionally well-rounded game. At +1.67 Strokes Gained per round, Sungjae is coming off his best season and should be entering the prime of his career. Last season, he teed it up in 26 events. He made 22 cuts, won the Shriners Children’s Open, and contended on the back nine of the Super Bowl. Im has been a model of consistency on the PGA Tour while showing flashes of upside.
The bear case touches on an important concept. In the 2021-22 tour season, Im averaged +0.651 Strokes Gained per round Off the Tee, which ranked sixth on tour. There are two dimensions to Off the Tee performance: distance and accuracy.
In my adjusted accuracy rankings, Im ranked eighth on tour out of 240 qualified players. You cannot get much more accurate than that. Realistically, it is more likely Im’s accuracy numbers will worsen than improve. So if Im is not actively training to pick up speed, his Off the Tee numbers can basically move in only one direction, which is down.
Contrast the state of Im’s game with Matthew Fitzpatrick’s current skill set.
Over the past couple of years, Im’s and Fitzpatrick’s skill sets and positions in the OWGR have tracked remarkably closely. A clear difference between them, however, is that despite having almost identical SG: Off the Tee numbers, Fitzpatrick drives the ball farther than Im and has taken up a relentless quest for swing speed.
In the 2022 calendar year, Im and Fitzpatrick pulled driver on the same hole just under 200 times. Fitzpatrick outdrove Im on 61% of those shots, and Fitzy is only getting longer. Undoubtedly, Sungjae is an excellent all-around player. Nevertheless, constantly playing from behind the top ranked players in the world is a difficult hurdle to overcome.
To climb in the OWGR, players need to register high finishes in 72-hole tournaments with strong fields. Im’s and Fitzpatrick’s results in last season’s major championships are listed below:
Major-championship setups generally correlate strongly with driving distance. The clearest path for Im to improve his major championship results is to pick up distance like Fitzpatrick has.
Are there other ways Sungjae can upgrade his game? Certainly. His approach play trails top iron players by ~0.7 strokes per round. Modest improvement to his iron play is a plausible route into the top 10 of the OWGR. But speed is the reliable route, and it’s the route I’d recommend Sungjae takes.
By any conventional metric, the beginning of Sungjae Im’s career has been a resounding success. But he should not be satisfied. He is an extraordinarily talented golfer. His sights should be set on the world top 10. I want to see him in contention regularly in major championships. Without increasing his driving distance, though, I expect Sungjae to struggle taking down the strongest fields in golf in traditional championship setups.
As we enter the 2022-23 PGA Tour season, keep an eye on how Im and Fizpatrick perform off the tee. Unless Im has been quietly speed training, I project Fitzpatrick to outperform Sungjae off the tee this upcoming season.
Speed is the most reliable advantage in golf. That’s why many players are chasing it.
You’re either getting faster or you’re losing yardage to your competitors; you never stay the same.