Five players who will take the next step this season

Five players who will take the next step this season

With Whistling Straits in the rearview mirror, the attention of the golf world naturally turns to the promise of tomorrow.

New names permeated leaderboards on the PGA TOUR in 2020-21, but the dearth of new blood at East Lake was emblematic of how difficult it is to push into the top of this sport. Last month, only two players – Sam Burns and Erik van Rooyen – made their TOUR Championship debuts.

Taking the ‘next step’ in a career is different for every player. For some, securing a PGA TOUR card fits that description perfectly. Others might be looking to get their first PGA TOUR victory, FedExCup Playoffs appearance, THE PLAYERS win or first major title.

Which players have shown notable promise at taking their ‘next steps’ in 2022? We dug into the numbers to identify some players likely to re-classify themselves in professional golf this season.

MITO PEREIRA

Pereira is almost too easy of a pick to make because his ascent has already begun in earnest. He won in back-to-back weeks on the Korn Ferry Tour in June, then proceeded to immediately contend in PGA TOUR events. In his last 10 starts worldwide, he’s finished sixth or better six times, capped by a third-place finish two weeks ago at the Fortinet Championship. In less than four months, the Texas Tech product has risen more than 200 spots in the Official World Golf Ranking, and now appears to be an extremely viable candidate to make Trevor Immelman’s International Presidents Cup team.

Last season, Pereira ranked eighth on the Korn Ferry Tour in ball-striking and in the top 20 in greens in regulation. He ranked in the top-20 in the field in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green in four of his last five measured PGA TOUR events, including at the Fortinet Championship, where he ranked first (+2.83 Strokes Gained per round). The Chilean is justifiably among the betting favorites this week at the Sanderson Farms Championship.

DAVIS RILEY

On the PGA TOUR last season, only five players ranked in the top 30 in both Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee and Strokes Gained: Putting – Abraham Ancer, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Jason Kokrak and Patrick Cantlay. All five of those men reached the TOUR Championship and each won at least one time during the season. It’s not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, but Davis Riley did something similar statistically on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2021. Riley and Lee Hodges were the only two players to rank in the top-30 in both total driving and putts per green in regulation.

Riley not only won twice on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2021, he was a statistical force through the bag. Riley ranked fourth in birdie average, hit more than 70% of his greens in regulation and ranked eighth in the all-around ranking. The Mississippi native will try to benefit from some home cooking this week at the Sanderson Farms, the site of his third career PGA TOUR start back in 2019.

TAYLOR PENDRITH

Like Riley, Pendrith was a statistical marvel last season on the Korn Ferry Tour. He absolutely hammers the golf ball, averaging more than 323 yards off the tee in 2021. He hit an elite 73% of his greens in regulation, and ranked in the top 20 in both total driving and the all-around ranking. Oh, and he was top-10 on the Korn Ferry Tour in scrambling and a respectable 36th in putts per green in regulation.

Pendrith took advantage of his limited PGA TOUR starts last season, picking up a pair of top 15 finishes late at the Barbasol and Barracuda Championships. With more reps on the TOUR, it’s easy to see a ball-striker of his caliber contending in several events early in 2022.

SCOTTIE SCHEFFLER

At Whistling Straits, Scottie Scheffler became the first player in the modern era of the Ryder Cup (since 1979, when it expanded to include all of Europe) to be on a winning side before claiming his first PGA TOUR victory. At 21st in this week’s Official World Golf Ranking, Scheffler is the only player currently in the top 25 without a PGA TOUR title yet to his name.

Only two players made more birdies last season on the PGA TOUR than Scheffler did. He had positive strokes gained per round across every category of the statistic last season, and has ranked in the top 20 in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee in both 2020 and 2021. A modest improvement in some key putting metrics – like from 10-15 feet, where he ranked 160th in make percentage last season – could pay enormous rewards for the uber-talented Texan.

It’s not a matter of if – but when – for this former PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year to break into the winner’s circle for the first time.

XANDER SCHAUFFELE

For Xander Schauffele, the only possible steps left to take are the ones at the top of the professional golf staircase. In the last few months, Xander has added a Ryder Cup victory and Olympic gold to an already stout list of accomplishments. But in 2022, there are two labels Schauffele could add to that list of enviable, lifelong-attached achievements: major champion and world No. 1.

Statistically, the U.S. Open has been Schauffele’s best of the four major championships. He’s finished in the top 10 in each of his first five career appearances at the U.S. Open, the first player to do that since Bobby Jones, who did it in his first seven. Schauffele has 76 birdies-or-better at the U.S. Open the last five years, most of any player in that span. But Schauffele has flashed at each of the four majors, finishing in the top-three at Augusta National twice and holding the 54-hole lead at The Open Championship in 2018.

The top spot in the World Ranking may seem like an unlikely acquisition for Schauffele on the surface, but he’s closer to the peak in that regard than one might think. Schauffele has been in the top 10 for 56 consecutive weeks, and the top six for 39 in a row. He hasn’t been worse than 12th at any point for almost three years. Only eight American players have been world No. 1 since the inception of the OWGR in 1986. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine Schauffele as the ninth.

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