The past year in golf has been completely insane. So much has happened, so many things that were forgotten to time. Some that needed to be forgotten to time but also a lot that needed to be remembered. Foremost among those is a list of the five best players of the last calendar year.Professional golf has historically lacked a unified “here’s who actually mattered in a given year” list. Perhaps this only matters to me, but when I look back on a given year, I want to know who played the best and most meaningful golf. Who had the best year at the highest level of the sport. An All-NBA team of sorts, if you will.There are, of course, a million ways to determine this using myriad criteria and parameters. And while I’m just one writer — one consumer of golf — I do have a pretty good grasp about the breadth of what happened across the last 12 months. While you might disagree about the way I went about determining it, and part of me hopes you do because that’s half the fun!, I narrowed down my list of the five golfers who played the best and most meaningful golf of 2021.These are not necessarily the strokes-gained heroes, although some of them thrived in that statistical category. Nor are they the players with the most victories (because not all victories are created equally). No, they are the five guys who, when we look back 25 years from now on golf in 2021, we will remember as a combination of the most important and best over the last 12 months.
Here they are.1. Jon RahmHe was the easiest player to include. His list of accomplishments is ridiculous, but even his win total — only that U.S. Open victory in June — belies how good he was. It’s important to note that Rahm led the Memorial Tournament in June by six before having to withdraw following Round 3 after testing positive for COVID-19. He also finished T1 at the Tour Championship if you look at who took the fewest strokes throughout that week and don’t factor in players’ starting scores.Rahm’s 2.28 strokes gained was the best in the world in 2021, just ahead of Patrick Cantlay’s 2.14 and well ahead of Daniel Berger — who finished third — at 1.85. Rahm also had the highest percentage of top 10s (62%) across all events worldwide and the lowest cumulative score of the golfers who made the cut at all four major championships. At those four majors, he finished T5-T8-1-T3. He beat or tied 539 of 552 (97.6%) of golfers at the four most important events. And if all of that wasn’t enough, he was one of just three golfers to win more than a single point for Europe at the 2020 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits.2. Collin MorikawaThe only other lock for me. While his strokes-gained number was not as impressive as Rahm’s (Morikawa finished 10th in the world in strokes gained), he won a major, had the second-highest top-10 percentage behind Rahm and took the Race to Dubai by winning the DP World Tour Championship. He was also a nightmare for Europe at the Ryder Cup. Morikawa is a tremendous example of strokes gained not telling the entire story. According to Data Golf, even though he ranked 10th overall in strokes gained for the year, he ranked third when you look at the 95th percentile of players’ rounds. In other words, his best stuff was better than the best stuff of everyone other than Patrick Cantlay and Rahm.
3. Jordan SpiethI know everyone will be shocked that I included Spieth, but his case is fairly airtight. He finished fourth in strokes gained on the year, won the Texas Open and legitimately mixed it up at both the Masters and Open Championship. He could have fairly easily won either one of those. Additionally, he accumulated the fifth-most OWGR points behind Morikawa, Rahm, Viktor Hovland and Sam Burns. You could have made a compelling argument that, for most of the first half of 2021, Spieth was once again the best golfer in the world.4. Patrick CantlayThis might surprise you, but Cantlay was actually difficult for me to include on here. He was not very good at the major championships (best finish was T15 at the U.S. Open), but he was very good everywhere else and won two big-time events at Memorial (although Rahm probably should have won) and that epic playoff at the BMW Championship over Bryson DeChambeau. Ultimately, the fact that he was the only golfer other than Rahm to top 2.0 strokes gained on the year won me over, but I strongly considered throwing Brooks Koepka or Louis Oosthuizen into this spot.5. Hideki MatsuyamaAnother player who won’t win any statistical wars but did win perhaps the two most meaningful tournament of the season. First, he became the first golfer from Asia to win the Masters in April, and then he won in his home country of Japan at the Zozo Championship in the fall. The rest of his year was fairly tepid — top-five finishes at the Olympics and in Memphis at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational — but any list of the best and most important golfers in 2021 has to have Matsuyama on it.
The toughest golfers to leave off the list were Louis Oosthuizen, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka and Phil Mickelson. They all had interesting cases to make, but ultimately didn’t win enough, weren’t consistent enough or didn’t play enough high-quality golf throughout the year to warrant inclusion. Mickelson is especially intriguing because I think when we look back on 2021, his PGA Championship victory will be one of the most memorable moments. But he was so bad the rest of the year that it made it impossible to include him. He lost strokes over the course of the entire 2020-21 PGA Tour season and did not rank in the top 150 in the world in strokes gained. He didn’t have another top 10 worldwide other than that PGA win, which somehow makes the PGA win even more impressive but also means that he falls short of making this list.