Jason Day, Rory McIlroy among five golfers who may have already peaked in their careers

It always amazes me how quickly narratives shift in sports and maybe even more so in golf. Think about how we viewed things a year ago today: Tiger Woods had yet to prove he could do anything beyond chip and putt. Jordan Spieth was the reigning Open champ and poised to add to his major total in 2018. Brooks Koepka was a good player with one major. Francesco Molinari was a pretty good player with no majors.

Now all those narratives have flipped. Tiger won again. Spieth has slipped out of the top 10. Koepka is No. 1 in the world and Molinari has quietly put together a possible Hall-of-Fame worthy resume with one outrageous season. 

With that paradigm in mind, I wanted to take a look at five guys whose careers may have already peaked. This is not a list meant to disparage anyone’s talent or future performance. It’s simply an acknowledgement that for some golfers, we have already seen the best they’ll ever bring to the game.

Take Tiger. He has peaked. This is undeniable, and only the most delusional uber-fan would suggest otherwise. That doesn’t mean he won’t win again or even that he won’t win multiple times again. It only means that we have definitely seen the best Woods has to offer and nothing else will be able to match what he was able to do at his apex.

This list will be, by definition, controversial. It would have been ludicrous a year ago (and maybe even now) to suggest that the 25-year-old Spieth has already hit his highest highs, and yet there is at least the chance that that scenario will play out, that Spieth will never again be as good as he was for a long period of time in his early 20s.

The reasons for this can be multiple, and they include better players in future generations, the complacency that can come with achieving so much at such a young age and the weight of expectations. We’re not even touching on lost putting strokes and the ability to compete mentally for years and even decades at a time. It’s really, really hard to be the best golfer on the planet. It’s even harder to get better from there.

Maybe these are guys who excelled in one category disproportionately in a given year or even won more than the numbers said they should have won. There are so many angles to come at this with, and you can often make numbers say whatever you want them to say. There are also innumerable ways to determine peak performances — wins, majors, stats and anecdotal evidence among them. All that to say, this is not an easy exercise, but it is an interesting one.

The trick here is not to pick guys who are old (nobody is going to argue against Phil Mickelson having peaked) but rather guys who seem like they’re still in their prime. Guys who you’re going to raise an eyebrow at and say, “Oh really?” Here are five guys who I think may have already shown us the best they have to offer in this game.

1. Jason Day: He’s another guy whose highs were absurd. He has set a bar that I’m not even sure he believes he can surpass again. Day won eight (!) times from February 2015 to May 2016 (including a major and a Players Championship). He’s 30 now, though, and injuries have always been at least a mild concern. He’s also led the PGA Tour in putting twice in the last three years, which seems unsustainable at best. 

Day has made more money than he knows what to do with, and while I think he can and will be a factor for the next decade (and probably win several more tournaments), I also think we’ve already seen the very best golf Jason Day will ever play.

2. Patton Kizzire: This is maybe the most obvious choice on the list. His two wins in the 2017-18 season don’t square with his career stats. He’s never finished inside the top 100 in strokes gained from tee to green, which does not engender a whole heap of confidence in his ability to repeat a multiple-win year at any point in the future. He’s also 32 years old and probably (mostly) is who he is at this point. I think he can be a solid pro who keeps his card, but 2017-18 was probably the high point for him.

3. Patrick Reed: His case is a little different than others. I think one thing that helped make him great as a golfer is the confidence he gleaned from being Captain America. Now that that wall has, uh, crumbled a little bit, there’s at least a path for him in which he’s never as good as he was when he was taking European names and wearing the green jacket around New York City. I’m fascinated by what the fallout from the 2018 Ryder Cup will do for the rest of his career and whether he’ll bounce back stronger and more defiant than ever or if, somewhat ironically, playing with Tiger in Paris was his career kryptonite. 

4. Brooks Koepka: This feels provocative because it is, but hear me out here. Koepka is and will be great. He is literally the best golfer on this planet right now. But he also just came off of a three-wins-in-six-majors stretch that, statistically, just cannot last unless he’s one of the 10 best golfers of all time. I struggled a little with this one because there’s certainly room for growth with Koepka winning more non-majors, but as for the very top of the mountain, I think Koepka may have already climbed as high as he’s ever going to go.

5. Rory McIlroy: I don’t like putting him on this list. Really, I don’t. And I certainly think he’s going to win and win a major or more in his 30s. But I also think we keep waiting for the guy who took a blowtorch to everything he saw in the early 2010s to reappear, and I’m not sure that is ever going to happen. Some of that has to do with the reality that guys like Spieth, Koepka and Justin Thomas have become problematic at the top of leaderboards, but some of it is that McIlroy is content in life. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact it’s just the opposite. But the same animal-instinct drive that has pushed Tiger to 80 wins doesn’t exist in everyone. Again, this is a good thing. 

And while McIlroy could putt with boxing gloves on and still contend for golf tournaments, his strokes gained trend hasn’t been super encouraging since that elite stretch we saw in 2012 and 2014. He’s been mostly fading from that 2.0 strokes gained mark (which, to be fair, is borderline transcendent golf), and I’m not sure if he’ll ever reach it again (somebody please print this and mail it to me with his signature when he gains 2.5 strokes per round in 2019 and wins seven times including the Masters).

  • 2018: 1.5 strokes gained per round
  • 2017: 1.2
  • 2016: 1.7
  • 2015: 1.8
  • 2014: 2.3
  • 2013: .99
  • 2012: 2.4
  • 2011: 1.0
  • 2010: .71

This speaks less to what McIlroy is doing now — he consistently ranks in the top 10 in strokes gained on the PGA Tour — and more to how outrageous his golf was in 2012 and 2014. His 2.406 strokes gained per round in 2012 ranks No. 5 in the strokes gained era behind three Tiger seasons and a Jim Furyk campaign in 2006. It’s not just the numbers, either. McIlroy hasn’t won as much. After winning four times in 2012 and three in 2014, he’s won just five combined in the last four years. Again, he’ll still be really, really good, but I’m not sure if we’ll ever see the dominant display he put on in that stretch of his career.

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