Before the Masters Tournament comes around every year in early April,was held in November.">1 it’s common for one golfer to sit head and shoulders above the rest. In most current fans’ minds, that player was Tiger Woods — who had two separate reigns of at least 250 weeks at No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings between 1999 and 2010 — but before him there were singular stretches of dominance by Greg Norman and Nick Faldo, and since 2010 we’ve also seen long runs by Rory McIlroy and, later, Dustin Johnson.
The top of the pecking order as the 2023 tournament gets underway, however, feels different. Instead of a lone standout, there are three of them: Scottie Scheffler, McIlroy and Jon Rahm are the world’s three best players by nearly any measure. They are Nos. 1-3 in the world rankings, respectively, and they form the top three in Data Golf’s strokes-gained metric over either the past 12 or six months, in varying orders. In the most important golf success metric — tournament wins against strong fields — the current Big Three are also standouts. Scheffler and Rahm each have six wins over the past two seasons, and McIlroy has five. Those include Scheffler’s 2022 Masters win, McIlroy’s Tour Championship triumph to take the FedEx Cup from Scheffler, and Rahm and Scheffler winning four of the first six “elevated events” on the new PGA Tour schedule.
This year’s Masters isn’t the very first time that a group of players, rather than just one, has been the clear class of the sport as the Masters arrives. But it’s the first time in a long time that such a group has been this entrenched — not just as the best players of the moment, but as the best players for, well, who knows? Because another thing about the Scheffler-Rahm-McIlroy triumvirate is that it could reign for quite a while.
The fun of these three players lies in their stylistic differences. Scheffler has the relaxed on-course demeanor of an after-work beer-league player — and a pretty awkward-looking swing to match, which nonetheless yields him superb control of the ball. Rahm is much different: a hothead whose swing conveys violence but, like Scheffler’s, has a knack for getting the ball to the perfect place. And McIlroy is the expressive, vulnerable former prodigy who makes the sport look like an art form as he chases that long-elusive Green Jacket and the career grand slam it would signify. (He’s been trying for nine years.) In a way, picking between the three is as much a personality test as an exercise in fandom.
Parsing the statistical differences between Scheffler, Rahm and McIlroy is harder, because — spoiler alert — they’re all good at almost everything. But each boasts standout traits that have made him an on-course assassin.
Scheffler’s success is about ball-striking, ball-striking and more ball-striking. Scheffler destroys the ball off the tee, for starters. His 1.00 strokes gained per round off the tee in the past 12 months trail only McIlroy’s 1.11. And when he gets up to his tee shot, he tends to deliver again. Scheffler has gained 1.16 strokes per round on the field with his approach play, just a tick behind Collin Morikawa’s 1.18 to lead the PGA Tour, according to Data Golf.
Scheffler is also quite good around the greens. His 0.34 strokes gained around the green per round don’t top the tour, but chipping and pitching have been essential to some of his biggest wins. A glorious uphill pitch shot on the third hole at Augusta on Sunday last year helped Scheffler put away a lurking Cameron Smith, who at that point was only a shot back of Scheffler’s lead:
And a Sunday chip-in on the eighth hole at TPC Sawgrass helped Scheffler put away The Players Championship in March:
The only thing Scheffler isn’t great at is putting, where he’s almost exactly average. (He’s gained 0.02 strokes per round on the greens over the past year.) No player in the world gains as many strokes tee to green as Scheffler does, so his lack of putting brilliance has barely slowed him down. Few sequences in golf history have been as illustrative of a player’s whole thing as Scheffler four-putting on the 72nd hole of last year’s Masters … and still winning the tournament by three shots. Some guys are just different.
Rahm, for his part, is an excellent putter. He’s fourth in the world in strokes gained putting in the past year at 0.81 per round, easily the best of any of the world’s most elite players. (Smith, who left the PGA Tour for LIV Golf after last season, is next among that group at 0.73 strokes gained putting per round.) When Rahm’s putter heats up, he’s either winning or getting very close to winning. In his past 25 starts, Rahm has won two of the three tournaments in which he’s averaged 1.68 strokes gained putting or better and three of six when he’s averaged 1.5. He has a cartoonish putting highlight reel, and it was a pair of long putts that pushed Rahm over the top to win his first and still only major at the 2021 U.S. Open.
It’s not all putting, of course. Rahm is eighth over the past year in strokes gained tee to green (1.57 per round). He’s having the best iron season of his career, gaining 0.93 strokes on approach. But the flatstick is Rahm’s differentiator against other mega-elite ball-strikers. He also has an unquantifiable and possibly unmatched ability to get away with bad shots, such as the time he skipped a shot over a water hazard to make par in 2022 and the time a few weeks ago when he airmailed an approach shot off a grandstand before it rolled to 3 feet, 8 inches from the hole. Rahm made eagle and went on to win by two shots:
McIlroy is in the worst form of the three stars at the moment, a funny statement given how close he is to having four wins on the season already. He hasn’t actually won since the Dubai Desert Classic at the end of January, but he tied for second at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and lost in a semifinal playoff at the World Golf Championship Match Play event at the end of March. McIlroy is similar to the player he’s always been, which is to say he’s good at everything and rarely far from contention. (A notable exception was when a nightmarish short-game week caused him to miss the cut at the Players in March.)
The most impressive thing about McIlroy may be the age-defying shape of his play. At 33, he leads the PGA Tour in driving distance by 6 yards. His average drive is 25 yards longer than the tour average, only the second time he’s put that much distance between himself and his typical competitor off the tee. He’s paired his pulverization of the ball with his second-best approach season ever (0.94 strokes gained per round, behind only a 2012 season when he averaged 1.22). Somehow, McIlroy got older but also got better at playing a young man’s game. It’s how he competes with Rahm, 28, and Scheffler, 26.
The three have formed their own statistical tier, though who looks strongest among them depends on how far one looks back. In the past six months, Rahm’s 3.02 strokes gained per round lead Scheffler’s 2.78 and McIlroy’s 2.63. The order flips over a 12-month window. But in either case, nobody else in the world is within 0.2 strokes per round of the tier containing Scheffler, McIlroy and Rahm.
Given that Rahm and Scheffler are still in their 20s and McIlroy is playing like he’s in his 20s, it’s possible that these three players monopolize the top of the world ranking for some time. And in fact, they’ve actually already done that. One or the other has been No. 1 in the world since Rahm supplanted Johnson for the top spot on July 18, 2021. And one of the Scheffler/Rahm/McIlroy trio has been No. 1 for nearly 90 percent of all weeks over the past two years:
Three stars passing around the No. 1 spot for 89 percent of weeks over two years is not a terribly large share in the annals of world ranking history, though it starts to feel longer if one excludes stretches where Tiger held the No. 1 spot 100 percent of the time for five or more years on end. That’s particularly the case since Scheffler, Rahm and McIlroy have all held the No. 1 spot for at least 16 percent of possible weeks each over the past two years. Taken together with Johnson’s own 11 percent share of No. 1 weeks during the same span — compiled before he moved to LIV Golf in June 2022 — only twice before in OWGR history have we seen so many different players claim a double-digit share of time at No. 1 over a two-year period: From summer 2018 to summer 2020, when McIlroy, Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose all held the crown for at least 10 percent of weeks apiece, and from July 1990 through July 1992, when Ian Woosnam, Greg Norman, Fred Couples and Nick Faldo could say the same.
The Official World Golf Ranking covers a bigger slice of golf history than the sliver for which we have strokes-gained data, but it remains hard to compare McIlroy, Scheffler and Rahm to players from older eras. The lack of a pre-1986 ranking standard makes comparisons of today’s stars to the last century’s like comparing apples to oranges or, maybe more aptly, comparing Tigers to Bears. Jack Nicklaus and a few peers dominated the game for decades, but all of them spent less time as the official world No. 1 than Tom Lehman’s one week.
Willie Park Sr., Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris — that’s indeed how the father and son were known — at one point won 11 of 12 majors. Of course, it was the 1860s and ‘70s, and there only was one major: the British Open. But they were more dominant than Scheffler, McIlroy and Rahm, who have six major titles between them and two since McIlroy won his second PGA Championship in 2014. Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Bobby Locke won 17 of the 32 majors between 1946 and ‘53. Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson bit off whole chunks of the sport in the decades after that.
But in Nicklaus’s day, as in Woods’s, golf still had an undisputed king. That’s not currently the case. Rahm, Scheffler and McIlroy have all taken their own turns at No. 1 over the past 90 weeks, but nobody has firmly established himself on a plane above the other two. Who is the best golfer in the world circa the early 2020s? Well, there are three equally viable choices. But maybe Scheffler, Rahm or McIlroy can offer a more definitive answer on Sunday at Augusta.