There are the top three players and then there is everyone else in professional golf currently. Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm is how the Official World Golf Rankings orders the three PGA Tour superstars, but any permutation is acceptable with those three names right now.
They go into this week’s Genesis Invitational as the top three favorites in the field. All are 10-1 or shorter, and the next closest (Xander Schauffele) is 16-1. The reason for that? Over everyone’s last 20 rounds, those three players are all averaging (averaging!) 2.9 strokes gained or better per round. The next closest is, you guessed it, Schauffele at 2.4.
It’s not just advanced metrics that tell this story, either. In their last 15 combined worldwide starts, this trio has nine (!!!) top-five finishes, including five victories. Scheffler and Rahm have combined to win three of the first six PGA Tour events of 2023.
While trying to come up with my top five players in the world, independent of any other system, I struggled with two things. The first was figuring out which order to put those three in at the top. The second was trying to figure out who was even playing well enough compared to those three to be plugged into the No. 4 spot.
Humorously, Scheffler was asked if the hype around Rahm and Rory going into the Phoenix Open last week lit a fire under him. The two Europeans had won seven of their last 14 combined events and were very clearly the two best players in the world.
“Not really. I would probably have to agree,” said Scheffler. “It’s not like I’m sitting there saying I’m playing better than those guys right now. They have been winning tournaments and I’ve been kind of on the outside looking in. So, no, I haven’t really been paying attention to it too much.”
Then he went out and won. And he did it by beating Rahm on Sunday.
It’s hard to overstate just how good these three have been since the beginning of 2022; they have 14 combined worldwide wins since the beginning of 2022, the same number as a group that includes Viktor Hovland, Patrick Cantlay, Justin Thomas, Will Zalatoris, Matt Fitzpatrick, Cam Smith, Sungjae Im, Dustin Johnson, Cameron Young, Jordan Spieth and Collin Morikawa.
These things obviously ebb and flow, and by the time the Masters rolls around, we might be talking about four guys or perhaps one of these three falls out of form. However, the consistency of Scheffler, Rahm and McIlroy has been impressive. If you pull the window back to six months, 12 months and even 24 months, those three are all at the top of the strokes gained rankings. They have, almost unequivocally, been the three best golfers in the world for the last two years.
It’s a group that’s going to be difficult to break into. Scheffler and Rahm are in the prime of their respective careers, and McIlroy is in his second (or third?) prime. Of the best players in the strokes gained era, you’re dealing with No. 2 (Rahm), No. 3 (McIlroy) and No. 9 (Scheffler). This is not a matter of a decent player getting hot for a couple of weeks or months.
There are a million narratives to discuss when it comes to golf right now, especially with the new “Full Swing” series out on Netflix. But perhaps the most under-discussed or overlooked is the matter of such a clear-cut top three that is rarely as distinctive right now.
Rick Gehman is joined by Patrick McDonald and Kyle Porter to preview the 2023 Genesis Invitational. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
It will continue to play out over this mega-important, month-long stretch with four designated events in five weeks leading into the Masters. Maybe somebody joins those three in that time, or maybe they continue to separate from the field and are all three galloping from out in front right down Magnolia Lane.
Whatever the case, they have set the pace of late and will be difficult to catch at Riviera, Bay Hill, TPC Sawgrass or … anywhere, really. The three best players in the world are very obvious and have been for a while (even if I couldn’t see them!). The question now is not who they are but rather when any of that will change.