Ludvig Åberg — Europe's great Ryder Cup hope — fits a familiar golfing profile
Welcome to the 22nd edition of Plot the Ball for 2023.
If you missed the previous edition, you can read it here:
23-year-old Swedish golfer Ludvig Åberg only turned professional in June. But after coming from behind to claim a first career win in Switzerland on Sunday and earning selection for Europe’s Ryder Cup team yesterday, he’s starting to get lots of attention — and for good reason.
Ludvig Åberg — Europe's great hope for the Ryder Cup — fits a familiar golfing profile
Some of the toughest sporting events to think about analytically are two-horse races.
The annual State of Origin series between Queensland and New South Wales in rugby league, for instance, is one of the highlights of Australia’s sporting calendar. But it’s very hard to get a read on how good or bad either team is in an ‘absolute’ sense at a given point in time — because they only ever play against each other.
On the surface, men’s golf’s Ryder Cup — contested between Europe and the United States every couple of years — might seem similar.
In reality, however, it’s a bit more straightforward. We can probably be pretty confident that team strength in golf can be roughly estimated by adding up the skill levels of the respective players on each side — or, at minimum, more confident than in a dynamic, interactive and complex sport like rugby.
And — according to the website Data Golf — Europe are in pretty good shape at the top of their line-up card heading into the 2023 edition of the competition, which begins at the end of September in Italy.
As they seek to overturn the heavy defeat they suffered across the Atlantic two years ago, they will be able to call on two of the current top three golfers1 in the world — and four of the current top seven2 — in Data Golf’s rankings.
But it’s further down the 12-player line-up that things start to get a bit sketchy for Team Europe.
The median skill rating of their bottom eight players by Data Golf’s rankings is +0.8 Strokes-Gained per round over the average PGA Tour pro — fully half a shot lower than the equivalent figure for the USA’s bottom eight (+1.3)3.
The depth which the US team possesses can be attributed to a significant degree to the strength of their amateur-to-professional production line: the NCAA system, which invests huge amounts of money in young athletes via the provision of university scholarships and building of first-class facilities.
But that system is open to Europeans too — and one of their own recent graduates will be among those looking to hold off Team USA at Marco Simone in a few weeks’ time.
And — following a first professional win on the DP World Tour over the weekend — he has now been thrust into the Ryder Cup team as a captain’s pick before he’s even taken part in a major championship.
According to Data Golf, he is already a comfortably above-average PGA Tour professional: their current estimate of his skill has him at +0.9 True SG per round.
But, given that so far in his career he has played comparatively little top-level golf, there is probably more uncertainty around his skill estimate than those of other players who have been assessed over a larger number of rounds5.
What we can say already about Åberg, though, is that he looks to possess a game shaped around the same strengths as the game’s current elite players.
Both Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler — the top two golfers in Data Golf’s current skill rankings — have been exceptional from tee to green over the course of their careers, and middle-of-the-pack putters6.
Åberg, too, separates himself with his ball-striking. Among PGA Tour rookies in 2023, he gained the sixth-most strokes putting over the average Tour player — but the second-most ‘true’ strokes from tee-to-green.
And it’s with driver in hand that Åberg already seems to be excelling in absolute terms.
This year, he ranks fifth overall in True SG per round off-the-tee — not just among Tour rookies, but all men’s professionals.
Even if the Swede’s current overall skill level is being somewhat underestimated by Data Golf’s analysis, it’s unlikely to impact the outcome of this year’s Ryder Cup too greatly; Team USA’s strength in depth will still probably prevail.
At minimum, though, there will now be another player emblematic of the current age of men’s golf on show in Rome.
You can add Ludvig Åberg to your list of the game’s purest ball-strikers.
You can find the code for this piece on GitHub here
Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay of the USA in fourth and fifth are followed by Jon Rahm of Spain and Tommy Fleetwood of England.
This is reflected in Data Golf’s forecast, which currently has the probability of Team USA winning at around 55%.
Like Rahm, Åberg won the Ben Hogan Award in consecutive years; they are the only two players in history to do so.
European captain Luke Donald will certainly be hoping that it is currently understating Åberg’s ‘true’ skill level; however, the swift pace at which he was improving (by True SG) over the first half of 2023 has slowed somewhat since he turned pro.