What determines a great iron player in professional golf?
Whether a tour pro is hitting approach shots from the fairway or the rough—or from the tee on a par three—getting the ball onto the putting surface is obviously the key component.
The PGA Tour's greens in regulation performance statistic immediately comes to mind as a seemingly fair measurement of quality iron play, but it can be misleading if a golfer's approach shots aren't landing close to the pin. That's where the tour's proximity to the hole stat comes in handy to fine tune things a bit.
To create my list—aside from simply knowing from observation who some of the great iron players are—I selected from a mash-up of GIR and proximity to the hole leaders from the best golfers in the game today. It isn't a perfect science—and the line between these players is a fine one—but you can be sure the names listed here are, in fact, among the best iron players in the game.
Here's a power ranking of some of the best iron players in golf today.
Ben Curtis is best known for winning the 2003 Open Championship—and that will probably always be his claim to fame. But it's not like he doesn't have the tools to win that one again, or any of the other three majors for that matter.
Curtis has a win this year at the Valero Texas Open, and he has two other top fives in 2012. One of the primary reasons he has been performing well is his iron play.
Curtis is sixth in greens in regulation on the PGA Tour and second in proximity to the hole. That's also why's he's second in total putting this season. He's getting the job done. I'm just waiting for another breakout performance in a major.
Luke Donald, what have you done for me lately?
Donald makes my list because he's Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world and considered by many to be one of the best iron players in the game today. His 2012 performance stats, however, tell a different story.
Donald did a fine job of drastically improving his GIR and proximity to the hole numbers from 2010 to 2011—so I'm cutting him some slack—but he's regressing in the number of greens he has hit this year where he's just 112th on the PGA Tour.
Donald is at No. 9 in getting the ball close to the hole when he does hit greens, however. And he's got the putting stats to show for it—he's first in total putting. And we all know he can get up and down on those holes when his approach shots are off the mark. Donald is one of the best scramblers in the game.
He's also one of the best iron players—when he's on top of his game, that is. And when he's on top of his game, there are only a few that can challenge him for the title of World No. 1.
I hope Rory McIlroy isn't looking at his 2012 season as a failure.
It's understandable that his recent slump has cast a shadow over what was a truly outstanding start to the year, but there's too much time and too much talent involved—not to mention too many majors left—to consider 2012 a bust just yet.
McIlroy has five top-10 finishes, and—you guessed it—he's still one of the best in the business with an iron in his hands, currently second on the European Tour, hitting close to 79 percent of his greens in regulation.
That number doesn't jive with his PGA Tour stats, where he hits considerably less GIR, but when he's on top of his game, he's as good as it gets.
McIlroy is possibly the victim of "too much too soon" in terms of his popularity and success—thus his current lull—but I don't see any way he doesn't break out of it.
One thing's for sure—his iron game won't have far to go.
When Matt Kuchar won the Players Championship back in May, I felt it was a turning point in his career.
He has always shown that he has the game to compete with the best players on the PGA Tour; it just took a little longer to prove it, both with his results and with the performance stats he is registering.
First of all, let's take a look at his numbers. Kuchar is just outside the top 10 in greens in regulation, but he's fifth in proximity to the hole. That's a high-ranking combination.
As a result, he has five top 10s in 2012, including a third-place finish at the Masters.
Matt Kuchar is one of the best iron players in golf today.
I like everything about Lee Westwood's game. I mean, what's not to like, other than the fact he can't seem to win the big one?
Westwood has done just about everything there is to do in professional golf except the most important thing—the one reward that has alluded him since he turned pro in 1993, and that's to win a major championship.
He's been named Player of the Year three times. He's been on the past seven European Ryder Cup teams. He's been the No. 1 player in the world. But his career won't be complete without a major victory.
In the meantime, Westwood continues to simply play great golf. Part of his stellar play includes hitting greens—lots of them. Even thought he's not getting the ball very close to the hole—comparatively speaking—Westwood is second on the PGA Tour in GIR.
His solid iron play is one part of his outstanding tee-to-green performances. If he can somehow put all the aspects of his game together one Sunday during a major, it would change his career forever.
I've had plenty to say about Tiger Woods' wedge game problems this year, but he has more than made up for his lack of control inside 150 yards with outstanding accuracy outside that mark.
Tiger continues to be one of the best medium to long iron players on tour, and his wedge game is well on the road to recovery—as has been evidenced by his PGA Tour-leading three victories in 2012.
Tiger is 10th in greens in regulation and ninth in proximity to the hole—a successful combination that only a few of his contemporaries can top these days.
Tiger Woods is back. Tiger Woods isn't back. I don't know about all that.
What I do know is that in addition to being one of the best drivers of the golf ball for much of the year, he's also now one of the best iron players of 2012.
Bubba Watson is leading the PGA Tour in greens in regulation, his most famous GIR coming from the woods on No. 10 to win the 2012 Masters. You've seen it. The amount of hook he put on that ball was incredible.
I'm not sure if that playoff miracle counted toward his yearly totals, but who cares? The guy just has a knack for twisting and turning shots into birdie opportunities and par savers.
Bubba isn't getting the ball very close to the cup when he does hit his greens—again, comparatively speaking, thus his T-80 rank in proximity to the hole—but he's good enough to be one of the best iron players in the game. And that's thanks primarily to his creative shot making ability.
Tee to green, Hunter Mahan is close to as good as it gets in professional golf.
He has the basic fundamentals of the game down. He's No. 7 on the PGA Tour in total driving while maintaining the No. 3 spot in greens in regulation. It's hard to go wrong when you're hitting a lot of fairways and greens and the results speak for themselves: two wins and two top-10s in 2012.
As he works at getting the ball closer to the hole with his approach shots—which he has been doing—his putting numbers will continue to improve—which they have been doing.
Mahan's last two tournaments—T-8 and T-11 finishes at the Travelers Championship and the AT&T National respectively—have shown an improvement after a brief midseason decline. Everything about his game is moving in the right direction.
With a win and five top 10s in 2012, Francesco Molinari is having a great 2012 season so far.
Molinari has always been a pretty accurate iron player, but he's hitting a career-best 78 percent of his greens in regulation this season, good for third place on the European Tour's stat sheet.
If his game could translate to the major championships, a lot more people would know how much talent this guy has. Of course, that's part of the problem. Despite the outstanding accuracy on his approach shots throughout the season, Molinari can't seem to get it going in the majors, where his best finish is a T-10 at the 2009 PGA Championship.
Still, he's tough to beat when it comes to great iron play.
Louis Oosthuizen has one of the best golf swings in the world. So, it would only stand to reason that he would be a pretty good iron player—which he is.
Oosthuizen is currently the European Tour leader in greens in regulation, hitting almost 79 percent. It's a drastic improvement for the 2010 Open Championship winner, who had always struggled with his accuracy until last year.
Now that Oosthuizen is setting the bar for consistent iron play—remember his albatross at the 2012 Masters; that really helped his proximity numbers—he's also managing to maintain one of the best stroke averages and putts per GIR. And on the rare occasion he misses a green, he's leading the European Tour in scrambling.
Oosthuizen has two wins this year. And I'll describe his Masters playoff experience as a glass half-full loss. Therefore, it's a good year to be Louis Oosthuizen.
I've mentioned Justin Rose a number of times as one of those players without a major championship that is most due to win one—soon.
And I've got Rose as my favorite for next week's Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes for a good reason. He's in his prime and he's due.
Rose is an impressive fourth in greens in regulation on the PGA Tour and T-14 in proximity to the hole. But let me tell you, it's like splitting hairs in his case—half a foot, to be precise—when you go from Luke Donald at No. 8 to Rose at 14.
Rose is really getting it done with his iron play—and he has a win and four top fives in 2012 to show for his efforts. If he can get his putter to cooperate, he could be dominant.
Jason Dufner is having a heck of a season.
His two victories and six top-10 finishes have him in the conversation as a Player of the Year candidate. But if that's not proof enough, let's go to the stat sheet.
Dufner is sixth in GIR and third in proximity to the hole. So when he's hitting greens, he's getting the ball close enough to make some birdies—lots of them. On the average, only Webb Simpson is making more birdies per round than Dufner.
Yes, even with that crazy waggle, Jason Dufner is hitting greens from all distances. It works for him and it's part of his recipe for success in 2012 and, he hopes, well beyond.