The 2013-14 PGA Tour season has taken some getting used to. Tiger Woods is injured and has been supplanted – at least for the time being – by Jordan Spieth as the game’s must-watch star. Phil Mickelson doesn’t have a top-10 finish on Tour. And of the top-10 players on the FedEx Cup standings, only Bubba Watson has won a major in his career. Should any of them be on our radar at the U.S. Open?
The top 10 players on the FedEx Cup standings
|U.S. Open history|
|1||Jimmy Walker||19||2 starts, none since 2002|
|2||Bubba Watson||3||8 starts, 4 cuts, T-5 in 2007|
|3||Matt Kuchar||5||11 starts, 6 cuts, T-6 in 2010|
|4||Dustin Johnson (pictured)||15||6 starts, 5 cuts, T-8 in 2010|
|5||Jordan Spieth||10||2 starts, 1 cut, T-21 in 2012|
|6||Chris Kirk||43||2 starts, 1 cut, none since 2009|
|7||Patrick Reed||26||Making his tournament debut|
|8||Harris English||48||Making his tournament debut|
|9||Brendon Todd||55||Making his tournament debut|
|10||Kevin Na||40||3 starts, 1 cut, T-29 in 2012|
Initially, there doesn’t appear to be a lot to choose from. Only three players have a top-10 finish in the U.S. Open, and five haven’t played in any of the last four Opens. But that’s to be expected, isn’t it. FedEx Cup leaders don’t usually win the Open. Since the inception of the PGA Tour Playoffs, only Tiger Woods was ranked in the top 25 of the standings at the time of his U.S. Open victory, and he had to go extra holes on a broken leg to beat Rocco Mediate, who was 127th at the time.
Rankings of U.S. Open champions at time of win
|Year||Player||FedEx Rank||World Rank|
But if the U.S. Open winner wasn’t a FedEx Cup leader, recent history shows he was a world-class player. The last four Open champions have been first-time major winners, three of whom were ranked among the top 14 players in the world. All four were age 32 or younger (the Open winner has skewed young since 2007, when 37-year-old Angel Cabrera took the title). Four of the last six winners were in the top 32 on the FedEx standings, and the two who weren’t did not have Tour status but were worldwide stars in their own right. If the trend continues we can expect a young veteran star who has played well this year in the U.S. or Europe to win his first career major at Pinehurst. A second look at the current FedEx Cup leaderboard above reveals five players with a better-than-average chance at Pinehurst.
Major-less players in the top 30 on the World Ranking and the FedEx Standings
|Player||FedEx Rank||World Rank||Age|
Like McIlroy and McDowell when they won the Open, Dubuisson and Donaldson are not PGA Tour members, but I’ve inlcuded them here because they fit the criteria. They are in the top-five on the European Tour’s Race to Dubai. Among the group, you can probably eliminate Reed and Dubuisson for lack of Open experience and Donaldson as being too old. The others – although Kuchar and Walker are a bit over age 32 – fit our parameters. If form holds, the Open champion at Pinehurst will come from among Walker, Kuchar, Johnson, Spieth or Matsuyama.
But we know how often form doesn’t hold at a major. How else do you explain Angel Cabrera or Y.E. Yang. Are there any other ways to determine who might play well this week?
The typical U.S. Open set up – tight fairways, deep rough, slick greens – leans toward a player who hits greens and capitalizes by making putts. In the last 10 years no Open champ has finished outside the top 20 in greens in regulation or putts per GIR. Because of the variation between Open courses, distance and accuracy carry less weight. Case in point: When Simpson won in 2012 at Olympic Club he averaged less than 280 yards off the tee and ranked T-13 in accuracy at just 55.4 percent. A year earlier at Congressional, McIlroy averaged 32 more yards per drive, and ranked T-26 in fairways hit despite hitting five more fairways than Simpson. Here are the basic stats for the last 10 U.S. Open champions.
Statistics of U.S. Open champions: 2004-2013
|Year||Winner||Distance||Accuracy||GIR||Scrambling||Putts per GIR|
|300.4 (15)||75.0% (T-2)||69.4% (T-7)||45.5% (25)||1.820 (15)|
|278.9 (53)||55.4 (T-13)||58.3 (T-16)||60.0% (T-9)||1.738 (9)|
|310.6 (7)||64.3 (T-26)||86.11 (1)||70.0% (T-3)||1.710 (6)|
|293.8 (31)||66.1 (T-34)||58.3 (T-12)||53.3% (22)||1.690 (2)|
|291.1 (8)||71.4 (T-13)||72.2 (4)||55.0% (19)||1.731 (4)|
|320.9 (2)||53.6 (T-56)||63.9 (T-14)||53.9 (27)||1.739 (10)|
|310.9 (2)||48.2 (T-48)||65.3 (T-3)||36.0 (T-50)||1.787 (6)|
|306.4 (6)||57.1 (T-21)||58.3 (T-13)||60.0 (3)||1.833 (18)|
|294.3 (36)||64.3 (T-8)||56.9 (T-16)||61.3 (9)||1.805 (16)|
|314.0 (T-5)||58.9 (T-12)||58.3 (T-9)||70.0 (1)||1.738 (T-10)|
What players rank among the leaders on Tour in greens in regulation and putts per GIR? There are seven players who rank among the top 30 in both statistics.
U.S. Open players in the top 30 on the PGA Tour in GIR and putting average
|Player||GIR rank||Putts per GIR rank|
Now that’s a list! There are no players the USGA and NBC would not be excited about if they were in the final pairing Sunday. Maybe Palmer and Walker, but that's about it. And it gets better. Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar and Ryan Moore are in the top 50 in each stat, and Phil Mickelson ranks in the top 60 in both.
Three players - Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker and Matt Kuchar - fit both criterias, so let's call them the Open favorites. Here's how they've fared in previous Opens.
Johnson, Walker and Kuchar in the U.S. Open
|Best finish||T-8 (2010)||T52 (2001)||T-6 (2010)|
One final thought: Of this group, Johnson has come the closest to winning an Open. He held a three-stroke lead through 54 holes at Pebble Beach in 2010, but began his final round with a par, triple bogey and double bogey, shot 82 and fell to T-8. The 82 is the highest final-round score by a 54-hole leader since World War II, and Johnson has the second-biggest 54-hole lead lost at the Open in that span (Payne Stewart, four strokes in 1998, is the biggest).
If you haven’t already done so, please follow me on Twitter at @johnantoninigc