Stat attack!: U.S. Open preview


Dustin Johnson of the USA waves to the crowd on the ninth hole during the second round of the WGC - HSBC Champions at the Sheshan International Golf Club on November 1, 2013 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

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

Player World
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
 2013 Justin Rose 30 5
 2012 Webb Simpson 32 14
 2011 Rory McIlroy NA 5
 2010 Graeme McDowell NA 37
 2009 Lucas Glover 26 71
 2008 Tiger Woods 1 1
 2007 Angel Cabrera 155 41

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
 Jimmy Walker 1 19 35
 Matt Kuchar 3 5 35
 Dustin Johnson 4 15 29
 Jordan Spieth 5 10 20
 Patrick Reed 7 26 23
 Hideki Matsuyama 16 13 22
 Victor Dubuisson NA 20 24
 Jamie Donaldson NA 29 38

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
 2013 Justin
300.4 (15)  75.0% (T-2)  69.4% (T-7)  45.5% (25)  1.820 (15)
 2012 Webb
278.9 (53)  55.4 (T-13)  58.3 (T-16)  60.0% (T-9) 1.738 (9) 
 2011 Rory
310.6 (7)  64.3 (T-26) 86.11 (1) 70.0% (T-3)  1.710 (6) 
 2010  Graeme
293.8 (31)  66.1 (T-34)  58.3 (T-12)  53.3% (22)  1.690 (2) 
 2009 Lucas
291.1 (8)  71.4 (T-13)  72.2 (4)  55.0% (19)  1.731 (4) 
 2008 Tiger
320.9 (2)  53.6 (T-56)  63.9 (T-14)  53.9 (27)  1.739 (10) 
 2007  Angel
310.9 (2)  48.2 (T-48)  65.3 (T-3)  36.0 (T-50)  1.787 (6) 
 2006 Geoff
306.4 (6)  57.1 (T-21)  58.3 (T-13)  60.0 (3)  1.833 (18) 
 2005 Michael
294.3 (36)  64.3 (T-8)  56.9 (T-16)  61.3 (9)  1.805 (16) 
 2004 Retief
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
 Bubba Watson 6 2
 Sergio Garcia 8 18
 Dustin Johnson 12 9
 Ryan Palmer 21 13
 Jimmy Walker 23 7
 Adam Scott 25 12
 Rory McIlroy 28 1

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

  Johnson Walker Kuchar
 Starts 6 2 11
 Cuts  5 1 6
 Top 10s 1 0 1
 Best finish T-8 (2010) T52 (2001) T-6 (2010)
 Last year 55 DNP T-28
 scoring avg.
72.86 74.17 73.24

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).

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