15th Club Analyst Roundtable: The 148th Open

July 17, 2019
Justin Ray

Incredibly, we have already arrived at the final major championship of 2019. The Open Championship returns to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951, and should provide one of the most cracking major championship atmospheres we have seen in quite some time.

To preview the Championship, 15th Club presents a roundtable discussion – Head of Golf Intelligence Jake Nichols, Quantitative Analyst Dylan Beirne, Analyst Chase Warren and Head of Content Justin Ray discuss players to watch, what to expect at a venue foreign to most, and if Brooks Koepka can continue his stellar major championship play this week.

Justin: So we don’t risk possibly disrespecting the man, I want to start with the unquestioned king of major championship golf the last 30 months, Brooks Koepka.

Koepka is a combined 64-under-par in majors since the beginning of 2017, 35 shots better than any other player. He’s the first player to finish either first or second in the first three majors of a season since Tiger in 2005. Does Brooks’ game easily translate to links play, and what do you expect from him this week at Portrush?

Jake: Going into the PGA Championship, we discussed how Brooks’s over-performance in major championships (relative to his normal level of play) was extreme and similar to Phil Mickelson’s career. Since then, Brooks has gone WIN-2nd in the next two majors. At this point, it’s tough to not install him as the favorite in every major.

Looking specifically at his links golf play, he actually has loads of experience (and success) on links courses from his time as a European Tour member. In twelve links golf events, he’s recorded five top 10s – including two at the Open. From a scoring perspective, he’s gained about 0.2 SG per round less in links rounds than all other rounds – which is close to middle of the pack for most American players (eg, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson both have lost at least 0.5 SG per round on links courses vs normal level of play).

I don’t see any red flags for Brooks from the course either. We’ve seen him win across all types of courses and Portrush doesn’t look particularly extreme when set next to Pebble Beach, Shinnecock, and Erin Hills.

Dylan: As we know, Koepka’s recent major strokes gained record is off the charts (+4.3 SG/round), a full shot per round clear of DJ in second over the past couple of years. However, looking at his Open-specific record, in his 16 rounds he has averaged only 1.9 SG/round, a significant drop from the incredible all round major numbers. This is probably not too much of a concern however, given that as Jake correctly points out, his links form is good and he undoubtedly has the skills for an Open test. Another key plus point for him will be the fact that his caddy, Ricky Elliott, is local to Portrush, so will obviously have some in depth knowledge on most areas of the course.

Koepka 1s since 17

Focusing on the course now, we don’t know much about how Portrush will play, but we can make some assumptions given it’s a links course set up by the R&A.

Justin: Ultimately, a links course’ best defense is always going to be the elements. Docile weather conditions at the Scottish Open yielded a ton of low scores, with 27 players finishing 15 under par or better. One of the things I love most about The Open is that they are never married to the concept of par – either 18-under or 5-over can win the Championship, and the R&A is perfectly fine with that.

Dylan: Conditions early in the week at Portrush were mild to say the least, but the expectation at the minute is that the wind and rain will get up over the next few days and give the players a real test. (Editor’s note: Wednesday, that prediction came true, as rain and wind hit Royal Portrush.)

Specific to the course, even with the addition of some this year, Portrush has one of the lowest number of fairway bunkers on the Open rota. This will undoubtedly allow players to be slightly more aggressive off the tee, given that bunkers are of course hugely important to avoid at links courses, carrying a penalty of 0.73 strokes on average if you find one. However from observation of the course and the yardage book, the bunkers are well positioned in landing areas, and will be strategically very important to manage this week.

Justin: Several marquee players have mentioned that missing the fairways this week will be more penalizing than normal. Our data supports that statement – what other elements of the game will prove to be significant this week?

Jake: Yes, when the Irish Open was here in 2012 missing the fairways was penalized at a higher than average level compared to other European Tour events. I’m going to go with short game play as a key element this week; not only was scrambling percentage much lower than average at the 2012 event indicating tricky conditions around the green, in general, excelling at scrambling has been a shared trait for Open Champions in the last decade plus.

If a large penalty for wayward drives is a big factor this week, that has to help Tiger Woods considering his typical strategy of hitting irons off the tee in Opens. Do you guys fancy Tiger to book-end the major calendar with wins this year?

Justin: Tiger, of course, hasn’t played since Pebble Beach – the last player to win The Open having not teed it up since the U.S. Open that year was Johnny Miller in 1976. We know that Woods is at his best when he’s not overly hampered by missing with the driver. One wonders, too, if some inclement or chilly weather might impact that surgically-repaired back – though that analysis is purely anecdotal.

Birdies at The Open

Chase: While we’re speaking in anecdotes, I’ll throw a few around as it relates to Tiger. Of players with more than 10 rounds on traditional links setups since 2016, the top three players in strokes gained per round are Jordan Spieth (2.7 in 12 rounds), Henrik Stenson (2.6 in 28 rounds), and Jon Rahm (2.6 in 18 rounds). Tiger, because of his health, has only played one traditional links setup in that timeframe – last year at Carnoustie. Tiger gained 2.6 strokes per round en route to his T-6 finish.

While Tiger’s performance in majors for the rest of his career will always be affected by his health, my hypothesis is that Augusta and The Open are the two tournaments that offer him the highest probability of winning. In listing the top three links players above, you’ll note that two of them (Spieth and Stenson) aren’t long hitters off the tee. Stenson in particular can be used as an interesting comparison.

We uncovered last week that in European Tour events since 2017, Stenson has hit fairway wood off the tee on 68.4% of his tee shots, when the field averages just above 15%. This won’t come as a surprise to the avid golf fan that, week after week, watches Stenson belt away with the 3-wood while other players are ripping driver. Given that he’s coming off of another great links performance, there’s an argument to be made that this type of course is more receptive to this strategy.

To further build out Stenson’s player profile, he ranks 161st in strokes gained off the tee on the PGA Tour this season, but is a stellar approach player ranked 1st. A player with an eerily similar profile ranked 100th in strokes gained off the tee and 3rd in strokes gained approach on the PGA Tour last season: Tiger Woods (Tiger hasn’t played enough to feature on the PGA Tour strokes gained rankings this season, even though his approach play has further improved).

Given that, as Jake notes, Tiger’s strategy on links courses is heavily dependent on hitting less than driver, I like him to compete this week, just as he did last year.

Justin: He’s playing what amounts to a home game this week, but few Open Championships have begun with one player carrying weight on his shoulders like Rory McIlroy currently is. This is arguably the largest sporting event in the history of Northern Ireland. From an analytical perspective, what do you like or dislike about McIlroy this week at The Open?

Chase: An interesting nugget about McIlroy – in the 2012 Irish Open, he finished tied for 10th at 11 under par. That week, he ranked tied for 60th in fairways hit (50%), but he was number 1 in greens in regulation at 86.1%. If, as Jake posits above, missing the fairway offers a significant penalty to the players, McIlroy can draw upon his previous blueprint to success.

Expanding upon this, I looked up players with more than 100 approach shots out of the rough on the PGA Tour this season. McIlroy ranks 22nd of 244 in strokes gained per shot. If we expand this to the last two seasons, he holds steady at 25th of 325.

If Rory sticks to his guns and isn’t afraid to miss the fairway with driver, he’s better equipped to deal with penal rough than all but a handful of players in the field.

Justin: A few more pro-Rory Open notes to think about: he is the only player with four top-ten finishes in the last five Open Championships. His cumulative score to par is best of any player over the previous five Opens, at 32-under. Since 2010, only two players have a higher birdie average at The Open than Rory does – Jordan Spieth and Charl Schwartzel.

Dylan: Rory’s recent Open record speaks for itself, and coupled with the fact that he set the course record at Portrush at the age of 16, he should be positioned well this week. On a performance note, right now Rory is coming in as the best player in the world this year. He’s gaining 3.43 strokes per round (adjusted for field strength) in 2019, over 0.3 better than DJ in 2nd place. He’s got the mix of form and history to be justified as the favourite this week, and on paper hes certainly the most likely winner.

Open STP L5 years

Eleven of the last 16 major winners have been first-time major champions. Who is one player you could see breaking through this week with his first major victory? Jon Rahm seems like the easy pull here – his last three starts, he’s finished third, second and first, and he’s dominated the Irish Open since 2017. Xander Schauffele fits the bill, too – he held the 54-hole co-lead at Carnoustie and has finished sixth or better in half of his career major starts.

Jake: Those two are actually on opposite ends of one interesting stat. We can all guess the player in the last decade who has most over-performed in majors, but the second largest over-performer has been Schauffele. He’s played about +1.2 SG per round better in the 10 major championships he’s played than in all other rounds. Rahm is in the bottom 10 in that stat, playing about -0.6 SG per round worse in majors than his typical level of play. Put another way since turning pro Rahm ranks 3rd in our Performance Index in non-major rounds and 25th in major rounds.

My break-through pick is a bit of post-hype sleeper. Going into the 2018 Open many were penciling in Tommy Fleetwood for at least a couple majors given how well he played in the 2017 and 2018 US Opens. In the five majors since, his best finish is T-12. The thing is, the quality of his golf is the same now as 12 months ago. He ranks 15th in our Performance Index now compared to 14th in July 2018. Fleetwood’s also been a reliable links performer having added a T-2 at the Dunhill last October and a T-8 at Hillside this spring.

Dylan: Recent Open Championships have been dominated by form players coming into the event, with the last 3 winners all having won in one of their previous two starts. Thats naturally another indicator in Jon Rahm’s favour. 

In terms of a breakthrough, Patrick Cantlay is the standout player for me. He’s currently ranked 10th in OWGR, but according to our metrics he’s comfortably performing at a level of a top 5 player. While we don’t have much links or Open specific information or history to go on, the lone T-12 in last years Open indicates that he can handle a links test. The overall quality of his performances indicate that a big result it on its way for him, so this week could present a real opportunity to open his major account.