U.S. Open Preview: X Marks the Spot at Winged Foot

September 16, 2020
Justin Ray

Few players in this week’s U.S. Open field are more intriguing statistically than world number seven Xander Schauffele.

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Through three U.S. Open starts, Schauffele has a glittering results sheet: T-5, T-6, T-3. When switching the measurement to strokes gained total, the numbers are even more impressive.

Schauffele has gained 38.01 strokes against the field in his young U.S. Open career. The last player to gain more strokes in his first three U.S. Open starts was the great Gary Player, who gained 39.14 from 1958-1960. Since 1950, only Player and Julius Boros gained more strokes through three U.S. Opens – Boros racked up a staggering 53.83 from 1950-52.

The balance in Xander’s U.S. Open performance has been remarkable. Schauffele has more drives of 300 yards or more than any player at the U.S. Open the last three years. He’s ranked third in strokes gained off-the-tee and approach shot proximity to the hole in that span. Xander is ranked first in strokes gained putting and one-putts per round, too.

At East Lake, Schauffele posted the lowest 72-hole total score of any player in the field, but the unique Tour Championship starting format saddled him officially with a T-2 finish. Schauffele’s performance on the greens that week was extremely encouraging: he was perfect putting from 4-8 feet, led the field in birdie conversion percentage and ranked second in strokes gained.

Eleven of the last 15 U.S. Open winners had never previously won a major championship. Four of the last five major winners at Winged Foot had never previously won one, either. Can Schauffele break through into super-stardom this week in New York?

COURSE CHARACTERISTICS

Any golf tournament synonymous with the word ‘massacre’ obviously has a bogey-addled past. The 1974 U.S. Open, coined ‘The Massacre at Winged Foot’ by legendary sportswriter Dick Schaap, saw Hale Irwin win with a score of 7-over-par. No major championship has been won with a higher score in relation to par since. The field scoring average of 77.0 for the tournament has not been matched by any U.S. Open venue since that week, either.

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Of U.S. Open venues to host three or more times since 1970, Winged Foot boasts the highest scoring average, at 75.45. There have been six U.S. Opens in the last fifty years where there were 12 or fewer rounds in the 60s all week. Two of those instances came at Winged Foot – in 1974 (8) and 2006 (12).

The superlatives go on and on about 2006: Geoff Ogilvy won the championship without recording a round under par all week. No player has won a major since doing that. The field averaged only 1.76 birdies per round that week – the third-lowest average in any major championship the last thirty years. The field hit only 51.3% greens in regulation for the tournament – only three major courses since have yielded a lower average. The par 4s played to an average of 4.34 in ’06 – the second-toughest for any major venue over the last two decades. And so on, and so on…

As is often the case entering the week at a U.S. Open, much has been made of the rough at Winged Foot, with multiple players ranking it among the most difficult they have ever played in. Long and straight is an enviable combination any week in professional golf, but it will be especially valuable when navigating tee shots this week.

MARQUEE NAME MISSING

In 2019, Brooks Koepka (not in the field this week) finished runner-up at Pebble Beach to Gary Woodland, marking Koepka’s third consecutive finish of either first or second in the U.S. Open. Brooks is one of just two players in the last 100 years to do that: Bob Jones did it five straight years from 1922-26, and three more from 1928-30. Koepka was a combined 25-under-par in that three year stretch – not only is that the best three-year score to par in U.S. Open history, it’s 13 shots better than anyone else. Jack Nicklaus was a combined -12 from 1980-82, and Tiger Woods was -12 from 2000-02.

Koepka has of course been the dominant force in the major championships in recent years. Since 2016, Koepka is a ludicrous 73-under-par in the majors, 52 strokes better than any other player in that span (Jordan Spieth, -21). Brooks leads all players in the U.S. Open since 2014 in strokes gained, score to par, birdies and rounds in the 60s.

KEY PLAYERS IN THE FIELD

Dustin Johnson was a rightful FedExCup champion: during the playoffs, he led all players in score to par, greens in regulation, strokes gained tee to green and strokes gained approach. He now enters this week in an envious but unprecedented position, able to take the momentum of a playoff run (and PGA Tour Player of the Year award) into a major championship.

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DJ has had one of the more fascinating U.S. Open careers in modern history: plenty of big stage heartbreak (2010, 2015) as well as his career peak (2016). Over the last 30 years, only two players have led more U.S. Open rounds than Johnson has (eight) – Payne Stewart (12) and Tiger Woods (11).

– No player has performed better on difficult courses in 2020 than Jon Rahm. His victories at Muirfield Village (the Memorial) and Olympia Fields (BMW Championship) came on two of the four toughest courses on the PGA Tour in 2020. There are no weaknesses in Rahm’s game statistically: in 2019-20, he ranked in the top-60 in each of the six official denominations of strokes gained.

Since the beginning of 2018, only Koepka and Johnson have a better cumulative score to par in the major championships than Rahm (-24). In the first nine majors of his career, Rahm had a scoring average of 72.4. In his last six major starts, that has improved by more than three strokes per round (69.2).

– Two tournament favorites who need better opening round play: Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas. In Rory’s last eight majors, he is a combined 16-over in the first round, but 23-under in rounds two through four. In JT’s last four majors, he’s 4-over in round one, 12-under the rest of the way.

– One of the biggest statistical leaps among all players the last two years has been the birdie average of Webb Simpson. Here are Simpson’s birdie average numbers since 2017-18:

2017-18 – 3.59 per round (Rank: 111th)

2018-19 – 3.86 per round (Rank: 69th)

2019-20 – 4.67 per round (Rank: 1st)

– At last summer’s U.S. Open, Viktor Hovland made championship history by posting a 72-hole total of 280, the lowest by an amateur in the history of the tournament. Hovland’s iron play is ready for primetime – he’s ranked fourth on the PGA Tour in strokes gained approach per round the last two seasons – but the gnarly greenside rough may wreak havoc on Hovland’s championship dreams this week. On the 2019-20 PGA Tour season, Viktor ranked 148th in scrambling and 168th in strokes gained around the green.

HISTORY LESSON

This is the latest in the year the U.S. Open has been contested in 107 years. The last time it was held in September or later was 1913 – also known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played” – when amateur Francis Ouimet upset professional stars Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

Brooks Koepka racked up 69.0 strokes gained total in the U.S. Open from 2015 through 2019. There are four instances in the last thirty years where a player gained more than 69 strokes gained total in the U.S. Open in a five-year span. All four instances belong to Tiger Woods.