Young players who are high in bogey avoidance, birdie-conversion rate do especially well
June 13, 2022
By Justin Ray, Twenty First Group, PGATOUR.COM
Jon Rahm: The Rise
The U.S. Open demands more from its competitors than any championship in the game. That bears out statistically, no matter how one dives into the numbers.
Since 2011, the average champion has been under 28 years old, by far the youngest of the four majors, implying it’s a strong physical test. The setups are the most difficult, too: Since 2000, the average winning score to par has been 4.5 under, while each of the other three majors has yielded an average winning score double digits under par.
Penalizing rough and fast putting surfaces are perennial course traits at this championship. So which players have performed best when faced with the USGA’s annual final exam? What traits best comprise a successful U.S. Open player? A full bag of well-rounded skills will be needed to find red numbers this week.
Here are the players who fit that description:
It’s tough to start a U.S. Open career better than this: Since his debut at Erin Hills in 2017, Schauffele has never finished outside the top 10. The only other player since 1920 to begin his U.S. Open career with five or more top-10 finishes was Bobby Jones, who top-10’d in each of his first seven U.S. Opens. Schauffele has averaged 3.02 Strokes Gained: Total per round in his U.S. Open career. Since 1950, that is the second-highest average by any player without a win. Bobby Locke averaged 3.74 per round in his career, but never finished higher than third.
Even including tournament champions, Schauffele’s performance is tough to beat. Among all players with 20 or more U.S. Open rounds since 1960, Schauffele is the only player to average 3 or more Strokes Gained: Total per round at this championship. That includes Brooks Koepka (2.88) and Tiger Woods (2.36), each of whom has won a U.S. Open more than once.
Schauffele has done just about everything well in his U.S. Open career. Over the last five years, he ranks sixth in both Strokes Gained: Ball Striking per round (1.51) and Strokes Gained: Putting (1.07). It’s added up to 16 rounds of par or better since his debut at Erin Hills, the most of any player in that span. Since 1960, only Koepka has a better scoring average at the U.S. Open (70.37) than Schauffele does (70.40).
|Most Consecutive Top-10s to Begin U.S. Open Career - Since 1920|
A two-time U.S. Open champion, Koepka has proven himself to be his era’s most consistent force in the major championships. Since the beginning of 2016, Koepka is a combined 71 under par in majors, 50 strokes ahead of his nearest competitor in that span. That stretch of consistent excellence has been highlighted by truly outstanding U.S. Open play. Koepka has finished in the top five in each of his last four U.S. Open starts (he did not play in 2020). The last player with a longer streak was Ben Hogan, who did it five times in a row from 1948 to 1953 (he did not play in ‘49).
Koepka’s ball-striking numbers at this championship have been second to none in this stretch. Since 2017, he leads all players at the U.S. Open in Strokes Gained: Total, Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green and Strokes Gained: Approach. Oh, and he’s putted lights out, too, ranking fifth in Strokes Gained: Putting. The most underrated aspect of Koepka’s game, though, has been his ability to avoid mistakes – his 12.8% bogey rate since 2017 is by far the lowest of any player with three or more U.S. Open starts in that span.
It all adds up to some lofty all-time comparisons for Koepka when it comes to the U.S. Open. Since World War II, only two players with 30 or more rounds have averaged more Strokes Gained: Total at this championship – Ben Hogan (with an absurd 4.20) and Lloyd Mangrum (2.98).
|Brooks Koepka - Strokes Gained Ranks at U.S. Open Since 2017*|
|*Among players with 3+ starts in span|
Jon Rahm headed to Torrey Pines in 2021 with the balanced statistical profile emblematic of U.S. Open success. Rahm was gaining strokes on the field that season in every Strokes Gained discipline. His ball-striking numbers were excellent – 3rd in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, 5th in greens in regulation and 12th in Strokes Gained: Approach. Rahm is also an excellent course manager: He entered that week ranked 9th on TOUR in bogey avoidance, a statistic he wound up leading the PGA TOUR in by the end of the season. So, his victory at Torrey was in some ways predictable.
Rahm did it all brilliantly in his first major triumph. He ranked 6th or better in the field in greens in regulation, scrambling percentage, Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green, and Strokes Gained: Approach. He was also a very solid 16th in Strokes Gained: Putting. The U.S. Open is almost always a complete test, one Rahm aced last summer.
Players who fit the mold
Precision iron play is paramount virtually every week, but it’s especially significant at the game’s toughest tests. Over the last five years, nearly 45 percent of the strokes gained against the field by U.S. Open champions have come on approach shots. Each of the last five champions ranked 6th or better for the week in Strokes Gained: Approach. In that same time span, the average field ranking for winners on the PGA TOUR in that statistic is right around 12th.
While putting statistics are more volatile week-to-week than ball striking numbers, the Birdie Conversion Percentage statistic has proven to be predictive of U.S. Open triumphs. Six of the last seven U.S. Open winners entered that week ranked 15th or better on TOUR in that metric, which simply measures the rate a player makes the birdie putt opportunities he is presented. With closer approach shots inherently yielding shorter, more makeable birdie opportunities, the stat is sort of a tell-tale hybrid of approach play and putting proficiency.
There are a few players who stick out when analyzing approach play and birdie conversion numbers. One of them is reigning PLAYERS champion Cameron Smith, who ranks 3rd on TOUR this season in Strokes Gained: Approach – and first in birdie or better conversion rate (39.7%). Meanwhile, only two players are ranked in the top 20 on TOUR this season in Strokes Gained: Approach, Strokes Gained: Putting, and birdie-or-better conversion percentage – Max Homa and Sam Burns. Nobody would be surprised if any of those three players made a big splash this week at Brookline.