This week, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club will host the best golfers in the world as they attempt to conquer Golf’s Toughest Test, the U.S. Open. Whether they’re a hardcore or casual golf fan, almost everyone viewing the Fox broadcast will be familiar with the 10-or-so “fan favorites” this week. Will Tiger make the cut? Will Rickie finally win his first major? Does the course set up well for Rory? Questions like these monopolize golf conversations during the weeks leading up to the U.S. Open. This article seeks to give clarity to such questions, but first, we must examine the course.
Shinnecock has hosted four U.S. Opens, the most recent being in 2004. The landscape is now wide open due to recent tree removals, leaving it very exposed to wind. The fairways will be significantly wider than they were in 2004 even after being tightened by the USGA in preparation, however; they are lined with thick and penal fescue and rough.
Shinnecock is expected to play firm and fast, and the USGA will likely welcome carnage after a 16-under par winning score last year at Erin Hills. The course played brutally tough in 2004 with only two players finishing below par (Retief Goosen finished 4-under, two shots clear of Phil Mickelson). The USGA infamously lost the seventh green, adding to the controversy about the setup on Sunday that many deemed unfair. In that final round in 2004, no one broke par and only Robert Allenby managed an even-par round.
The course this year will come in at 7,440 yards and a par-70. It will favor players who can avoid trouble off the tee, hit greens and withstand bad breaks and mental hurdles that will inevitably come with a U.S. Open. The winner must also make some putts along the way.
In 2004, a plethora of elite ballstrikers dominating the leaderboard. Winner Retief Goosen ranked 21st in Strokes Gained Approach the Green, 10th in Strokes Gained Tee to Green and 17th in Greens in Regulation. Mickelson, the runner-up, ranked 22nd in Strokes Gained Approach the Green, fifth Tee to Green, and 10th in Greens in Regulation for the season. Other high finishers such as Fred Funk, Chris DiMarco, and Ernie Els had similar statistical years.
The consensus once again is that Shinnecock sets up great for players that can hit greens and gain strokes on their opponents with their approach shots, while putting the ball in play, making some putts and avoiding big mistakes during the week. Now, we can assess the fan favorites of 2018.
Previous Three U.S. Open Finishes: 2017: DNP, 2016: DNP, 2015: MC
Previous Shinnecock Appearance: T-17
Evidence for Success: Tiger has won three U.S. Opens, all at tough classic courses (Pebble Beach, Bethpage Black, and Torrey Pines). He has hit his irons beautifully this year, ranking fourth in Strokes Gained Approach-the Green and fifth in Strokes Gained Tee to Green. He is coming off a strong week at the Memorial, where he also hit 71 percent of his fairways.
Evidence for Failure: Tiger ranks 120th in Strokes Gained Off the Tee and a horrible 184th in Driving Accuracy. He is 102nd in Greens in Regulation. He also putted terribly at the Memorial, losing 1.924 strokes to the field.
Consensus: This isn’t a great setup for Tiger with his driving and recent putting woes. If he can get the ball in play and putt well, however, he can certainly make some noise.
Previous Three U.S. Open Finishes: 2017: T-9, 2016: T-32, 2015: DNP
Evidence for Success: Despite losing the top spot in the Official World Golf Rankings this week to Dustin Johnson, Thomas is still arguably playing better than anyone else on the PGA Tour right now. He ranks 15th in Strokes Gained Off the Tee, sixth in Approach the Green, second in Tee to Green and third in Total Strokes Gained. These stats aren’t good… they’re great. Thomas is coming off a T-8 at the Memorial, and he has played well on courses with firm greens. TPC Boston, Quail Hollow, and PGA National are just a few in the past year.
Evidence for Failure: Thomas is not an accurate driver of the ball, ranking 148th in Driving Accuracy. Other than that, there is little evidence against him.
Consensus: The stats indicate the Thomas should be a favorite without question.
Previous Three U.S. Open Finishes: 2017: MC, 2016: MC, 2015: T-9
Evidence for Success: Rory ranks 21st in Strokes Gained Tee to Green and 15th in Total Strokes Gained. He has a win under his belt this year, and he played great at the Masters.
Evidence for Failure: Rory’s weak spots in his stats are Driving Accuracy (154th) and GIR (169th), not good for a place like Shinnecock. Additionally, firm and fast courses are usually not his friends, with all his major wins coming at rain-softened golf courses. His performances in the last two U.S. Opens have also been poor.
Consensus: While Rory is a great pick most weeks of the year, it’s not likely that he will play particularly well at Shinnecock.
Previous Three U.S. Open Finishes: 2017: MC, 2016: 1, 2015: T-2
Evidence for Success: Coming off a sensational win at last week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic and an emphatic reclaiming of the No. 1 ranking in the world, Johnson’s game is in top form. He ranks first in Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green and first Off-the-Tee. He is 17th in GIR, and he has contended on firm courses (Chambers Bay) and won on tough, classic courses (Oakmont, Pebble, Riviera). He has a superb ability to deal with poor breaks on the course.
Evidence for Failure: DJ can be wild off the tee, hitting only 58 percent of fairways on the year.
Consensus: DJ’s stats and recent form show that he should be contending come Sunday at Shinnecock.
Previous Three U.S. Open Finishes: 2017: DNP, 2016: MC, 2015: T-64
Previous Shinnecock Appearance: 2
Evidence for Success: With his first win since July 2013 coming this year, Phil has been playing great. A second-place finish in 2004 and his rank of 12th this year in Strokes Gained Approach the Green suggest good things. He has also been putting superbly this year, ranking second in Strokes Gained Putting.
Evidence for Failure: Phil is 202nd in driving accuracy. That will not lead to success at a place like Shinnecock. He also ranks 139th in GIR, another poor sign. Finally, the immense amount of extra pressure of trying to win the Career Grand Slam will most likely affect him in some capacity.
Consensus: Phil’s driving accuracy issues, coupled with the fact that he is trying to accomplish the Slam, point to a poor week. Shinnecock is almost certainly not the place for him to complete the Slam.
Previous Three U.S. Open Finishes: 2017: T-35, 2016: T-37, 2015: 1
Evidence for Success: Spieth is the usually the best iron player on the PGA Tour, and his No. 1 ranking in Strokes Gained Approach the Green last year back that up. This year, he ranks 17th in Approach the Green, second in GIR and fourth in Tee-to-Green. His U.S. Open victory came at Chambers Bay, a firm and fast setup.
Evidence for Failure: Spieth has putted terribly this year, standing 186th in Strokes Gained Putting. He is also 203rd from three feet. Since the Masters, Spieth has no top-20 finishes. He also missed the cut at the Memorial, his last tournament before the U.S. Open, and he only has four top 10-finishes this calendar year.
Consensus: Spieth should not be expected to play well at Shinnecock. His poor putting and recent form are bad signs heading into this week.
Previous Three U.S. Open Finishes: 2017: T-5, 2016: MC, 2015: MC
Evidence for Success: Rickie ranks 18th this year in GIR and 54th in driving accuracy. He is 10th in Proximity from 125-150 yards, and he finished runner-up at the last major, the Masters. Additionally, a T-8 at the Memorial shows that he is in good form. Finally, Rickie is widely regarded as an excellent wind player, and his win at the 2015 Scottish Open provides evidence for that claim.
Evidence for Failure: None of Rickie’s stats this year standout, although none are particularly poor, either. The pressure of winning his first major will make things more difficult for Fowler.
Consensus: Rickie is a very solid pick this week. Statistically, he doesn’t jump out as an overwhelming favorite, but little seems to be working against him. He’s also recently engaged to long-time girlfriend Allison Stokke, which may alleviate some pressure on the course.
Previous 3 U.S. Open Finishes: 2017: MC, 2016: T-23, 2015: DNP
Evidence for Success: Rahm is 20th in Strokes Gained Tee to Green and second in Strokes Gained off the Tee. He is 13th in GIR. His peers speak very highly of his talent, and it would appear that a major championship win is coming soon given his two career wins, a fourth-place finish at the Masters and his peak position of No. 2 in the Official World Golf Rankings — all by the age of 23.
Evidence for Failure: Rahm ranks 119th in Strokes Gained Approach the Green. More importantly, he has a temper on the golf course. While it’s something he says he actively works on — and there is no doubt his fiery emotion can be helpful to his game — it may not be helpful for a very difficult U.S. Open setup.
Consensus: Jon Rahm could be a good pick, but his emotions could hurt his chances to win at a tough U.S. Open course. With this being said, if he can manage his temper, he could be contending come Sunday.
Previous Three U.S. Open Finishes: 2017: MC, 2016: T-8, 2015: T-9
Evidence for Success: After a winless 2017, Day has won twice on the PGA this year at difficult golf courses (Torrey Pines and Quail Hollow). He ranks first in Strokes Gained Putting, fourth in Strokes Gained Overall and 14th Off the Tee.
Evidence for Failure: Day ranks 175th in Strokes Gained Approach the Green. For an elite player, that’s bad. He is 113th in GIR and 94th in Driving Accuracy. Contrary to what many might believe, his ballstriking has been very shaky this year. He won at Quail Hollow hitting just eight greens on Sunday, and that will not fly at a U.S. Open.
Consensus: Day’s ball-striking issues of late show that he is not a good pick to play well at Shinnecock.
Previous Three U.S. Open Finishes: 2017: MC, 2016: MC, 2015: T-27
Evidence for Success: Rose is second in Strokes Gained (Total), 11th in Strokes Gained Putting, seventh in Strokes Gained Tee to Green and 57th in Driving Accuracy. He has claimed two Tour wins this year and is coming off a top-10 finish at the Memorial. He has also won a U.S. Open on a tough golf course (Merion, 2013).
Evidence for Failure: Surprisingly, nothing jumps out statistically that will hold back Rose. He seems to have fewer drawbacks than any other player.
Consensus: Justin Rose is be a fantastic pick; it would be surprising if he is not in the mix on Sunday.
Players Projected to Play Well: Justin Rose, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler
Players That Will Likely Not Play Well: Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, and Jason Day
Players in the Middle: Jon Rahm and Tiger Woods.
What’s going on with the decline in putting on the PGA Tour?
Watching the PGA Tour recently, I was struck by Frank Nobilo commenting on how professionals and their instructors work down to the smallest detail, a reflection on the intense competition on the PGA Tour and the fact that to be successful you cannot ignore anything. He made this comment with his thumb and forefinger barely not touching for emphasis.
That being the case, the numbers below should cause major introspection by every player and their coach. They are self-explanatory and have been verified by a third party expert who deals in putting data.
All figures are Shotlink data from the PGA Tour. To preclude undue influence by an anomaly years 2003-5 are averaged as are 2016-18
Average make percentage from 5 distances, 2003-2005 combined
- 6 FEET: 71.98 percent
- 8 FEET: 55.01 percent
- 10 FEET: 43.26 percent
- 15-20 FEET: 19.37 percent
- 25 FEET AND BEYOND: 5.96 percent
Average make percentage from the same 5 distances, 2015-2018
- 6 FEET: 70.43 percent
- 8 FEET: 53.54 percent
- 10 FEET: 41.39 percent
- 15-20 FEET: 18.80 percent
- 25 FEET AND BEYOND: 5.33 percent
- 6 FEET: 1.55 percent
- 8 FEET: 1.67 percent
- 10 FEET: 1.87 percent
- 15-20 FEET: .57 percent
- 25 FEET AND BEYOND: .83 percent
One comment, green conditions have been vetted to the point where they are not considered a culprit. Faster, yes, but pristine surfaces, and very consistent week to week. There are some outliers like the U.S. Open greens but they are included in the data shown and caused no significant spike for that week.
Further, on the subject of greens, today’s professional has booklets showing green patterns, high MOI putter heads, instruction from putting specialists, and caddies, expert green readers in their own right. Bottom line: if anything the greens help not hurt.
So your turn. Look at the data. Appoint yourself all-powerful guru to improve putting data. What would your plan, be? Oh and this little tidbit so you can earn a huge consulting fee: We took six players, three on either side of the halfway point, your solution resulted in a one-shot per TOURNAMENT improvement. Average INCREASE in earnings for the season: a smidge over $500K!
A merciful new local rule
This April, within a list of 2019 Rules Clarifications, the USGA and R&A quietly authorized a new Local Rule that you can expect to see enacted everywhere from the U.S. Open Championship to, if you’re lucky, your own club championship.
New Local Rule E-12 provides some protection from an unintended consequence of Rule 14.3c, which requires that your ball come to rest in the relief area for the drop you’re taking. When I first read about this option, I confess that I was a bit skeptical. But now that I’ve experienced the Local Rule in action, its value has become very clear.
My initial skepticism came from the fact that I like it that every time, we drop we now must drop in a relief area. I also like the simplicity of requiring the ball to come to rest in that relief area — no more awkward need to figure out if your ball stayed within two club lengths of the point where your drop first struck the course, as used to be the case. So right from the start, I was very comfortable with the new rules in this regard. But in some cases, particularly for those who haven’t carefully studied the revised rules, this simple approach has caused problems.
The freedom this new Local Rule provides applies exclusively to back-on-the-line relief drops, such as you might make from penalty areas or for unplayable balls. It’s a bit complicated, but let me take you through how it helps. We’ll use yellow-staked penalty areas as an example. Last year, for back-on-the-line drops such as these, you’d identify the point where your ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard and draw an imaginary line from the flagstick through that point, select a nice place to drop anywhere you chose back along that line, and then let it drop. If you picked a point sufficiently back, and your ball didn’t hit anything prohibited, and it didn’t stop more than two club lengths from where you dropped it, you were good to go.
This year, instead of dropping on that imaginary line, you drop in a relief area that surrounds that imaginary line. Just like before, you identify the edge of the penalty area where your ball last crossed, go back as far as you wish along an imaginary line from the flagstick through that point — but now you should identify a relief area around your selected drop location. To do so, you pick a point on the line, then define a relief area one club length from that point no closer to the hole. So you typically have a semicircle two club lengths in diameter in which to drop. If you drop a foot or two back from the front edge of the semicircle, there’s almost always no problem with the ball coming to rest outside the releif area and you’ll be ready to play. But if you drop right on the front edge of your defined relief area, or if you didn’t bother to identify a point/relief area along the imaginary line before you dropped, and your ball bounces and comes to rest even the slightest bit forward — it’s now outside the relief area and subject to a two-stroke or loss of hole penalty for playing from the wrong place if you end up hitting the ball before correcting your mistake.
That might seem kind of harsh — you take a back-on-the-line drop like you did last year, it bounces and stops an inch forward, you hit it — and you get severely penalized. If you had simply established the relief area an inch or two forward, things would have been perfectly legal! The 2019 rules, in their effort to simplify and make consistent the drop/relief procedure, created an unintended potential trap for players that weren’t careful enough managing their business. This seemed like it was going to be a big enough problem that the USGA and R&A decided to graciously do something about it: Introduce Model Local Rule E-12.
When this Local Rule is adopted, a player is given some additional freedom. If he or she applies the relief area/drop principles correctly, there is, of course, still no problem. But if he or she ends up with the ball somewhat outside the relief area, there still might be no penalty. As long as the ball originally struck the course within where the relief area should be, and as long as it didn’t come to rest more than one club length from where it first hit the course when dropped, you can still play it penalty-free (as long as it’s not nearer the hole than where the ball originally lay in the case of an unplayable ball drop, or nearer the hole than the edge of the penalty area where the ball last crossed for a penalty area drop).
While all that’s a bit complicated sounding, in practice it’s intuitive. And as an added bonus, it probably doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it or even know it’s in force — there are simply more occasions when you can blissfully, even ignorantly, play on penalty-free.
This new Local Rule provides another advantage as well. When it’s in effect, an opponent or ref (or a TV viewer) won’t have to concern themselves with whether or not the player making the drop actually followed the recommendation of first defining a relief area before making a back-on-the-line drop. If you’re at a distance, and you see a player taking a drop which bounces slightly forward, you can relax. You don’t have to wonder whether or not you should rush up and confirm that the ball didn’t squeak out of the player’s intended relief area in an effort to prevent the player from incurring a penalty. One way or another, everything is more than likely just fine.
With all that in mind, maybe you’d like to see the specific wording of E-12:
“When taking Back-On-the-Line relief, there is no additional penalty if a player plays a ball that was dropped in the relief area required by the relevant Rule (Rule 16.1c(2), 17.1d(2), 19.2b or 19.3b) but came to rest outside the relief area, so long as the ball, when played, is within one club-length of where it first touched the ground when dropped.
“This exemption from penalty applies even if the ball is played from nearer the hole than the reference point (but not if played from nearer the hole than the spot of the original ball or the estimated point where the ball last crossed the edge of the penalty area).
“This Local Rule does not change the procedure for taking Back-On-the-Line relief under a relevant Rule. This means that the reference point and relief area are not changed by this Local Rule and that Rule 14.3c(2) can be applied by a player who drops a ball in the right way and it comes to rest outside the relief area, whether this occurs on the first or second drop.”
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