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2018 U.S. Open: Breaking down how the favorites should fare at Shinnecock

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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.

Tiger Woods 

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.

Justin Thomas

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.

Rory McIlroy

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.

Dustin Johnson

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.

Phil Mickelson

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.

Jordan Spieth

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.

Rickie Fowler

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.

Jon Rahm

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.

Jason Day

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.

Justin Rose

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.

To Recap

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.

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Malcolm is an incoming freshman at Tufts University, and he recently graduated from Boston College High School in Massachusetts. He plans on playing on the golf team at Tufts and has a 2.5 index. He plays out of The Country Club in Brookline.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Josh

    Jun 12, 2018 at 12:46 pm

    “Rose is be” is be a typo 🙂

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The Gear Dive: Discussing the drivers of 2020 with Bryan LaRoche

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In this episode of The Gear Dive, Johnny chats with his good buddy Bryan LaRoche. They chat on life and do a deep dive into the drivers of 2020.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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The Wedge Guy: The 5 indisputable rules of bunker play

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I received a particularly interesting question this week from Art S., who said he has read all the tips about how to hit different sand shots, from different sand conditions, but it would be helpful to know why. Specifically, here’s what Art had to say:

“I recently found myself in a few sand traps in multiple lies and multiple degrees of wetness. I tried remembering all of the “rules” of how to stand, how much to open my club, how much weight to shift forward or back, etc. based on the Golf Channel but was hoping that you might be able to do a blog on the ‘why’ of sand play so that we can understand it rather than memorizing what to do. Is there any way you can discuss what the club is doing and why you open the club, open your stance, what you’re aiming for when you open up, and any other tips?”

Well, Art, you asked a very good question, so let’s try to cover the basics of sand play–the “geometry and physics” at work in the bunkers–and see if we can make all of this more clear for you.

First of all, I think bunkers are among the toughest of places to find your ball. We see the tour players hit these spectacular bunker shots every week, but realize that they are playing courses where the bunkers are maintained to PGA Tour standards, so they are pretty much the same every hole and every week. This helps the players to produce the “product” the tour is trying to deliver–excitement. Of course, those guys also practice bunker play every day.

All of us, on the other hand, play courses where the bunkers are different from one another. This one is a little firmer, that one a little softer. So, let me see if I can shed a little light on the “whys and wherefores” of bunker play.

The sand wedge has a sole with a downward/backward angle built into it – we call that bounce. It’s sole (no pun intended) function is to provide a measure of “rejection” force or lift when the club makes contact with the sand. The more bounce that is built into the sole of the wedge, the more this rejection force is applied. And when we open the face of the wedge, we increase the effective bounce so that this force is increased as well.

The most basic thing you have to assess when you step into a bunker is the firmness of the sand. It stands to reason that the firmer the texture, the more it will reject the digging effect of the wedge. That “rejection quotient” also determines the most desirable swing path for the shot at hand. Firmer sand will reject the club more, so you can hit the shot with a slightly more descending clubhead path. Conversely, softer or fluffier sand will provide less rejection force, so you need to hit the shot with a shallower clubhead path so that you don’t dig a trench.

So, with these basic principles at work, it makes sense to remember these “Five Indisputable Rules of Bunker Play”

  1. Firmer sand will provide more rejection force – open the club less and play the ball back a little to steepen the bottom of the clubhead path.
  2. Softer sand will provide less rejection force – open the club more and play the ball slighter further forward in your stance to create a flatter clubhead path through the impact zone.
  3. The ball will come out on a path roughly halfway between the alignment of your body and the direction the face is pointing – the more you open the face, the further left your body should be aligned.
  4. On downslope or upslope lies, try to set your body at right angles to the lie, so that your swing path can be as close to parallel with the ground as possible, so this geometry can still work. Remember that downhill slopes reduce the loft of the club and uphill slopes increase the loft.
  5. Most recreational golfers are going to hit better shots from the rough than the bunkers, so play away from them when possible (unless bunker play is your strength).

So, there you go, Art. I hope this gives you the basics you were seeking.

As always, I invite all of you to send in your questions to be considered for a future article. It can be about anything related to golf equipment or playing the game–just send it in. You can’t win if you don’t ask!

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Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: Task to target

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In this week’s episode: How having a target will improve your direction and contact you have with the ball.

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