The U.S. Open, famed for being the toughest of any tournament in professional golf. Oakmont Country Club plays host to the second major of the golfing season for the ninth time, more than any other course in the tournaments history. The U.S. Open is notoriously famed for thick rough, tight fairways and fast, slippery greens, regularly resulting in over-par winning totals. Phil Mickleson states, “It truly is, I think, the hardest golf course we've ever played.” For a man of his status, with no fewer than 6 runner-up finishes in this event, it is hard to argue against. Therefore, TSZ, by process of statistical elimination, will narrow down the world's current ranked Top 25 players and see who is best equipped to win the 2016 U.S. Open.
In reality, any championship course can be made extremely difficult for the U.S. Open; however Oakmont is unique in that it is regarded as one of the most demanding layouts in all of golf. The great Lee Trevino once said, “There's only one course in the country where you could step out right now — right now — and play the U.S. Open, and that's Oakmont. It is fair to say, the two were made for each other. After watching the 1935 Open, a spectator was so amazed at how fast and difficult the greens were, he invented the Stimpmeter, a common piece of equipment used in golf to measure the quickness of the putting surface. With this in mind, it provides a clear indication of what the players will be facing.
However, Oakmont has much more for a player to tackle than just the greens. With over 200 strategically placed bunkers, none more so than the famous church pews, even a slightly wayward shot could leave a sideways play out. The toughest opening stretch in championship golf where seven-time Oakmont club champion Curt Coulter expressed, "If you get through the first three at one-over, you're feeling like a king."
Some of the hardest and longest par 5s in world golf, even the ‘bombers’ will be struggling to reach in two. Narrow ditches running through 12 holes will almost certainly result in a penalty shot. Fairways that slope into the heavy rough where even seemingly accurate tee shots end in trouble. Not least of all, the intimidation factor – players and fans alike know all about the difficulty of Oakmont, without even hitting a ball, the fear of what lays ahead will play as big a role as any.
Unlike many tournaments and courses where certain skill areas play a significant role in player’s chances of success, the U.S. Open at Oakmont truly does require no weaknesses. The champion must have exceptional tee to green skills throughout the four days, but that alone will not get the job done.
Outstanding chipping and pitching in and around the greens will be imperative out of the notoriously deep rough and bunkers, and red, red hot putter must be on show. It is without doubt, the truest test of a golfer’s all-round skill and resolve.
(Danny Willett and Chris Wood do not qualify for a ranking on the PGA Tour due to number of rounds played)
From the Tee
Arguably, accuracy in the U.S. Open is more important than length, but with the course measuring 7,230 yards at a par 70, a combination of the two will be required. Consequently, an individual who does not necessarily need to hit driver - more so irons and woods - without compromising distance drastically will be at an advantage.
McIlroy, Watson, Johnson, Scott, Koepka and Holmes each rely on their impressive driving distances to gained strokes on the field. Conversely, Kuchar, Z. Johnson and Knox each rely on their driving accuracy to gain strokes. Notably, on average greater strokes from the tee are gained the further an individual hits the ball. This is likely the result of it being easier to hit a wedge from the rough closer to the hole than a 7 iron from the fairway. However, this is when the rough is not as severe as the U.S. Open, meaning the latter could be more important. Speith, Fowler, Stenson, Rose, Garcia, Oozthuizen and Matsuyama neither hit the ball particularly long or straight, but are consistently strong in both areas, resulting in a top 25 ranking strokes gained for each. Although a noteworthy statistic, the longer hitters could adopt a more conservative approach, hitting irons and woods to be more accurate. With their distance, they would be at no less of a disadvantage in doing so.
- Zach Johnson ranks 163rd in driving distance and 45th in accuracy, resulting in SG from the tee ranking of 135th. This event arguably does not suite his game from the start with the challenge from the tee being too demanding on the rest of his game.
Approach to the Green
Getting the ball in play from the tee is a difficult challenge and as a result, hitting the green or fringe in regulation will be equally as difficult, even from the fairways.
Hitting 70% plus (13 out of 18) of greens/fringes in regulation on average would be impressive around Oakmont.
However, both Reed (68.78%) and Grace (68.94%) hit under this percentage and with their driving accuracy both being weak, they may struggle to execute enough birdies and ‘stress free’ pars to be in contention.
- Holmes is ranked 2nd in driving distance and uses this length to gain an advantage over the field. J.B. ranked 85th in Greens/Fringes in regulation and 143rd in strokes gained with approaches to the green. Coupled with his poor driving accuracy (ranked 185th), Oakmont is a course he will not be able to overpower.
Around the Green
With over 200 bunkers on the course, the likelihood of any wayward approach shots landing in a bunker is very high. Consequently, the ability to scramble from the sand will be vital in order to compete.
- Koepka ranks 126th in scrambling from the sand and 121st strokes gained around the greens, add in the fact that he sits 67th in strokes gained approaching the green means he may struggle to keep bogeys or worse off the scorecard.
Watson (76.44%) and Stenson (75.87%) hit the highest percentage of greens or fringes in regulation of any of the world’s top 25 players. Their impressive ball striking skills make them a contender around any course.
However, Watson (70.79%) and Stenson (70.49%) each hit over 5% of their approach shots on the fringes of the green.
- Watson ranked a lowly 199th in scrambling from the fringe and is 132nd in strokes gained around the green.
- Similarly, Stenson ranks 148th in scrambling and even lower (171st) in strokes gained around the green.
Meaning for all their remarkable ball striking skills, they drop many strokes from potentially solid approach shots, which is not only demanding psychologically, but in this area they will struggle to score around a course as challenging as Oakmont.
As is evident, driving and approach accuracy will be paramount to success, yet without the ability to save par or even bogey from any mishit or wayward shots, no individual will be able to contend around Oakmont.
- Dustin Johnson ranks 165th in scrambling from the rough and 105th in strokes gained.
- Oosthuizen ranks 141st in scrambling from the rough, and although his strokes gained is a solidly ranked 81st, the short game skills may not be enough.
- Garcia, notoriously one of the best ball strikers tee-to-green, (ranked 4th strokes gained approaches to the green) where a U.S. Open set-up should perfectly suite his game, is ranked 121st in scrambling from the rough and even worse in stroked gained (137th).
- Matsuyama, ranked 3rd in strokes gained approaches to the green has the long game to contend, yet is ranked 96th in scrambling from the fringe and a lowly 143rd in stroke gained.
With the course being long and incredibly tight, the chance of having to scramble from the rough is extremely high, and for these players, the difficulty of scrambling from the rough will be made twice as difficult in a major.
Scott, Casey and Knox all average 7 feet and over in proximity to the hole around the greens and consequently, are the three lowest ranked in strokes gained around the green (101st, 78th and 68th respectively).
- Scott in ranked first in strokes gained approach and has already won twice this season, however, no matter how good his ball striking skills are, this week he would still need a drastic improvement around the greens and Oakmont may not be the place to find such form.
- Both Casey and Knox have very consistent statistics across all categories making them dependable players to make the cut and compete for a top 25 placing, but to succeed around such a venue may be too big a ask
The players observed averaged 6.6 feet in proximity to the hole around the greens with Spieth 6.2 and Rose 7.3 feet respectively. Typically they will be putting from inside 10 foot, with these being the crucial putts for birdie or to save par and the ones the players expect to make.
- Rose is the lowest ranked (176th) player, making 85.92% of putts within this distance. This is perhaps not surprising when you take his average proximity of 7.3 feet meaning he simply does not hit it close enough to be consistently making the putts. Factor in the speed and severity of Oakmont greens and that he has been out with a back injury since The Players, this tournament may have come a week too early. Nevertheless, he is arguably fresh and has the ball striking skills to compete anywhere, expect a strong showing all the same.
As discussed, Oakmont greens are as fast and severe as they come and getting the ball deadweight in terms of first putt will be a challenge in itself from all distances. Therefore, it is likely a player will have to hole out consistently from within five feet to avoid any three putts.
- Schwartzel is ranked a lowly (165th) inside 10 feet and will struggle to scramble around the greens. Furthermore, he ranks 191st from within five feet, successfully holing only 95.07% from this distance. As a result, he will struggle to keep bogeys or worse off the card, making the already difficult challenge tee-to-green even greater on or around them.
- Snedeker is renowned as a good and aggressive putter which shows in his solid ranking of 47th from inside 10 feet. However, he is ranked 115th from inside 5 feet and holes only 96.48%. With pace control on the greens being so important, his aggressive style simply will not suite the course set-up and could result in unnecessary bogeys.
- McIlroy has struggled all season with his putting, with it being the difference between success and failure. His last showing at the Frys.com Open showed some big improvements on the greens, where he was right up there for the week in strokes gained after another technical change. His tee-to-green game is one of the very best in world golf which makes him a contender around any course, and although Oakmont is set-up well for him, his putting still makes him a difficult bet. From inside 5 and 10 feet he ranks lower than 168th. Compared to Day, he loses 0.2 shots from inside 5 feet, which over the course of 4 days at a U.S. Open, could be the difference between winning and losing. Expect a strong showing and Top 10 nonetheless.
The remaining five players are all strong tee-to-green and have the skills around the green to scramble a score and keep the round alive. The key separation between them is their ability on the greens and how many strokes they gain over the field.
- Fowler ranks the lowest at 47th - not weak but certainly not strong – gaining 0.261 strokes over the field, over 0.3 to the next nearest (Matt Kuchar). Making consistent gains on the green from positions most would not is what champions are made of and Fowler may just come up short in this area.
We are left with four players who could be worthy champions. Eight majors between them, world numbers 1 and 2, a legend of the game and the most consistent player in the game.
- Phil Mickelson – six runner-ups to his name in U.S. Opens, more than any other player in its history suggests this man knows how to play. Although not the longest, length has never been an issue for Phil. His driving accuracy is always a worry though, but he’ll have a game plan in place to tackle such an issue. Ranked top 10 in SG approach to green shows his ball striking is the best it has been in years, coupled with a ‘wizardry’ short-game (ranked 2nd scrambling from sand and 26th SG) allows him to be aggressive. Ranked first for putting inside 10 feet and third overall SG, his ball-striking will be rewarded, to which Oakmont will require no less. He has played solid all year without a win since the 2013 Open Championship, but surely he has got to win one U.S. Open. Not only does he deserve it but his game is possibly in the best shape it has been in years to do so.
- Jordan Spieth – the reigning champion and the one who ‘bottled’ this year’s Masters. He was untouchable this time last year, the next Tiger they said, and now many are questioning his mental state. He won two weeks ago in his home state, something he was yet to achieve and a goal – up there with the majors – if this doesn’t show his desire and mental strength then maybe back to back U.S. Opens will. Jordan is neither particularly long nor straight, but he ranks 19th in SG from the tee, showing he can strategically position his ball in play. He ranks 114th in SG approach to the green with this being a big weakness throughout the season and could cause problems at Oakmont where hitting the greens is essential. His short game however saves him, ranking 5th in SG around the green with the lowest proximity to the hole of 6.2 feet. Although his putting has not been as electric as it was this time last year, he is gaining 0.6 on the field, ranking 9th. If he can successfully hit more greens in regulation he will be a major factor come Sunday afternoon.
- Jason Day – world number 1 with 7 wins in his last 18 starts, he almost writes the argument for himself. Jason uses his length as good as anyone in the game (20th in driving distance) and ranks inside the top 50 in both SG from the tee and approaches to the green. He is aggressive with his play and happy to take on pins as he knows he has the skills to scramble (third from the sand and 14th from the fringe). However, it is on the greens where the difference is made, gaining 1,145 strokes per round on the field, that’s over 4.5 strokes during the four tournament days! With this in his arsenal, he can win anywhere and none more so than around Oakmont.
- Matt Kuchar – his last four starts – T3, 3, T6 and T4 make him arguably the most in form player in the game right now. Factor in three additional top 10s this season and it is easy to see why many regard him as the most consistent player in the world. Where he struggles in length, (155th driving distance) he certainly makes up for in driving accuracy, ranking 28th and 34th in SG from the tee. Matt’s ball striking and accuracy results in him hitting 72.81% of greens or fringes in regulation (ranked 26th) and puts him at 45th in SG approaches to the green. His all-round short game is as consistent as you would expect, not standing out in any particular category assessed but ranking 36th in SG around the greens. Ranked inside the top 50 for successful putts within five and 10 feet, he gains 0.502 strokes per round on the field in putting. There is no weakness in Kuchar’s game which is the main reason he is so consistent, however his number of professional wins remain modest and that could be to do with his length, where a course such as Oakmont could be a little too long.