THE Open

Numbers from past Opens provide some insight into this how this year may play out.

It’s Thursday, which means that it’s time for The Numbers Game again. It is also time for the third major of the year: The British Open. This time it is back at the Old Course at St. Andrews. Lots of bump and runs, punch shots into the wind, and 30-yard putts. There will be quite a variety of skills to admire and to watch. What I like most about the British Open is that Johnny Miller isn’t commentating. Sorry, I still tend to feel this way in the weeks following the U.S. Open.

Back to the task at hand. For The Open, I decided to look into the past to see what types of players fared well. Were they long hitters? Were they accurate with their irons? Or were they better at putting? I was curious to see what the numbers said when looking at the top finishers from Opens past. I was also hoping this would possibly give us some insight into how this year’s Open might pan out.

The first Open to look at, obviously, was the last Open held at St. Andrews in 2000. That year Tiger Woods ran away with the championship. He finished at an astounding nineteen under par. Els and Bjorn finished a distant second at eleven under. Only five players finished within ten shots of the lead. You remember it… no need in rehashing the past. Tiger was unbelievable that year. Blah, blah, blah…

In my diligent preparation for this article, I picked five of the most common but pertinent stats: driving distance, driving accuracy, greens in regulation (GIR), putting average, and scoring average. I then took the top finishers (nineteen of them to be exact) and compiled their rankings from 2000 in each of those categories on the PGA tour. For European players, I used their rankings from the same stats on the European tour. Even though mixing the two isn’t perfect, but it still lets us know how the players are finishing on their respective tours. My goal was to see if there was any correlation using these stats to help determine what types of players may have a good chance at finishing well this year. I expect to see Putting and GIR as the most important, no matter the tournament. Getting the ball on the green when you are supposed to and putting it in the hole is a premium. What I found was slightly different.

2000 British Open Results
The following chart shows the top 19 finishers at the 2000 British Open in five categories: Driving Distance (DD), Driving Accuracy (DA), Greens in Regulation (GIR), Putting Average (P), and Scoring (S):

Name               DD        DA       GIR        P        S
Tiger Woods         2        54         1        2        1
Thomas Bjorn       23        67        24       32       10
Ernie Els          38        51        83       24        3
David Toms         68        56        11       53       19
Tom Lehman        103        51        10      139        9
FredCouples        13       183         5       86       14
Loren Roberts     192         4        85       17       10
Darren Clarke      22        56        26       11        5
Pierre Fulke      120         5        50        3        8
Paul Azinger       50       148       109        4        5
David Duval        18        39         9       30        4
Dennis Paulson     15       179       171      116      123
Phil Mickelson      3       125        43        3        2
Bob May            57       105        12       99       26
Bernhard Langer   107       101        14       25       17
Mark McNulty      176         8        44       35       31
Stuart Appelby      8       166       106       37       23
Vijay Singh        30       112         5       99       13
Davis Love III      3       136        28       24       11
Averages        55.16     86.63     44.00    44.1     17.58

The first thing that jumped out at me was the Scoring category. The average place for the top finishers in the 2000 Open was 17.58. I expected this number to be on the low side, but not the lowest of all the stats and definitely not that low. I knew that the top players are always in the majors, but 17.58? And that’s with a 123 thrown in there. Heck, if you throw out the 123, the average is an unbelievable 8.59. Just look at some of the numbers. The top five players in the Scoring category finished in the top 19 of the 2000 Open. Not to mention the ninth (Lehman), 11th (Love) and 13th (Singh) as well. You don’t see all the top players in other categories like you do in Scoring.

So what did that tell me? First of all, the players that finished well at the Open in 2000 were all guys that new how to get the ball in the hole and were the some of the best players in the world. The other low numbers were GIR and Putting. Those two were nearly identical in average at 44.00 for GIR and 44.16 for Putting. These were the categories I had expected to be low, but I didn’t think that Scoring one would trump them as badly as it did. Driving distance was actually pretty close as well. Again, closer to the distribution that I thought I’d see with Putting and GIR low and driving stats slightly behind.

Instead of comparing players within categories, it is interesting to look across to analyze players. The standout example is Dennis Paulson. He doesn’t even look like he belongs. Only his Driving Distance ranking is remotely close to any of the other players. In fact, he has the worst or second worst ranking of all players in the top nineteen, but we’ll talk more about anomalies later. I thought the Scoring category would be inflated with a few more players like Paulson.

Other Opens
OK, so I’ve discussed the fact that Scoring was a surprising factor in the leaders of the 2000 Open. My next step was to see if this was a pattern of some sort. I know that the courses are different year to year but it remains to be seen if the Opens bring out the same types of players to the top.

I’ll give you the short answer: yes. In each of the past three years, the lowest category of the five I looked at was Scoring:

Year   Scoring     GIR     Putting
2004    27.95     67.84     39.26
2003    42.47     45.94     63.41
2002    20.56     76.25     50.38

The only Open that was close to having a category other than Scoring lowest was 2003 at Royal St. George’s. Other than that, it was hands down the best category. Looks like a pattern to me. The rankings of GIR and Putting go back and forth as the next lowest stat but they are always second and third. Again, this goes against my initial assumptions.

This Year’s Winner Is…
This leads me to the conclusion that the Open separates the men from the boys. Guys that have been scoring well all year stand a great chance of continuing that in the Open and competing for the championship. While this sounds like a no-brainer, it is even more obvious given the absence of the anomalies I spoke about before. Less than a handful of players ranked above 100 in Scoring finished near the top in the past few Opens. Given what this means, I’m amazed that Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton won previous Opens. They were not anywhere near the best in the Scoring category to say the least. Ben finished 124 that year and Todd did better at 85. As Cody talked about in Thrash Talk this week, the one-hit wonders haven’t done much since their victories. Hey, we may even be able to predict the one-hit wonders based on this research… but that is another column for another day…

Look at the top in Scoring on the PGA and European Tours. Els is near the top of the list on both tours. So is Retief. I think that Vijay is always a threat. Tiger and Phil, they are number one and two, but I wouldn’t talk about these guys and pick them. They are the obvious players that are not only strong in scoring, but putting and GIR as well. So here it goes. My “foreign” pick is Luke Donald. He is fifth in Scoring, 12th in GIR and 34th in Putting. Also, he’s English. I can hear it now, “native son does good.” I just hope the pressure doesn’t get to him.

My “domestic” pick is Jim Furyk. Even with a wacky swing, he is third in Scoring, fifth in GIR, and 12th in Putting. There’s nothing wacky about those stats. Plus he just won, beating out a surging Tiger. Furyk is an unflappable competitor. I love watching him play and will be rooting for him. I know he hasn’t made a cut at The Open since 2000, but I still feel he is the guy. If I had a sleeper, it would be Tom Lehman. He’s playing well this year (seventh in Scoring) and wants to play his way onto his own Ryder Cup team. He won in 1996 at Royal Lytham and I think he could do it 9 years later as well.

Take it to the bank. Luke Donald and Jim Furyk. Those two will be in the thick of it come Sunday next week. They are great players that have great numbers where it matters most in the Open: Scoring, GIR and Putting.

Does this change your mind on who might win the Open? Please add your comments or email your thoughts!

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