BALL STRIKING AND PEDIGREE
Bad weather. Bad bounces. The guy that never has to pee with the high-pitched voice ringing in your ears. Golf is often a game of bounces and luck; this has never been more evident than in recent Open Championships.
This tournament has become the toughest to predict.
It hasn’t always been this way. In the 1970s, only the great players won the Open. Consider this sequential list of players that won the Open Championship from 1970 to 79: Nicklaus – Trevino – Trevino – Weiskopf – Player – Watson – Miller – Watson – Nicklaus - Ballesteros! That is a list of champions in a decade that will never be repeated.
For the first two majors, we did a statistical analysis for the Masters and showed why the U.S. Open is perhaps the wildest ride in terms of coming from behind. We looked at the same numbers for the recent Open Championships. The result: the Open Championships is as unpredictable as it feels. Just consider in the past decade, we had winners like unknown Ben Curtis, utility-chipping Todd Hamilton, aging Darren Clarke and Ernie Els with a jumpy putter.
Recently, when it comes to the Open Championship, making a pick is more of an art than a science.
First, let’s consider what we do know.
WORLD RANKING? MOVE ALONG
In our Masters analysis, we liked Justin Rose – and it turned out we were one major too soon! In Rose’s case, his high world ranking, age, and recent performance in the Majors weighed heavily in his favor.
We considered world ranking an important factor. At the time, almost 60% of Masters winners since the course changes at Augusta in 2002 were from the top 10 world rankings. World ranking is less of a factor at the Open Championship.
In the past 10 years, only Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington have been in the top ten for a dismal 30% showing by the world’s elite platers. The Open Championship over the past ten years has had the fewest Champions from the top 10 than any other major (the Masters has 6/10, the U.S. Open 5/10 and the PGA 7/10).
In fact, since 2003, the average world ranking coming into the Open Championship week of the eventual champion has been more than 47 spots lower than any other major and 4 times worse that the Masters. Over the past ten Open Championships, the average world ranking of the Open Champion has been 89! That includes two wins by Tiger Woods as number one in the world. The other majors’ average world ranking of its winners is not even close over the same time period.
Ultimately, it is futile to try model an analysis that could predict long shots like Todd Hamilton, Ben Curtis, Louis Oosthuizen and an aging Ernie Els doing well, never mind competing. While others have come up with fun ways to eliminate the field to get to an eventual winner, it is ultimately just a cool trick. I suspect similar methods could get 10 or 15 different reasonable results (I take if back if Geoff Ogilvy wins this week).
Note that both Oosthuizen and Hamilton were ranked 54th in the world the week prior to winning - that may be as good a statistical analysis as any. If so D.A. Points is currently 54th in the world. He seems to fit the long shot mold at age 36. Alas, that coincidence will likely not hold up any more than Points’ ball striking at Muirfield.
THE OPEN IS EXCITING
We should embrace this unpredictability at the Open. Aside from the U.S. Open, The Open has given players the best chance at coming from off the lead in the past ten years. Since the Tiger Era (since Tiger burst on the scene in 1997), the Open has the highest rate of champions that have come from behind. In the Tiger Era, the winner of the Open has come from the last grouping only 10 times … fewer times than any other Major.
In our U.S. Open analysis, we attributed much of this to the fact the field was packed so tight – which proved again to be true this year. Saturday is not moving day at the U.S. Open but milling-about day. A player had to be near the top for a real move on Sunday within the packed group. The U.S. Open and the Open have recently shown to be unlike the Masters in which Saturday really is moving day and crucial. The Masters actually has given player the least chance of a comeback. This really does back the importance of moving day on Saturday at Augusta.
Along with the U.S. Open, the Open Championship has had more players come from greater than 2 strokes off the lead on the final day to win (31.3% of the time).
The Open is great because there is less certainty waking up Sunday morning than any other major.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Ultimately, the Open in recent years has rewarded experience. Clarke and Els have added to the upswing in age. The average age of the “champion golfer of the year” over the past decade is almost 35 years old! The only two players under 30 were Ben Curtis in 2003 at 26 and Louis Oosthuizen three years ago at 27.
Perhaps the best way to consider this year’s Open is the venue: Muirfield. The classic course that routes clockwise on the way out and counterclockwise on the way in forces a player to deal with winds from every direction. There are fewer blind shots and hidden bunkers than other courses so perhaps luck is somewhat less of an issue. This means ball striking and pedigree count at Muirfield.
Since the end of World War II, consider the champions when the Open has been at Muirfield:
2002: Ernie Els (3rd major)
1992: Nick Faldo (5th major)
1987: Nick Faldo (1st major)
1980: Tom Watson (4th major)
1972: Lee Trevino (4th major)
1966: Jack Nicklaus (6th major)
1959: Gary Player (1st major)
Thus, there are the obvious selections like Woods and Mickelson. However, combining age and ball striking ability, perhaps we can also spot others that have the potential to join this elite group. Louis Oostihuizen comes to mind but seems to be off his form right now. Instead, these two names come to the forefront: Hunter Mahan and Charl Schwartzel.
It’s an intimidating list to join but someone in the half-generation after Tiger needs to step up. Muirfield is the perfect venue.
[correction 7/19/13: original article incorrectly indicated Faldo's win in 1987 was 4th major]