Monday, June 18, 2018

Does the U.S. Open Identify Excellence?

(Note: This article was published 13 years ago.  In light of the 2018 U.S, Open, it remains relevant in evaluating how the USGA sets up the course.)

The USGA argues the U.S. Open is “not designed to embarrass the best golfers, but identify them.”  But does it?[1]  Critics have charged that the way U.S. Open courses are set up has made scoring more a matter of chance than of skill.  For example, well struck irons often bound over greens and into USGA-type rough.  The player's next shot then depends in large part on his lie (i.e., luck).

The merits of the maniacal set-up for U.S. Open courses are problematic.  The U.S. Open is played on a course that exists for only one week every year – the USGA version of Brigadoon.  Golf is unique among major sports in holding its championship under conditions that are not normally encountered during the season.

Are these criticisms valid or just carping from traditionalists who still harbor resentment from Jack Fleck's victory over Mr. Hogan in 1955?  If the critics are correct, the winners of the U.S. Open should be weaker as a class from the winners of other major championships.

Two measures of the strength of champions are used here.  First, if luck rather than skill is a major determinant in winning there should be a larger number of one-time winners.  That is, players who win the U.S. Open, but do not win any of the other majors.

Second, if a player is simply lucky to win the U.S. Open, then he may not have the skills to go on to win many other major championships.  If the critics are correct in their assessment, U.S. Open Champions should not be as strong a group as champions from other majors.  Specifically, the average number of "majors" won by champions of the U.S. Open should be less than the average compiled by champions from the other majors.

To test these two assertions, the winners of the traditional major golf tournaments (Masters, U.S. Open, Masters,The Open, and PGA Championship) were examined over the past 31 years (1974 to 2004). 

First, the number and percentage of champions who did not win any other major were found as presented in Table 1.  The U.S. Open ranked third among the majors with 12 of its 22 champions having never won another major. The PGA has the highest percentage of champions (60 percent) who were not able to win another of the traditional majors in the time period studied.[2]  

Table 1

U.S. Open
The Open
Winners With No Other Major
Percentage with No Other Major

The U.S. Open did, however, have the most repeat champions (five) who had not won any other major (Andy North, Hale Irwin, Lee Janzen, Curtis Strange, and Retief Goosen).  This frequency may indicate the U.S. Open champion is being selected from a smaller pool of players than at the other championships.  That is, players with only certain attributes to their game appear capable of winning.  The skills for a good U.S. Open player, however, may not translate well to the venues of the other major championships.
              The average number of "other" major championships for each group of winners was calculated as a measure of the quality of the champions.  For example, the 20 different winners of the Masters won 27 other major titles for an average of 1.42 per player.  These results for other majors are shown in Table 2.

Table 2

U.S. Open
The Open
Other Championships Won
Number of Champions
Average Number of Other Majors Won

By the average number of majors won, the U.S. Open is tied for second  with The Open.  And to show the tenuous nature of this ranking, if Tom Watson had not made that fortunate chip shot at No. 17 at Pebble Beach and gone on to lose, the U.S. Open would lose his 7 other major titles.  A loss by Watson would have put the U.S. Open rank down with the PGA by this criterion.

By the two measures used here, there is no clear evidence that the difficult course set-up of the U.S. Open identifies excellence with more precision than any other tournament.  It does, however, identify a certain type of golfer that may not have much of a chance at the other majors.  For example only four U.S. Open Champions in the past 27 years have also won the The Open (Nicklaus, Watson, Woods, and Els).  Only five U.S. Open Champions have also won the Masters in this same period (Floyd, Nicklaus, Watson, Woods, and Zoeller).  Surprisingly, until Woods victory in the 2000 U.S. Open Championship, no U.S. Open champion since Larry Nelson in 1983 had gone on to win another of the majors. 

In summary, the U.S. Open does not produce the “best” champion by any of the criteria examined here.  Nor does it appear to produce any more “fluke” winners than the other majors. The number of repeat U.S. Open champions with no other major championships suggests the U.S. Open set-up may be limiting the winner to a small sub-set of players.

There are signs, however, that the USGA is changing.  Since Pinehurst in 1999, the U.S.Open has had a less severe set-up.  The fairway rough has not been as penal as usual.  Rough around the greens at Pinehurst, for example, was minimized to give the player more options for his short game.  Courses have also been lengthened which favors the long hitters who also sit atop the world rankings—Tiger Woods, V.J. Singh, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, and Retief Goosen. These changes seemed to bring more of the marquee players into contention.  Whether this is a case of temporary sanity or a sea change in USGA thinking, only time will tell.

[1] An earlier version of this chapter appeared in Dougharty, Larry, Identifying Excellence, Golf Journal, USGA, July 1993.

[2] Championships won before 1974 were not included in the analysis.

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