The U.S. Open Strategy is Changing
By Bradley Turner Keiser University College of Golf Director of Online Golf Instruction, MBA, PGA
The 2021 U.S. Open was held recently at Torrey Pines, and the 156 competitors prepared themselves mentally and physically for the 72-hole rigorous test of their golf skills. Historically, this championship creates the most challenging conditions for the best in the world with narrow fairways, deep rough and lightning fast, and firm putting surfaces. The USGA has always tried to “defend par,” with the winning total of even par as the goal for the competition. Shooting a very low score is simply not what the USGA wants to see in this championship. But in 1973, Johnny Miller won the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club with a record score of 63 in the final round. The day before his famous closing round, the skies opened up and soaked the golf course. On Sunday, the greens were soft and holding most iron shots. Johnny took advantage with his eight under par round, but Oakmont still played tough as only four players shot under 70 on Sunday. Johnny’s 279 (-5) edged out John Schlee by only one stroke.
The following year, at Winged Foot in 1974, there was not going to be a repeat of any 63’s as the course was set up as difficult as any U.S. Open in history. The par 70 layout yielded only eight subpar rounds by the entire field for the week. The 36-hole cut was +13, close to the highest cut in U.S. Open history. The players complained to the media that the USGA had gone too far in making the golf course extremely difficult. Then USGA executive Sandy Tatum famously defended the course setup stating, “Our objective is not to humiliate the best players in the world; we’re simply trying to identify them.” The best player in the world that week was Hale Irwin, who managed to persevere and finish with a winning total of 287 (+7). The strategy used to win the U.S. Open was simple, hit the ball in the fairway off the tee and keep your approach shots below the hole for easier putts. Fairways and greens have been the formula for success for many of the past U.S. Open champions. Players that lacked big length off the tee but could find the fairways won a number of championships. The USGA has made some minor adjustments to the objective of “defending par,” but the reality is the U.S. Open is still the most difficult golf course set up every year.
U.S. Open Driving Distance Rankings
Over the past decade, there has been a change in the typical player profile who wins the U.S. Open. The PGA Tour has kept driving distance statistics since 1981, and an analysis of the champions’ driving distance reveals an interesting trend. The chart below shows the U.S. Open champion and their rank in driving distance the year they won. During the eighties, the average driving distance ranking of Open champions was 104th. Only one player was in the top 20 in driving distance, Tom Watson. Fast forward to the last ten Open champions, and there are six that averaged in the top 20 with the average driving distance ranking of 30th. The strategy of conservative play off the tee to ensure finding the fairway is changing.
What is the Strategy at Torrey Pines?
The old strategy of fairways first and then greens is the best approach for the majority of the field. The problem for these players is that the high-powered drivers of the golf ball will be launching drivers well past them. Even if they end up in the rough, the big guns can be 50 yards past the conservative straight hitter. A wedge out of the rough has proven to be a new strategy for the likes of Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka. The ability to generate high club head speed allows these players to rip through the thick Open rough and still find the green. For those bombers that can find the fairway, a short iron into the green improves their birdie chances. The rough at Torrey Pines is typical for the U.S. Open. But the power players are taking a close look at the rough on every hole and making a decision on which holes a driver off the tee is a good strategy. If they miss the fairways where the rough is less penal, they will be able to get the ball on the green. The new strategy for the U.S. Open is to bomb it and then rip it out of the rough if necessary. Hitting fairways is clearly the goal, but today’s professionals are different athletes, and the rough is now deemed manageable!
Who is Likely to Win?
Looking at the winners over the past ten years, it seems that a player with high clubhead speed and driver distance in the top 50 on the tour is necessary at Torrey Pines this week. Unfortunately, the short hitting control players that won many of the Opens in the 1980s, like Scott Simpson, Curtis Strange, and Ray Floyd, will be fortunate to crack into the top 10 by Sunday afternoon. Power reigns supreme in golf, even at the U.S. Open.
It is difficult to predict who will have all the pieces in place to win this championship. Previous Open champions like Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Rory McIlroy, and Dustin Johnson are the new breed of Open champions. They were in the hunt for another championship. Xander Schauflee and Jon Rahm are other long drivers who performed very well in this championship. It would have been a surprise to me if a shorter hitter took home the hardware at Torrey Pines, but that is why we watched. Maybe the old U.S. Open strategy will someday make a comeback!
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