Sobel: Length An Obvious Advantage at U.S. Open – Just Like Everywhere Else

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Jamie Squire/Getty Images. Pictured: Dustin Johnson

Sep 16, 2020, 08:08 PM EDT

Earlier this week, I led off my U.S. Open betting guide with a theory.

I wrote about how this tournament used to be the domain of the little guy, the steady performer who could hit fairways and greens while avoiding major mistakes. I pointed out that each of the last four champions defied this prior logic. And I postulated that the U.S. Open has evolved like so many other events, now catering to the bigger, stronger, more athletic players.

I also wrote that I would solicit opinions from those in the arena who might have differing theories as to why a different type of player has been winning this title in recent years — and so I did, even if their hypotheses are still a work in progress.

“I can’t tell you why,” said Dustin Johnson, who admittedly might not have pondered the concept previously.

“You know, [at] the U.S. Open, you’ve got to drive it straight, especially at this golf course,” he continued, speaking of Winged Foot, this week’s host venue. “You have to hit the fairways. And then once you hit the fairways, it doesn’t get much easier from there, either.”

He’s not necessarily wrong — and maybe he’ll be proven exceedingly correct by Sunday evening, if this course does indeed only yield better scores to those who have the best driving accuracy.

Not to throw the 2016 champion under the bus, but he didn’t really answer the question here.

In fact, this feels like a cliched response to winning a U.S. Open in the mid-1990’s, when indeed the players who hit the most fairways often enjoyed the most success.

What we want to know, though, is how and why that trend has so drastically changed.

“I think overall the game is kind of trending in that direction,” offered Gary Woodland, who won this title at Pebble Beach last year.

Now we’re getting somewhere, in that the U.S. Open might just be mirroring every other tournament with the idea that hitting the ball a long way is never detrimental to a player’s result.

“I don’t think last year,” he continued, “being at Pebble Beach, was a long golf course by any means, but on a shorter golf course I didn’t have to hit driver there, either. I was using my iron play to my advantage and trying to attack that way.”

It’s a solid point — and again, one which gets raised at more tournaments than just this one.

The idea goes: Even the straightest drivers of the golf ball probably aren’t straighter than the longest hitters using a hybrid or iron off the tee instead.

It all leads to a conundrum this week, one which is critical in trying to prognosticate which players will be on the leaderboard down the stretch. It’s more beneficial to hit it in the fairway, because the rough is so thick — and yet, it’s similarly more beneficial to hit it as far as possible, because the course is so long.

“I think if it firms up, some of the shorter hitters will be able to get the golf ball in play and play,” Woodland explained. “But if it doesn’t firm up, the golf course is so long, I would imagine some of the top long hitters are going to have a huge advantage.”

All of which leads us back to the original theory: Bigger, stronger players have started winning the U.S. Open in recent years because 1) At some point, everyone is going to be in shin-high rough, so you’d better be equipped to extricate your ball from it; and 2) If they can hit less than driver to the same spots that shorter hitters are trying to bang the big stick, then it remains an obvious advantage.

Length is always beneficial in the pro game, whether it means the longest hitters choose to bang it 350 yards off the tee or employ a driving iron to find the short stuff where others are hitting their drivers.

We’ll find out by the end of the weekend whether another big hitter will win this tournament, but the point remains — for this tournament and all others.

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@JasonSobelTAN

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