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Sobel’s U.S. Open Preview: Which Players Perform Best on Tough Courses?

Sobel’s U.S. Open Preview: Which Players Perform Best on Tough Courses? article feature image

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images. Pictured: Dustin Johnson.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

That’s what they say, at least. But when trying to figure out which professional golfers play the best in tough conditions, reaching this conclusion is easier said than done. We may insist that specific players fare better when conditions are harder, but without empirical data, that claim is impossible to prove.

So I did something about it. I gathered the data.


As the world’s best players embark on this week’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club, one thing we can all agree upon is that it’ll be tough — perhaps even as tough as the last time this tournament was held here, when 5-over par served as Geoff Ogilvy’s winning score.

In order to assess which players are best-suited for these conditions from an analytical perspective, we need to review how well they’ve played on similar setups in the past.

This is as inexact science as it gets, but I gave it a go anyway.

Over the past three years, there have been a dozen PGA TOUR-sanctioned events in which the winning score was single-digits in relation to par:

  • 2017 The CJ Cup
  • 2017 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open
  • 2018 Honda Classic
  • 2018 U.S. Open
  • 2018 Open Championship
  • 2019 Honda Classic
  • 2019 Valspar Championship
  • 2019 PGA Championship
  • 2020 Honda Classic
  • 2020 Arnold Palmer Invitational
  • 2020 Memorial Tournament
  • 2020 BMW Championship

There are 89 players in this week’s field who played at least 10 rounds in these “dirty dozen” events. I combed through each of their rounds at each of these tournaments to find scoring averages, then sorted them from lowest to highest.

It might not be the only way to determine which players have played the best in the most difficult conditions, but the following list should give us a good idea of those who get going when it’s tough — and those who don’t.

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that four of the top-five players on this list — and six of the top-nine — are considered elite-echelon players: The types who will hardly be a surprise should they show up atop the U.S. Open leaderboard this weekend.

Even so, it’s nice for the numbers to provide a little confirmation on our collective opinions.

The analytics shouldn’t suggest that Fleetwood, Thomas, Cantlay and DJ are necessarily best-positioned to win this tournament; nor should they eliminate the likes of Ancer, Mickelson, Hovland, Champ or anyone else near the bottom of this list.

What we should learn from this sample, though, is which players understand how to grind pars and eliminate the big mistakes.

Even more than several recent editions of the U.S. Open — five of the last six of which have been won with a winning score under par — the key to success at Winged Foot should be the ability to remain steady in conditions that should leave most competitors apprehensive and uneasy.

Those who have done so in the past just might have an edge this time around, too.

If nothing else, these numbers should help clear the foggy picture whenever we discuss which players are the best on tough courses. It won’t be a surprise if this picture becomes even clearer this week.

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