Handicapping an Open Championship isn’t a walk in the park. For starters, links golf over in the United Kingdom is quite unpredictable, and many times half the field is eliminated before the tournament even starts.
No matter how sharp a player’s game may be heading into the Open, if they find themselves on the wrong side of the draw due to unfavorable weather conditions their chances to win are severely hampered.
Another complicating factor exists specifically for 2019. Royal Portrush is hosting for the first time since 1951 and is a new addition to the Open Championship rota.
The traditional Open Championship golf courses normally have two or three events one can draw upon over the last 20 years to help guide how the golf course plays, but there will be almost zero course history to look at this year. While the golf course did host the 2012 Irish Open, Royal Portrush has undergone a significant renovation since, which I’ll cover here next week.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t certain types of attributes that can help identify what works on a links golf course. Here’s a look at the last five Open Championships to evaluate how the tournament played, how it was won and how others at the top of the leaderboard succeeded.
Stay with me until the end for explanations on how all this information applies to handicapping and playing DFS for this year’s Open Championship.
2014 – Royal Liverpool
How Rory McIlroy Won
The 2014 Open Championship began Rory’s blistering summer where he won two majors and a WGC over three straight starts. He reclaimed his spot as the best player in the world and absolutely dominated this tournament start to finish.
Rory nuked Royal Liverpool thanks to his driver, where he led the field in driving distance and was 20th in the field in driving accuracy. He also was 4th in putting on the week, and when those three things are clicking for him he is awfully tough to beat. Though Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia also put up fantastic ball striking and putting numbers on the week, they were simply no match for Rory.
The 2014 Open Championship eliminated half the field practically from the jump. The players who drew Thursday AM/Friday PM tee times all experienced blustery and damp conditions, while anyone holding a Thursday PM/Friday AM tee times all experienced very benign conditions to get off to a fast start. Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler all drew favorable tee times, while a player like Adam Scott was completely screwed with his and had to claw his way back up the leaderboard for a good finish. The rain also helped soften up the golf course for those with good tee times to make for perfect scoring conditions.
Conditions over the weekend weren’t too bad either. Though there were thunderstorms in the afternoon on Saturday, the R&A decided to use split tee times to get the entire 3rd round in so there wouldn’t be a delay in play. Sunday also saw very calm and gettable conditions, and 46 players finished the tournament under par.
2014 Leaderboard Analysis
Benign conditions at Royal Liverpool made the tournament a contest of ball striking, and most of the players in the Top 20 who played on the PGA Tour in 2014 excelled in nearly every tee-to-green category. The most telling attribute based on season long rank on the PGA Tour was on the approach shots, where the Top 20 saw a median ranking by the end of 2014 of 25th. In addition, those who primarily played on the European Tour (where Strokes Gained statistics had not yet been calculated) hit greens in regulation at an above average rate. Lastly while there were certainly exceptions, those inside the Top 20 of the leaderboard by the end of the tournament putted well overall throughout 2014. That’s not a surprise given how many birdies were made at the 2014 Open Championship.
For the most part, the players season long ranks in these categories reflected their performance in the 2014 Open Championship alone. 7 of the 11 players inside the Top 10 of the leaderboard finished inside the Top 25 in greens in regulation hit over the tournament. In addition, nine of the 11 players inside the Top 10 of the leaderboard finished inside the Top 25 in Putts/Round on the week. In retrospect, this leaderboard was fairly easy to predict given the areas these players excelled during 2014 and how well they were able to translate that to Royal Liverpool.
2015 – St. Andrews
How Zach Johnson Won
Zach Johnson claimed his second major championship in a playoff over Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman by playing his own game. He was one of the shortest hitters off the tee, but he was 3rd in the field in driving accuracy, hit his short irons to close distances, scrambled magnificently and was 2nd in the field in putts/round. This is how Zach Johnson won the 2007 Masters, and he deployed the exact same strategy to capture the Claret Jug in 2015.
Weather conditions were pristine to begin the 144th Open Championship, as Dustin Johnson raced to an opening round 65 on a day full of low scores. However the weather turned awful on Friday, as heavy rains and wind forced a very long delay. As a result, the 2nd round wasn’t completed until late Saturday evening. The R&A made the decision that it wouldn’t force the issue to try and begin the 3rd round on Saturday, and the tournament had its first Monday finish since 1988.
The weather conditions improved over the final two rounds, with the rains from Friday softening up the golf course and the heavy winds seen Friday and early Saturday morning subsiding. While the temperatures remained cool and there were spotty showers for the remainder of the tournament, scores were good for the 2nd consecutive year as 73 of the 80 golfers who made the cut finished under par for the tournament.
2015 Leaderboard Analysis
Once again, good ball strikers dominated the Open Championship, as several well rounded players tee-to-green during the 2015 season found themselves towards the top. Twelve of the 20 players inside the Top 20 who played on the PGA Tour finished inside the Top 50 on the year in Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green, with their strengths largely coming from their iron play and scrambling. Solid ball strikers and scramblers also made up those who primarily called the European Tour home for those who finished in the Top 20.
That makes sense given what St. Andrews throws at players. The greens at St. Andrews are huge, making it a fairly difficult task for a professional golfer to miss a green in regulation. To give you an idea, Zach Johnson finished 40th on the week in Greens In Regulation %, yet hit 76% of his greens. That’s a remarkably high clip for someone finishing field average in Greens in Regulation % on the tournament.
What makes St. Andrews tricky, however, is its complex undulation and sloping on the greens. That makes it difficult to land the ball close to the hole and cause shots to run off the green into tightly mown collection areas or into pot bunkers. Those who have great distance control on their irons set themselves up better to make more putts for birdie. In addition, chipping off more firm and tighter lies is a much more difficult feat than popping a ball out of the rough, and anyone who’s attempted to blast out of a Scottish pot bunker knows it is not an easy chore. Therefore, players who excelled with their approach shots and their scrambling had a leg up on the competition that week.
What was unusual about Zach Johnson winning the Open Championship, however, was that he beat a group of contenders who overpowered St. Andrews. Seven of the 11 golfers who finished inside the Top 10 on the week finished inside the Top 20 in driving distance. With all the rain the golf course had on Friday and Saturday, it slowed down the fairways and reduced the chances drives would roll out into pot bunkers or the rough, seemingly giving longer hitters an advantage. Nevertheless, Zach Johnson’s short game proved too deadly for his fellow competitors.
2016 – Royal Troon
How Henrik Stenson Won
Dubbed the Duel at Troon, Stenson went toe to toe with Phil Mickelson over the final 36 holes to capture a long awaited major championship. Mickelson and Stenson were in a class by themselves, as 3rd place J.B. Holmes finished 14 strokes back of Stenson and 11 strokes back of Mickelson. They each were playing a completely different golf course than their fellow competitors.
Like Zach Johnson, Henrik Stenson won the Open Championship playing his own game. With his trusty 3 Wood, Stenson was 5th in the field in driving accuracy and led the field in Greens in Regulation. Where Stenson had faltered during his career was with his putter, but he was absolutely lights out at Royal Troon. Stenson finished 4th in putts/round and drained several long bombs for birdie over the course of the final round to pull ahead of Phil.
Given how well he played in relation to the field, Phil Mickelson’s performance should also be highlighted here. Phil dialed back his normally aggressive play off the tee, sacrificing distance for accuracy on the week. Like Stenson, Phil was lights out with his approach shots and his putting, finishing 3rd in Greens in Regulation and 4th in Putts/Round. Given how far ahead they each finished from the rest of the competitors, this was clearly the correct combination to attack Royal Troon.
The weather conditions at Royal Troon in 2016 actually were fairly difficult, which makes Stenson’s and Phil’s performances all the more impressive. The golf course was dry on Thursday but saw rain every day from there on, and winds were between 15-20 MPH the entire tournament with gusts close to 30 MPH.
Given these conditions, the winning score probably should have been closer to the -6 posted by J.B. Holmes. Only 17 players finished the 2016 Open Championship under par. But Stenson and Mickelson played completely out of their minds, leading to the epic showdown over the weekend.
2016 Leaderboard Analysis
Stenson and Mickelson both used the same strategy to boat race the field, and each played to their strengths based on their performances throughout 2016. Stenson very seldom uses driver, and as a result hits fairways at a very high rate. This allows him to showboat his talent as one of the most elite ball strikers on the planet with his high greens in regulation rate. Though on the stat sheet it appears like he putted well in 2016, his exceptional performance on the greens were very uncharacteristic for him.
Meanwhile, Mickelson struggled off the tee during 2016 but excelled on his approach shots. As mentioned earlier, he dialed it back off the tee to ensure he had a clean lie in the fairway so he could lean on the strengths of his irons. Back in 2016, Mickelson was still considered one of the best putters in the world, and it showed in the 2016 Open Championship stat sheet that week.
As for the rest of the leaderboard, like previous Open Championships it was primarily composed of consistent, well rounded ball strikers tee-to-green. Most of the players who appeared on the leaderboard did not have a significant weakness in any of the ball striking categories. Players who appear to not have a good 2016 statistical season was Steve Stricker and Zach Johnson, however overall these players are considered some of the more steady ball strikers in golf history.
The only true outliers in this group were J.B. Holmes and Tony Finau. Holmes’ 3rd place finish came out of nowhere, as he’s typically thought of as a bomber and doesn’t immediately come to mind as someone who would do well at a links golf course. As for Tony Finau, he was still an unknown commodity on the PGA Tour and his game wasn’t nearly as refined as it is now. Back in 2016, he was still largely known as a bomb-and-gouge specialist.
2017 – Royal Birkdale
How Jordan Spieth Won
Like the previous year, Jordan Spieth and Matt Kuchar were in a class on their own heading into Sunday. Spieth and Kuchar were six and three strokes clear of the golfers in 3rd place, respectively, to begin the final round.
Spieth got off to a very rough start, seeing his lead completely evaporate by the 4th hole with three bogeys to start his final round. Though he grew the lead back to two midway through the front nine, his mistakes continued to it make it all square through 12 holes.
Then this happened:
Spieth hit a wild block off the tee on 13 that you or I hit at least three or four times a round, forcing him to take an unplayable drop all the way over on the driving range. To put it in perspective, here’s an estimation from Google Earth where he took his drop:
It seemed like he was going to choke away another major, but Spieth went 5 under over his next four holes to rip the Claret Jug away from Kuchar, who was looking for his first major victory. Spieth showed just how much of a killer he truly was when he was at his best, and it’s a form that he’s still looking to recapture to this very day.
The 2017 Open Championship saw similar weather conditions seen in 2016. The tournament was overall cold and damp, and winds played a significant role for most of the tournament. Players were able to take advantage of calm conditions on Thursday, but the weather turned nasty on Friday with wind gusts up to 40 MPH. Scores were on average two strokes worse from Thursday to Friday. While the winds subsided a bit over the weekend, they still were blowing between 10-20 MPH the remainder of the weekend, making it difficult for most competitors.
In all, only 21 players finished under par on the week, and it was the stellar play of Kuchar and Spieth that were able to separate themselves from the pack for a two man duel.
2017 Leaderboard Analysis
Once again, the top of the leaderboard was comprised of well rounded and balanced ball strikers tee-to-green, with a little more presence of good putters on this leaderboard than in years past. Right at the top, Jordan Spieth and Matt Kuchar are thought of as the most balanced players in recent memory on the PGA Tour, ranking well in almost all ball-striking, scrambling and putting categories during 2017.
Some of the outliers on this list include Rafa Cabrera Bello, Alex Noren and Chris Wood. While each did not have good statistical seasons, they have shown consistent and solid form over the last few years and their strong performances at Royal Birkdale isn’t totally out of left field.
What is interesting, however, is that neither Spieth or Kuchar enjoyed very good ball-striking statistics at the 2017 Open Championship itself. Spieth and Kuchar ranked 59th and 41st, respectively, in fairways hit in the tournament. While Spieth was able to recover spectacularly to finish 3rd in the field in Greens in Regulation, Kuchar was only 29th. He, however, was able to make up for it with tremendous scrambling, and both showed great skill with the flat stick overall on the week.
The theme of mediocre ball striking continued for the remainder of the Top 10 that week. Six of the Top 10 golfers finished outside the Top 30 in fairways hit on the week, and only Spieth, Alex Noren, Branden Grace and Rafa Cabrera Bello finished inside the Top 12 in Greens in Regulation hit. The windy conditions may have played a factor to make accurate approach shots into the green a tall order. That made scrambling and putting to salvage par more of a premium on the week.
2018 – Carnoustie
How Francesco Molinari Won
Molinari was the hottest player in the world entering the 2018 Open Championship, riding a wave of tremendous ball striking and a suddenly hot putter. While overall his ball striking numbers for the tournament weren’t all that impressive in comparison the rest of the Top 10, he was an absolute machine during a final round that featured tough scoring conditions.
As players around him faltered, Molinari continued to pepper fairways and greens over the weekend, shooting 65-69 over his final 36 holes to capture his first major championship. Molinari made 13 consecutive pars to start his final round before birdieing 2 of his last five holes. That was more than good enough to climb to the top of the leaderboard as those around him stumbled to the finish line.
An unusually hot and dry summer completely baked out Carnoustie by the time the Open Championship rolled around. The fairways were like concrete and balls would roll forever. While the R&A allowed the golf course tee-to-green to brown out, it did a great job watering the greens to make sure there wasn’t another 2013 Muirfield situation on their hands. The winds were also a relative non-factor over the first three days, and it was widely speculated the winning score would be in the mid-double digits.
That certainly wasn’t the case, as Carnoustie is widely considered one of the toughest golf courses in the world and caused fits for several players over the first three days. Conditions only got tougher when the winds finally kicked up on Sunday to 20-30 MPH and completely wrecked the top of the leaderboard. Of the players who made the cut, their average score over the first three rounds was 70.7. On Sunday, however, their average score was 73.2. Only 27 players finished under par, and in the end it was Molinari who won a war of attrition to claim the Claret Jug.
2018 Leaderboard Analysis
A baked out Carnoustie elevated players who’s strengths resided with their irons and scrambling, as the gap between shorter hitters and longer hitters was neutralized with how far the ball would roll on the fairways. The drought conditions also took a bit of the teeth out of the rough off the fairways, giving most players a relatively clean lie to hit their approach into soft greens that were watered by the R&A. At that point, those who had great distance control with their irons had the advantage, as shown in season long Strokes Gained – Approach statistics both on the PGA Tour and the European Tour on the 2018 Leaderboard.
Like at St. Andrews, the areas around the greens at Carnoustie were closely mown where balls would run off into collection areas or into pot bunkers. That allowed better scramblers to have an easier time dealing with the rock hard terrain and difficult bunkers than those who struggle in those areas. It’s no surprise that many players towards the top of the leaderboard finished inside the Top 50 in Strokes Gained – Scrambling on either the PGA Tour or European Tour. In a tournament that rewarded consistency and the ability to make pars on a tough golf course, players who showed consistent ball striking and the ability to grind their way to a par fared well at the 147th Open Championship.
As mentioned earlier, Francesco Molinari was on an absolute heater with his putter and performing way above his overall form throughout 2018. While he finished the year on the PGA Tour 181st in Strokes Gained – Putting, he was 4th in Putts/Round at Carnoustie on the week. This helped to make up for relatively mediocre ball striking over his first two rounds, which eventually heated up over his final 36 holes to get him to the top.
On the week, seven of the Top 11 golfers finished inside the Top 30 on the week in Greens in Regulation hit, and nine of the 11 golfers in putts/round. When it mattered, these players were the best at hitting greens and avoiding costly three putt bogeys to stay near the top of the leaderboard on a very difficult golf course.
Applications to 2019
The prevailing theme of recent Open Championship success has been through solid and consistent play tee-to-green with a particular emphasis on iron play and scrambling. Overall, players who have finished towards the top of the leaderboard have demonstrated a strong command of their ball striking and the ability to navigate the tricky and undulating surfaces from off the greens that most Open Championship venues throw at the players.
Whether or not good putters can translate their season long success into a Claret Jug is a bit of a mixed bag. Overall, it seems as though in easier scoring conditions that better putters rise to the top. In tournaments featuring tougher scoring conditions, it has allowed players who excel with ball striking to put themselves into contention, and then their fate is decided if they can perform above their baseline expectations with the putter.
There’s another trend to consider that does not reside on these leaderboards or in the season long stats – recent form heading into the Open. Since 2010, seven of the nine eventual winners of the Open Championship had won an event worldwide before winning the Open. And for the most part, almost all of these winners had shown tremendous form in both results and statistics heading in. Highlights include:
- 2018 – Francesco Molinari: Two victories and two additional 2nd place finishes in his five starts leading up to the Open Championship. Molinari gained 3.4 strokes per round on the field tee-to-green and 0.65 strokes per round putting in two starts prior to the Open Championship.
- 2017 – Jordan Spieth: Won the 2017 Travelers, his only start before the 2017 Open Championship. Spieth also had a T2 finish at Colonial in May and his ball-striking numbers were on the rise heading into the Open Championship.
- 2016 – Henrik Stenson: Won the BMW International Open and finished T13 at the Scottish Open in his two starts prior to the Open Championship. Had five additional Top 10 finishes in 2016 prior to the Open Championship.
- 2015 – Zach Johnson: Three Top 6 finishes in his four starts prior to the 2015 Open Championship.
- 2014 – Rory McIlroy: Won the BMW PGA Championship in May of that year. In his last start before the Open, a 2nd round 78 ruined three other rounds of 64-68-67 at the Scottish Open, indicating Rory was beginning to peak on the eve of the Open.
- 2013 – Phil Mickelson: Won the Scottish Open a week before winning the Open Championship at Muirfield.
- 2012 – Ernie Els: Three Top 6 finishes in his last five starts before the Open.
Even recent longshot winners like Darren Clarke and Louis Oosthuizen, who were 150/1 and 200/1 respectively to win the Claret Jug, had a win on their resume before they won the Open Championship. While it may seem like a cop out to look at recent leaderboards and cherry pick the horses, that strategy has generally worked out over the last seven Open Championships.
Therefore, try and identify golfers you like for futures bets or in DFS by keeping in the mind the following attributes:
1. Golfers coming into the Open Championship hot both statistically and with a recent trend of good finishes.
2. Well rounded and balanced ball-strikers tee-to-green, with a greater emphasis on iron play and scrambling statistics.
3. If the Open Championship is expected to be low scoring, break ties for golfers who have demonstrated good putting performances season long or players riding a recent hot flat stick. If tough scoring conditions are expected, break ties based on ball-striking.
4. Consult the weather report and elevate/discount players with favorable/unfavorable tee times due to weather conditions.
These four principles should help provide a road map for bettors early next week as they decide which players they want to back at the 2019 Open Championship.