Golf Analytics

How Golfers Win

The Most Overrated Golfers at the US Open

Golfers get overrated in Majors by the media in very predictable ways; good not great players who win Majors will be permanently over-hyped in subsequent events (Graeme McDowell), elite guys will still get a ton of attention even when their careers have taken them from the top to merely very good (Phil Mickelson), and a guy who comes out of nowhere with a good tournament will still receive attention a couple years later even though they’re not good (Ricky Barnes). Below are a few players who are being given entirely too much attention this week.

Billy Horschel:

Horschel was a great collegiate golfer at Florida, but stumbled around on the PGA Tour his first few years playing well below Tour average. Last year he supposedly arrived, riding an anomalous putting fueled surge to his first PGA Tour victory and a T4 at the US Open at Merion. Horschel faded fast down the stretch though; he had one top ten in thirteen post-US Open events in 2013. Horschel’s season so far hasn’t been particularly inspiring  – he’s 87th in the world by my numbers – though I’ve seen people claim his T15/T6 the last two weeks are signs of him rounding into form. He’s the classic case of a guy putting out of his mind for a few months and then losing the “magic” completely. He had never posted a strokes gained putting season better than average before putting up an awesome +0.60 in 2013 up to the US Open. He’s been exactly average since.

Horschel doesn’t exactly fit into the Ricky Barnes role of contending in their first Major and struggling to stay on Tour two years later because he’s a bit better than Barnes ever was, but a guy of Horschel’s ability will top ten at a Major only once every four years or so. He’s going off at 80/1 – possibly the worst bet on the board.

Graeme McDowell:

G-Mac’s victory at Pebble Beach placed him permanently on the list of guys who have “it” to win US Opens, whatever that “it” is. There’s a huge portion of the golf media that basically think an accurate driver with a solid all-around game like McDowell is the perfect antidote to the deadly US Open rough. Like I showed in my post Monday, that has no statistical support. Golfers certainly play poorly out of US Open rough – worse than on a generic PGA Tour set-up – but many US Open venues also are very long, requiring more >175 yard approach shots than normal aimed at fast and firm greens. It’s an advantage to avoid the rough, but not if it also means facing 20 yard longer approach shots to impossible greens.

McDowell was heavily touted going into Merion last year for the above reason; in the Open he hit 61% of his fairways, but finished +13 and MC’d. This year’s course doesn’t set-up any better for him – it’s ~25 yards longer/hole than Merion – and he’s going off at 50/1 instead of the 20/1 last year. G-Mac has the 28th best aggregate performance since 2012, but is going off at lower odds than Schwartzel (19th), Stricker (6th), Poulter (22nd), Haas (23rd), and Bradley (20th).

Phil Mickelson:

In many ways this week is about Phil and should be about Phil. He’s the only guy other than Tiger to tee it up for his first crack at the career Grand Slam since Ray Floyd played the British in 1986. What he’s accomplished is awesome and I’m glad his first crack will come without the oxygen stealing Tiger Woods show around. All that said, Phil can’t be considered the favorite to win this week and he’s probably not going to win. He’s declined a lot due to age from his early 2000s peak as one of the three best in the game. Right now, he’s more like the 15th best by my numbers.

That’s to be expected though; my aging research has shown that guys lose a lot of ability from 35 to 44 (Phil’s decline has been typical in this regard). That decline is largely concentrated in less driving distance and diminished iron play – both things Phil has suffered in the past two seasons. Curiously, Phil has posted two extremely anomalous putting seasons to go along with that decline in his long game. That hasn’t continued into this season. His season hasn’t been bad or disappointing this year, but it hasn’t been up there with the rightful favorites – McIlroy, Scott, or Bubba.

Phil’s only silver lining is that he typically over-performs his aggregate talent level in the US Open. Since 1999, Phil’s played around 0.5 strokes better per round in the US Open than in all other PGA Tour rounds. You can credit his preparation, focus, “clutch” ability, or randomness. Whether this represents reality or not, I can’t say for sure. It’s unlikely a player would perform that much better over 15 years of rounds just due to randomness, but that doesn’t mean Phil will continue to outperform his aggregate performance going forward. Only if you credit him for his full value of over-performance does Phil come close in expected performance to the favorites.

Regardless, so much of the touting of Phil by the media this week is total wish-casting. The media loves the idea of Phil winning, mainly so they can bask in the attention of the sports mainstream which will have its attention on the NBA Finals/World Cup without Tiger competing. Phil is actually more likely to miss the cut than he is to complete the career Grand Slam this week.

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