Advantage of Long Hitters:
The Old Course is popularly seen as a strong spot for the guys who hit it longest, and the results from 2005 and 2010 bear that out. Every five yards greater than the field a player hit their average drive in all events was worth 0.15 strokes/round in 2005 and 0.30 strokes/round in 2010 beyond their normal level of performance. In other words, long hitters had a sizable advantage in each of the last two Opens contested at the Old Course.
As to why that advantage persists, longer driving distance is correlated with larger absolute misses off the tee. On regular courses, the danger off the tee increases as the miss gets larger as bunkers, rough, trees, etc. are brought further into play. Also, the danger is typically equally distributed with rough/trees/etc left and right. If you look at the Old Course (especially holes from #9 onward) there are pot bunkers spread across normal driving zones. A drive that misses slightly could catch one of the penal bunkers, while another that misses by more ends up in fine shape. Also, take a look at the danger off the tee; on a half-dozen or more holes it’s solely to the right. Certainly a left miss leaves a worse angle, but there’s no way that’s equivalent in penalty to the rough or bunkers right. In addition, holes like #1, #7, and #18 feature little danger off the tee at all. Distance also gives the ability to hit over bunkers on a number of holes.
The Old Course is also deceptively short. Although it’s listed at 7300 yards – roughly average for a PGA Tour course – it’s almost 300 yards shorter than you would expect if each hole was as long as its average par is on a PGA Tour course because of the unique fourteen par 4 layout. This would place it as one of the very shortest on the PGA Tour alongside Pebble Beach and others.
Par 4 Advantage:
That unique layout also gives an advantage to players who struggle with par 3s or par 5s. A great example is Hunter Mahan; Mahan has been awful on par 3s in recent seasons, a symptom of his overall struggles with his iron play. However, his great driving and putting has bailed him out and allowed him to score on the par 4s at a high level. This week sees three additional par 4s and two less par 3s than normal. Ian Poulter, Ryan Palmer, and Lee Westwood are others should see an advantage, while Dustin Johnson is the one notable who has really killed it on par 3/5s.
Travel and the John Deere/Scottish Open Debate:
A lot has been made over Jordan Spieth’s decision to play at (and win) the John Deere last season. Typically that event is skipped by most top players to allow them to either compete in the Scottish Open (as about a dozen or two PGA Tour players chose) or travel over to the UK at their leisure. I wrote up a piece on the impact of playing in the Scottish versus John Deere last year and I largely stand by the conclusions. US based players all suffer to some degree coming over – probably because of a mixture of the time zone and links golf – but players who compete in the John Deere under-perform their normal performance level significantly more than players who chose to play the Scottish Open.
As to whether this affects Spieth, obviously the most important factors affecting his performance this week will be random fluctuation in talent and the weather. I expect his play to be slightly degraded this week because he played the John Deere last week, but it’s far more likely catching the bad end of the draw weather-wise or missing a few putts will cost him the Claret Jug rather than the impact of travel/time change.
A lot is made of past performance on links courses, but it’s important to remember just how few true links events are played each year. Since 2008, the Irish Open has been contested on links land three times and the Scottish Open five times. Add to that the once yearly playing of the British Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links and you get 24 events that were indisputably links golf. Perhaps a more liberal definition would include a course like Chambers Bay or Whistling Straits. Perhaps a few European Tour events played at seaside venues could be included as well, but overall you’re looking at 3-4 events per season.
Several players do stand out for their links performances though. All numbers here are relative to a normal performance level baseline of rounds played prior to the events in question. Of guys with at least 40 links rounds since 2008, Marc Warren, Shane Lowry, and Darren Clarke have fared best. Expanding to greater than 24 rounds, Rickie Fowler, Adam Scott, and Stewart Cink also emerge. No shockers there as all have contended for or won major links events. Major names who have struggled include Joost Luiten, Matt Kuchar, and Ian Poulter. Ideally we would look at more detailed markers of links success (creativity around the greens?, lag putting?, low approach shots?), but this general performance data will have to suffice for these purposes.