The U.S. Open contenders: A statistical comparison of their games

A by-the-numbers look at 10 popular picks to win the U.S. Open this year at Pebble Beach.

Rory McIlroy’s runaway victory at this weekend’s RBC Canadian Open reminds the field that Brooks Koepka, Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson aren’t the only potential legends who’ll be stalking the U.S. Open title at Pebble Beach next week.

In a sense, McIlroy’s seven-stroke margin of victory was no surprise. If any player on tour is capable of doing intimidation, it’s McIlroy. Since his first victory in 2010, he has won 15 medal play titles, one-third of them by four strokes or more.  Those include the 2011 U.S. Open (by eight), and the 2012 PGA (also by eight).

So he may be beaten next week at Pebble Beach, but he won’t be scared off.

The raw data also makes McIlroy a front-rank favorite at Pebble. The table below presents 2019 season-long Strokes Gained data for 10 players generally considered worth watching. Obviously these are not the only 10 capable of winning.

As victories this tour season by such unknowns as Adam Long, Keith Mitchell, Corey Conners, C.T. Pan, Max Homa and Sung Kang have already amply demonstrated, about two-thirds of the players who tee it up this week can legitimately believe in their prospects.

But the 10 listed have generally performed most consistently on tour this year, and it would surprise nobody if one of them won.

The data ranks the 10 in order of their 2019 Strokes Gained Averages to date. You will note that Koepka is not especially high on the list, which may be a reason not to lean too heavily on data. McIlroy, on the other hand, is right at the top.

  • Player                               SG Tee  SG Approach  SG Around    SG Putting    SG Total
  • Rory McIlroy                    1.220        0.916               0 .246             0.356           2.738
  • Dustin Johnson               0.906        0.693               0.179              0.650           2.428
  • Patrick Cantlay               0.623        0.823               0.412              0.426           2.284
  • Hideki Matsuyama        0.453        0.900               0.435            -0.127           1.661
  • Tiger Woods                    0.204        0.807               0.450              0.157           1.618
  • Matt Kuchar                    0.279        0.826               0.090              0.362           1.557
  • Webb Simpson               0.098        0.627               0.420              0.328           1.473
  • Rickie Fowler                  0.269        0.346               0.166              0.609           1.390
  • Brooks Koepka               0.510        0.814             -0.022              0.056           1.358
  • Jason Day                         0.688      -0.143              0.076              0.684           1.305

For the season, McIlroy’s major edge lies in his teeing game, where he has a clear advantage on the putative contenders and a  full stroke advantage on several of them, Woods included. Of course that advantage may be minimized if Pebble’s small greens and windy conditions make it a second shot course.

Fortunately for McIlroy, he comes well-armed for that eventuality as well. Among these 10 he also has the strongest iron game, although at that skill his advantage over Johnson, Woods and Koepka is minimal.

The iron game may well be the decisive factor at Pebble, and at that skill several of the game’s elite come prepared. Kuchar, Koepka, Woods, Matsuyama, Cantlay and McIlroy all average better than three-quarters of a Stroke Gained via their approach shots.

If approaches really do carry the week at Pebble, the data suggests it might be a long week for Rickie Fowler and Jason Day. Neither has been particularly effective with their irons so far this season – Day in fact is running a stroke deficit.

If either of those two is to thrive, it is likely to be due to their proficiency on Pebble’s small, severely tilted greens. Dustin Johnson, too, can usually count on his putter, and Johnson – unlike Fowler or Day – can generally combine it with his strong iron game.

Looking for somebody who’s steady? That’s Patrick Cantlay. His profile shows no weaknesses, with at least a four-tenths of a stroke benefit in every skill area and the third best overall total.