The Virtual U.S. Open: The longshots who could surprise

OLYMPIA FIELDS, IL - JUNE 15: Jim Furyk kisses the trophy after a three-stroke victory at the 2003 US Open on the North Course at the Olympia Fields Country Club on June 15, 2003, Olympia Fields, Illinois. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
OLYMPIA FIELDS, IL - JUNE 15: Jim Furyk kisses the trophy after a three-stroke victory at the 2003 US Open on the North Course at the Olympia Fields Country Club on June 15, 2003, Olympia Fields, Illinois. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images) /

Their career records aren’t as strong at the U.S. Open but don’t rule out these 19.

Of the 79 players in this week’s virtual U.S. Open, about two dozen have plausible chances to win. The remainder of the field, while having won at least one national championship, probably doesn’t have the pedigree to compete consistently with those two dozen.

Still, some of those longshots can’t be ruled out entirely. Strange things occur in golf tournaments – both real and virtual – and it’s worth at least briefly considering their championship prospects.

The 19 players sketched below all compiled a career rating in their peak period Open appearances that, if not placing them among the top tier, is at least superior to the field average of -0.34 standard deviations.

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What follows is a one-paragraph introduction for each of those 19 players. It includes their U.S. Open Championship season(s), their 10-season peak in parenthesis, and the average of the standard deviation of their U.S. Open performance during that peak.

James Foulis, 1896 (1895-1904), -0.77. Alongside Horace Rawlins – more on him presently — Foulis may be said to have presided over the Open’s birth. He started in every U.S. Open through 1906, the longest such streak of any of the players in the original 1895 field. Foulis won in 1896, beating Rawlins by three strokes in a competition then conducted over 36 holes. He was third in the inaugural 1895 event, he was third again in 1897.

Hale Irwin, 1974, 1979, 1990 (1971-1980), -0.75. Since Irwin is one of only a half dozen three-time champions, his standing among this field may seem surprisingly low. Two of his titles came during his peak decade, but he also finished outside the top 25 three times. His 1990 playoff victory over Mike Donald at Medinah was statistically one of the least impressive in Open history, Irwin’s score measuring just 1.91 standard deviations better than the field average. A normal winning score would hit about -2.30.

Scott Simpson, 1987 (1982-1991), -0.74. Simpson had a decidedly mixed U.S. Open record. His 1987 one-stroke victory over Tom Watson at Olympic measured an impressive -2.56 standard deviations better than the field average. Only one season earlier, however, he had failed to make the cut. Then in 1991 Simpson led by two with three holes to play, but fell into a playoff with Payne Stewart, which he lost by two strokes.

Alec Ross, 1907 (1902-1911), -0.71. A native Scot like most of the early U.S. Open champions, Ross came to the U.S. to work as a golf pro and soon found his competitive place. His 1907 victory in Philadelphia came over an undistinguished field. One interesting fact about Ross; he was the brother of famed golf architect Donald Ross.

Billy Burke, 1931 (1928-1937), -0.71. Burke survived the longest U.S. Open in history, one that required a full 144 holes to decide. Through regulation play, he tied with George Von Elm at 292, under the rules of the day necessitating a 36-hole playoff. As luck would have it, the two men both shot 149 in that playoff, necessitating – you guessed it – a second 36-hole playoff.  This time Burke was one stroke steadier, shooting 148 to another Von Elm 149.

Byron Nelson, 1939 (1935-1947), -0.67. Nelson ranks so low largely due to World War II, which eliminated four Open opportunities during his playing prime. His 1939 victory at Philadelphia came in a three-way playoff with Craig Wood and Denny Shute, Nelson’s 138 in the 36-hole playoff beating Wood by three strokes. He would have won again in 1946 but was assessed a one-stroke penalty in the third round when his caddie inadvertently moved his ball. That dropped him into a playoff with Lloyd Mangrum and Vic Ghezzi, which Mangrum won.

Olin Dutra, 1934 (1930-1939), -0.60. Dutra inherited the 1934 championship at Merion when third-round leader Gene Sarazen triple-bogeyed the 11th and collapsed to 76. Earlier on the same hole, another contender, Bobby Cruickshank had plopped a ball into the brook fronting the green only to see it hit a pebble and bounce onto the green. Cruickshank famously tossed his club into the air in celebration of his good fortune, only to have the club come crashing down on his own head, knocking him off his feet. He wobbled home to a 76 and finished two back.

Lee Trevino, 1968, 1971 (1970-1979), -0.46. Trevino’s 1971 playoff victory at Merion is the more memorable of his two wins if only because he beat Jack Nicklaus. It was one of four consecutive top 10s for him at the U.S. Open between 1970 and 1973.

David Graham, 1981 (1979-1988), -0.57. Graham, like Dutra and Trevino, won at Merion, his victory coming by three strokes over George Burns and Bill Rogers in 1981. The 1981 event produced one of the weaker leader boards in tournament history, Jack Nicklaus the only prominent name among the top 10 … and he tied for sixth, seven strokes off Graham’s pace.

Craig Wood, 1941 (1932-1941), -0.53. Wood played steadily at Colonial in 1941, winning by three strokes. He had an uneven track record in the championship including a disqualification in 1934. In 1941, though, Wood rose to the game’s pinnacle, preceding his Open victory with a win at the Masters.

Jim Furyk, 2003 (2003-2012), -0.53. Furyk’s 2003 victory at Olympia Fields capped a lengthy and successful career. In terms of the U.S. Open, however, it only got him started. He tied for second at Winged Foot in 2006, did so again at Oakmont in 2007, then did so a third time and a second time at Oakmont in 2016.

Horace Rawlins 1895 (1895-1904), -0.49. Rawlins was a 21-year-old transplanted Englishman who happened to be the host pro at Newport Country Club when he won the inaugural Open on his own course. It was a 36-hole event. He played in each succeeding championship through 1905, finishing second to Foulis one year later. He returned to England in 1913 and gave up competitive golf.

Johnny Goodman 1933 (1929-1938), -0.49. The last amateur to win the championship, Goodman did so just a few years after his idol, Bobby Jones, had retired. Beginning the final round six ahead of the field, Goodman let his game wander and had to hang on to beat Ralph Guldahl by a single stroke.

Curtis Strange, 1988, 1989 (1981-1990), -0.49. Between 1987 and 1989, Strange was the consummate Open player, winning twice and finishing in a tie for fourth. He beat Nick Faldo in a playoff at the country club in 1988, then in 1989 held off Chip Beck by parring the first 15 holes he played in Sunday’s final round.

Johnny Miller, 1973 (1970-1979), -0.46. Miller famously came from six strokes off the pace with a Sunday 63 to win at Oakmont. He had been seventh one year earlier and fifth one year before that.

Tommy Bolt, 1958 (1952-1961), -0.42. For a player with a reputation as a hothead, Bolt won at Southern Hills in 1958 by playing very steadily. His four rounds never varied between 69 and 72; he was the only player in the field who never strayed above 72. Bolt tied for third (although five strokes out of the Fleck-Hogan playoff) at Olympic in 1955

Ernie Els, 1994, 1997 (1996-2005), -0.40. Els had the good fortune to arrive at his moments of greatness just prior to the arrival of Tiger Woods on the scene. Els beat Colin Montgomerie in a playoff at Oakmont in 1994, then beat Montgomerie again, this time by one stroke in regulation, at Congressional in 1997.

Gene Littler, 1961 (1954-1963), -0.38. Littler’s 1961 victory at Oakland Hills was a triumph of consistency. His finishing 68, the afternoon’s low round, erased Doug Sanders’ three-stroke lead. He had finished second as a rookie pro in 1954.

Payne Stewart, 1991, 1999 (1990-1999), -0.38. In the decade before his death, Stewart won two Opens and could easily have won two more. At Baltusrol in 1993, a third-round 76 killed his chance of catching Lee Janzen, and he finished one back. At Olympic in 1998, he led by four strokes entering the final round, but managed only a 74 and lost a second time to Janzen by one stroke.

dark. Next. Virtual U.S. Open: Palmer, Boros and other challengers

That will do it for the full preview of the virtual U.S. Open. Round one gets underway tomorrow, so make sure to check in to see who jumps out to the early lead.