Winged Foot: The toughest US Open course

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Statistically it merits that description

When the US Open field tees it up for real at Winged Foot this coming Thursday, they may well be playing the toughest layout in Open history.

That’s a hard statement to make and an even more challenging one to defend. But there is statistical support for the claim that Winged Foot is the toughest course to which the USGA periodically brings its premier championship.

In the 125-year history of the U.S. Open, nine courses have hosted the event at least four times, a sort of minimum data base for making such judgments. For reasons that will be dealt with separately, one of those nine merits a separate assessment.

Alphabetically, these are the other eight members of what might loosely be thought of as a US Open “rota”: Baltusrol, Merion, Oakland Hills, Oakmont, Olympic, Pebble Beach, Shinnecock Hills and Winged Foot.

As a group, those eight have hosted 45 Opens. That’s nearly 40 percent of all Opens that have been played. Winged Foot has hosted the event five previous times: in 1929, 1959, 1974, 1984 and 2006.

The record, since you’re wondering, is Oakmont’s nine host roles, beginning in 1927 and continuing through Dustin Johnson’s 2016 victory.

To determine which of the commonly used US Open courses is toughest, we could employ several methods. One would be to ask each club’s members…but that might be a touch too subjective. So let’s look at some more objective data.

In the discussion that follows, I have set up five objective measurements of toughness. The five do not unanimously point to any particular course, but if we consider them in their aggregate we should be able to come to some supportable judgments.

The five criteria are:

  • What percentage of competitors finished under par?
  • What was the standard deviation of the winner’s four-round score? In other words, how exceptional was he?
  • What was the average score for those completing four rounds?
  • What was the field standard deviation?
  • How many players finished within four strokes of par?

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