One day into the 2023 U.S. Open, the question has to be asked whether the players are this good or Los Angeles Country Club is not up to championship standards?
That question is likely to be answered over the Open’s final three days. As a new course to national championship play, LACC has to prove itself.
But one thing is abundantly clear from the data: The field won Thursday’s opening round.
Begin at the top. Rickie Fowler shot a tournament record 62, then a few minutes later Xander Schauffele matched him.
In the entire history of the U.S. Open dating back to 1895, only 11 players prior to this year opened with rounds of six-under par or better. On Thursday alone, a half dozen did so.
Until Wyndham Clark and Dustin Johnson turned in their 64s, it appeared possible that Fowler and Schauffele would go to bed Thursday with a lead of four or five strokes on the field. That’s another thing that doesn’t happen in a normal U.S. Open. The last player to sleep on a first-round lead of more than three strokes was Tommy Armour all the way back in 1933; that’s 90 years ago.
Curiously, Armour’s five-stroke first-round lead did not hold up; he shot 75 the next day and lost the championship to Johnny Goodman.
As first round leads go, eight-under is awfully salty. In the history of the tournament, only two players opened with even a score of even seven-under. Jack Nicklaus did so in 1980 and Rickie Fowler matched him in 2017. Nicklaus went on to win, but Fowler was overtaken by Brooks Koepka.
The data suggest that the profusion of low scores wasn’t due to the players’ strength but LACC’s weakness. A total of 37 players broke par on day 1 of the championship. At Brookline last year, only 24 players opened with a sub-par score; indeed, fewer than 70 broke par for any of the four days.
The field average Thursday was 71.38, which is 1.38 strokes over par. That broke the all-time record, 72.29 strokes in 1993, and by nearly a full stroke. The margin above par is less than half the 3.50 average for all U.S. Open rounds this century. Since 2001…
Only seven full U.S. Open rounds have been played closer to par.
Three of those were at Erin Hills, the last par 72 course to host an Open, in 2017. The other four were the final round at Pebble Beach in 2019, the final round at Chambers Bay in 2015, and the two final rounds at Congressional in 2011.
The only lower first round scoring average was at Erin Hills, when the field introduced itself with an average of 1.34 strokes above par.
The best method for determining whether a passel of low scores is better attributed to individual player excellence or course weakness is to look at the standard deviation of full-field performance. Standard deviation reflects the normal spread of scores on any course on any given day. One standard deviation generally encompasses about two-thirds of all the scores.
A large standard deviation – above 4.5 strokes – indicates that what was at work was a few players giving it their best. In that scenario, those exceptional players would simply separate themselves from the normally performing majority of the field.
A small standard deviation – under 3.5 strokes – would suggest exactly the opposite: that the problem was a too-forgiving course. In that scenario, scores bunch abnormally at the low – which is to say good – end because the course isn’t exacting Open-level penalties.
The full field standard deviation for Thursday’s first round was 3.05 strokes, decidedly bunching scores at the low end.
In brief, the pros treated LACC like any winter tour event.
One thing their eight-under start doesn’t give Fowler or Schauffele is a clear path to victory. Since 2003 – that’s the past 20 U.S. Opens – only two first-round leaders or co-leaders went on to claim the trophy. McIlroy did so in 2011 and Martin Kaymer in 2014.
Mathew Fitzpatrick was tied for seventh, although only two strokes behind the leaders, after one round at the Country Club last June.
In fact, since Kaymer led wire-to-wire at Pinehurst in 2014, the average first round position of the eventual champion has been a fraction under three-strokes behind. That’s very good news for Rory McIlroy and Brian Harman, both of whom shot 65 Thursday at the U.S. Open and trail the co-leaders by three shots.