The British Open: Where The Exceptional Has Become The Routine

Shane Lowry, 148th Open Championship, Royal Portrush,Syndication: Unknownghows-LK-200227960-a353d92f.jpg
Shane Lowry, 148th Open Championship, Royal Portrush,Syndication: Unknownghows-LK-200227960-a353d92f.jpg /

When the 2023 British Open tees off this week at Royal Liverpool, exceptional performance is expected. This is, after all, the Open.

But if recent history is any indicator, we may not be prepared for the level of exceptional performance. Based on recent trends, there is every reason to believe that the champion will seize the Claret Jug in the afterglow of one of the legendary showings in the long and storied history of the event.

They’ve played this tournament 150 times since its inception at Prestwick in 1860. Yet in a statistic that defies explanation, six of the eight most exceptional individual performances in the event’s history have been delivered just since 2000, and four of them just since 2010.

In fact three times since 2010 the Open champion has produced a series of rounds ranking among the 10 most exceptional in all of Major Championship history. That designation spans 460 Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championships across more than a century and a half.

That means every three or four years now an Open champion rises up and does something so exceptional that it ranks among the elite tournament performances ever.

The Open’s recent tendency toward producing an exceptional result begins, as most things tend to do these days, with Tiger Woods. At the 2000 championship played at St. Andrews, Woods arrived off a dominant  U.S. Open victory at Pebble Beach and proceeded to win by eight strokes, shooting 19-under 269.

The best measurement of exceptionality across generations is the standard deviation of the champion’s performance relative to the four round scores of his fellow competitors. That’s because standard deviation normalizes for such variable factors as the course, the weather, changes in equipment, and training.

At St. Andrews in 2000, Woods posted a score that was 3.33 standard deviations superior to his peers, the second-greatest margin of dominance in British Open history to that point.

Only Tom Watson, during his famous 1977 duel with Jack Nicklaus, had achieved greater dominance over the field, and barely so, at -3.38.

But Woods was merely the precursor of what was to come. At Birkdale in 2008, Padraig Harrington delivered his own exceptional effort. Harrington finished at three over par, but that was four strokes ahead of the runner-up and 3.30 standard deviations superior to the field average.

At the time it was the 3rd most exceptional showing in British Open history….

Only behind Watson and Woods; today it still ranks sixth.

Two years later at St. Andrews, Louis Oosthuizen, at the time an unknown South African, stunned the golf world by traversing the storied links in  272, 16-under par. That was good for a seven-stroke win at 3.50 standard deviations better than the field. That made Oosthuizen’s the most exceptional championship effort in the history of the British Open to that point.

It didn’t stay that way. Just six years later at Troon, Henrik Stenson emerged from a testing final 36-hole crucible of a duel with Phil Mickelson at 20-under 264. That was three strokes superior to his chief challenger and matched Oosthuizen’s 3.50 standard deviations better than the field.

Fast-forward one more year back to Birkdale in 2017 and it was Jordan Spieth making history. His three-stroke victory over Matt Kuchar, at 12-under, measured 3.25 standard deviations superior to his peers. At the time it was the seventh most exceptional showing in tournament history, yet only the fourth most exceptional since Woods in 2000. Today it ranks eighth.

It fell one step because in 2019 at Royal Portrush, Shane Lowry set a new standard. On his way to a six-stroke victory at 15-under, Lowry’s score bettered the four-round field by 3.72 standard deviations, making it the most exceptional performance in British Open history.

For the record, that’s a history that includes victories by almost all the game’s greats: Woods, Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Watson, Vardon, Hogan, Snead, and both Morrises, just to name a few. None of the achieved the level of dominance over their peers that Lowry achieved in 2019.

In fact, Lowry’s showing has only been bettered once in the whole history of Major Championship golf, that by Woods at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He set the standard with a win that was an unthinkable 4.34 standard deviations superior to his peers.

For those who are wondering, here’s a list of the 15 most exceptional showings in all of major championship history as measured by the standard deviation of the champion’s score.

 (Player, event, Std. Deviation)

"1.       Tiger Woods, 2000 U.S. Open, -4.342.       Shane Lowry, 2019 British Open, -3.723.       Davis Love Jr., 1997 PGA, -3.544.       Henrik Stenson, 2016 British Open, -3.504.       Louis Oosthuizen, 2010 British Open, -3.506.       Jack Nicklaus, 1965 Masters, -3.487.       Tom Watson, 1977 British Open, -3.388.       Rory McIlroy, 2011 U.S. Open, -3.359.       Jack Nicklaus, 1980 PGA, -3.3410.   Tiger Woods, 2000 British Open, -3.3310.   Ray Floyd, 1976 Masters, -3.3312.   Padraig Harrington, 2008 British Open, -3.3013.   Rory McIlroy, 2012 PGA, -3.2814.   Tom Watson, 1980 British Open, -3.2615.   Jordan Spieth, 2017 British Open, -3.25"

Next. 2023 Open Championship Power Rankings. dark

The list amply demonstrates that it is at the modern British Open where truly exceptional Major championship performances seem to recur with uncanny regularity.

Of the 15 most exceptional performances in all of Major Championship history – that’s 463 winners since Willie Park in 1860 – eight came at the British Open, six of those eight – and three of the top five — just since 2000.