Golf Science – The Shots that Won the U.S. Open
In the end, it was a battle between two Texans and one Brit. The 2022 U.S. Open, that is. And all these giants of the game were 27 years old or less. How the game of golf has changed and evolved! Could we have predicted who would win even after 63 holes? What do the numbers tell us?
Matt Fitzpatrick of Sheffield, England is 5’10” tall and weighs 155 lbs. Few could have expected him to win the major, let alone do it in such grand style. Will Zalatoris, who needed one putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff, and Scottie Scheffler, who already has won four times in 2022, including at the Masters, played junior golf events at the same time in North Texas. They are both a mere quarter century old, and while Zalatoris is lean and 6’2”, Scheffler has a bigger frame and is 6’3” tall. So, obviously, stature had nothing to do with it!
During last month’s major championship, Fitzpatrick had 19 birdies, 40 pars and 13 bogeys; Zalatoris had 17, 43 and 12; and Scheffler had 14, 44 and 11. And while, of course, it is important to have more birdies while minimizing the bogeys, could that alone have mattered? The 19 birdies ranked No. 1, and 14 ranked 11, but, in the end, the two runners-up lost by a mere stroke (-6 being the winning score over 72 holes).
As not many scoring details are offered for the U.S. Open, and as fans might have enjoyed being able to predict, on prior form, who had the better chances of winning the Open, could there have been some signs leading up to the event – or even during its closing stages – that might have helped inform which of the three might actually be the most likely to win?
Here are some of the many statistics the PGA TOUR posts, and that can be found through choosing any golf pro at www.pgatour.com/players. The most popular statistic these days, the one most often quoted by TV analysts, and the one most frequently used by the pros themselves in order to improve some aspects of their game, is the strokes-gained (SG) statistic. It basically compares how one particular golfer fares, compared to the entire field playing at any event, with respect to shots off the tee, approach shots, shots from 30 yards around the green and then from tee-to-green (there is also a total SG that includes putting which has not been reported here). The higher the score, the better.
During the 2022 season, Fitzpatrick has had an SG of 0.685 off the tee, 0.498 approach, 0.386 around the green, 0.466 putting, and a total tee-to-green score of 1.569. Zalatoris has had 0.717 off the tee, 0.974 approach, 0.105 around the green, -0.227 putting, and a total tee-to-green score of 1.797, while his fellow Texan and runner-up, Scheffler, has had 0.237 off the tee, 0.716 approach, 0.338 around the green, 0.361 putting, and a total tee-to-green score of 1.291. So, one might say that, on paper, Zalatoris had better SG from tee-to-green while Fitzpatrick had a better putting SG, and, at a very superficial level, we know that it was, in the end, one missed putt on the 18th by Zalatoris that made the difference. However, one swallow does not a summer make, and one putt does not a U.S. Open win create.
Are there any other numbers that really stand out since the start of 2022 that could have helped viewers differentiate between the three golfers prior to the start of the final round? Fitzpatrick only hit 65.82% greens in regulation (GIR), despite a driving accuracy of 64.88%, perhaps because of his shorter driving distances that averaged 298 yards, which might have made his approach shots longer and more difficult to hit the green from. On the other hand, Zalatoris had 70.09% GIR, with an average driving distance of 312.3 yards despite much less driving accuracy of 53.87%, while Scheffler had similar results of GIR 71.39%, an average driving distance 311.8 yards, and driving accuracy 59.01%. Once again, these numbers indicate that driving distance is very important.
While on the topic of driving accuracy, Fitzpatrick, over the entire season so far, had 56 drives to the left rough and 66 to the right rough, of 439 possible fairways (27.8%); Zalatoris had 73 to the left rough and 133 to the right rough of 541 possible fairways (38%); and Scheffler had 100 to the left rough and 99 to the right of 662 possible fairways (30%), which indicates that Fitzpatrick was definitely capable of straighter tee shots, which may have been an advantage at the U.S. Open where the rough is notoriously thick and difficult to hit out of.
Another vital aspect of golf – for any skill level of golfer, and no less so for the pros – is the putt. After all, it is a golfer’s final opportunity to either do or die at every hole. Did anything about the putting of our three professionals during the early part of 2022 stand out? Scheffler had made an average of 4.73 birdies per round, Zalatoris an average of 4.14 and Fitzpatrick only 3.78. While he did have two more birdies over 72 holes of the U.S. Open than Zalatoris, the most useful putting information might be that he made single putts 38.8% of the time over the 900 holes he has played since the beginning of 2022, while Zalatoris made 35.9% and Scheffler 38.9%. So, over the last few holes, could one expect Fitzpatrick to make an important long putt (which he did)?
Additionally, could it be that his newly found extra distance off the tee (through, as he acknowledged, speed training using golf biomechanist Dr. Sasho Mackenzie’s Stack System), when combined with his driving accuracy, helped him hit shorter clubs more accurately into the green. Who can ever forget the pristine shot from the fairway bunker that he made on the 72nd hole?
While there are too many variables to ever predict winners from an entire field, it is perhaps as difficult to know who might win in a tightly contested event even over the last few holes. However, it is certainly a lot of fun to say “I could have told you so” for us armchair golfers after an event has already made it to the history books, by a look at some of the compiled results from the season leading up to an event.