I hate to have to break this to Harrison Frazar, but he’s not going to win the U.S. Open. It’s nothing personal. He seems like a nice enough fellow. He’s just had the misfortune — if you want to call it that — of winning the event right before the Open, last weekend’s Fed Ex St. Jude’s Classic. Nobody in the past 65 years has won the tournament before the Open and then won the Open, too. Surprising, no?
That was one of the many pieces of trivia I stumbled across while trying to come up with a formula to predict this year’s champion.
I could have just thrown darts at a board, of course. Lots of prognosticators do — and with good reason. The Open, after all, is a vexing puzzle. Some of the greatest players haven’t won it (e.g. Sam Snead and, so far, Phil Mickelson), and some of the most forgettable have (e.g. Jack Fleck and Orville Moody).
The last decade, in particular, has produced a lot of out-of-nowhere types, links versions of Ruler On Ice, the mystery winner of the Belmont Stakes. Retief Goosen, Michael Campbell, Angel Cabrera — none had won on the U.S. tour before. Who, for that matter, saw Lucas Glover coming (except, maybe, for his immediate family)?
Anyway, I decided to put decades of Open champs under a microscope and see if I could determine any patterns, anything that might help me get a fix on this year’s winner.
Some things I discovered:
• The hottest golfers almost never win. No player has been hotter around Open time than Tony Lema was in 1964 (when the event was first held at Congressional, this year’s site). Lema won the two tournaments leading into the Open and the one after it — three in a span of four weeks. He didn’t win our national championship, though; Ken Venturi did. “Champagne” Tony finished 20th, 15 shots back.
But, hey, at least he played all 72 holes. Billy Andrade won the two events heading into the ‘91 Open — including our own Kemper Open — and didn’t even make the cut at Hazeltine.
What can you say? The Open is just a different animal. The course is set up much tougher than for a typical tour stop (thanks to the fun-loving folks at the USGA) and the pressure is exponentially greater.
• Eighteen of the past 25 Open winners had missed at least one cut in their last five U.S. events (or in the case of Campbell, who was playing on the other side of the pond, in his last five European events). Five were coming off a missed cut when they arrived at the Open. And Steve Jones, the 1996 champion, was coming off back-to-back missed cuts.
• More evidence that hot play isn’t required entering the Open: Only 13 of the 40 champs since 1970 (Campbell excluded) had won previously that year on the PGA Tour. Most were playing well, naturally, but they weren’t necessarily taking home trophies. So, believe it or not, players who haven’t won this year have a better chance to prevail at Congressional than players who have.
• Age can’t be overlooked. Fifty of the past 65 Open champions were between the ages of 27 and 37. Outside that range, and the chances of winning are a lot slimmer. The optimum age for an Open champ is 32 to 35. Twenty-five of the 65 winners fell into that bracket.
• Most Open winners — 28 of the 41 since 1970 (Campbell included) — had at least one previous top 10 in the event. That top 10 didn’t usually come the year before they won, though. In fact, 10 champs failed to make the cut the year before.
• Several venues have hosted both regular tour events and Opens. If a guy has played a course well in the past - under non-USGA conditions — it could mean he’ll play well in an Open there. Tiger Woods, for instance, won a regular PGA Tour event and an Open at Pebble Beach. So did Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Tom Kite. Mark O’Meara, on the other hand, won at Pebble more than anybody — five times — but was a disaster in his three Opens there, missing the cut in one and finishing out of the top 50 in the other two. So nothing is guaranteed.
This could be a factor in the days ahead because Congressional has hosted the AT&T National (2007-09) and the Booz Allen Classic (2005) as well as the 1997 Open. To a fair number of players in the field, it’s a familiar place. (That said, Greg Norman, who won two Kempers at Congressional, wasn’t helped much in ‘97 by the local knowledge he’d accrued. He shot 75-79 and missed the cut by seven strokes.)
• Quite a few players, in the years leading up to their Open victory, won a tournament the week before or the week after the Open (e.g. Tommy Bolt, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Hubert Green, Tom Watson, Larry Nelson, Raymond Floyd, Tom Kite, Scott Simpson, Steve Jones). Could biorhythms be at work here? Plenty of Open champs, I’ve found, just seem to win at this time of year (even those that didn’t capture a bunch of titles — like Lee Janzen, who won the Open in 1993, won the week before the Open in ‘94 and ‘95 and won the Open again in ‘98).
OK, enough stage setting. What I’m looking for is a player who fits the following profile:
• Is in his late 20s to late 30s.
• Has had some nice finishes this year but hasn’t won.
• Has missed at least one cut in his past five events.
• Has had at least one top 10 in the Open.
• Has played Congressional well.
• Has won a tournament in this part of the golf calendar.
The players who come closest to meeting these criteria are: Robert Allenby, Sergio Garcia, Hunter Mahan, Adam Scott and Lee Westwood. Could our next U.S. Open champion come from that group?
I’m going with Mahan. He’s 29. He’s had seven top-10s but hasn’t won. He’s missed a cut in his past five events. He tied for sixth in the 2009 Open. He’s finished T-8, T-12 and second in the AT&T (closing with a scorching 62 in his last visit two years ago). And he won the Travelers Championship the week after the ‘07 Open. The man is ready.
That’s my system, at any rate, and I’m sticking to it.