Yes, You Can Win the U.S. Open

By George Peper

Illustration by Michael Witte

 

I have this recurring dream. It’s the eve of the final round of the U.S. Open, and I’m in the lead. For three days, I’ve played unconscionably flawless golf (this is a dream, after all) and now, with 18 holes to go, the National Championship is within my reach.

Then, unlike Kafka’s Gregor Samsa—who awoke one morning to discover he’d transformed into a giant cockroach—I awaken that Sunday to find I’ve reverted to my true golf self. My superpowers have vanished and I’m a hapless 10-handicap with an over-the-top lurch and a spasmodic putting stroke.

My tee time is at 3, the greens are at 14, the wind is at 20 gusting to 40, and my pulse is at 130 as several dozen of the world’s best players prepare to blow past me before a global viewing audience of a trillion or so. 

That’s typically when I snap out of the dream, usually in a cold sweat. The last time it happened, however, I got to pondering: Just how big a final-round lead might a mere mortal need in order to play his usual game and still win the U.S. Open?   

Among the tour pros, we know the safe cushion to be 11 strokes. No player has come from more than 10 behind to win, and that only once, at the site of this year’s Open Championship, Carnoustie: In 1999, Paul Lawrie streaked from 10 back to catch Jean Van de Velde (with the help of a closing triple-bogey by Calamity Jean) and then beat him in a four-hole playoff.

But what sort of lead would the average guy need to win this year at Shinnecock Hills—20 strokes? 30 strokes? More? And is there even a way to answer that question?

“Of course there is,” says my friend, Columbia professor Lou Riccio. You may recall his name from LINKS’s Winter 2018 issue, where we presented the first-ever table showing the statistical chances of shooting one’s age. Lou did such a splendid job on that assignment that I decided to tap him one more time. After all, in addition to being a brilliant mathematical mind, he was a member of the USGA committee that developed the Slope System. If anyone knows about golf scoring, he does.

According to Lou, “It’s a matter of posing the question: ‘What is the probability of shooting a typical score such that that score, minus your lead, yields a net score of 70 or better?’” (For the purpose of this exercise we’re assuming no one in the Shinnecock field on Sunday will better par of 70. Such was the case the last time the U.S. Open was there in 2004.)

Riccio went to work on his calculator, factoring in the average score and standard deviation (spread of scores) for various handicaps. Then he applied the course rating and slope for a U.S. Open course (roughly 79 and 150, respectively). He cooked all this into a formula far too complex for me to understand, then applied “head starts,” 54-hole leads of various sizes, to compute the probability of shooting a score low enough (with a given head start) to hold on for victory. (For a full explanation of his formula, feel free to contact Lou at ljr14@columbia.edu.)

The spreadsheet above shows his results. A scratch player would need a lead of 20 strokes, a 10-handicap 35 strokes, a 20-handicap 50 strokes. Note: Although the matrix says “100%,” Lou cautions, “It’s actually 99.99999—no lead is a statistical lock.”

I would heartily agree, for at least two reasons. First, let’s say one of your pursuers pulls a Johnny Miller and goes stupid-low on Sunday; in that case you’ll need another half dozen strokes, maybe more.

Then there’s the biggest missing element—the choke factor. While these numbers acknowledge the severe difficulty of an Open course, they don’t account for the effect such conditions, including the suffocating pressure of winning your first major championship, will have on you. After all, it’s one thing to play the piano, it’s another to play Liszt’s La Campanella in front of a packed house at Carnegie Hall.

Consider: 1) This is the U.S. Open, and to stand on that tee in the final pairing on Sunday is to experience the greatest natural laxative in golf; 2) TV cameramen will be standing directly behind you to capture your every shot; 3) The rough-edged New York gallery will be having a field day heckling you; 4) Your playing partner may be a fan favorite, a slowpoke, or just a jerk, and no matter who he is, he’ll be trying to beat your brains out; 5) As your round begins to unravel in a dizzying swirl of ineptitude and humiliation, your swing will quicken, your mind will melt, and your three-putts will beget four-putts.

Unless you have the Zen-like composure of Inbee Park, figure on needing at least a dozen additional strokes as choke insurance. I suspect the lead I’d need on that first tee is a nice round 50 strokes, allowing me to post a sporty score of 120. And frankly, I’m not sure even that would do it…except in my wildest dreams.

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