Strokes Gained Report: Putting Prowess Is the Difference-Maker
June 18, 2017 Erin, Wis. By John Paul Newport
Justin Thomas' strong play at Erin Hills can be attributed to several facets of his game, including solid putting. (USGA/John Mummert)

Through three rounds of the 117th U.S. Open, putting was the most important factor at the top of the leader board at Erin Hills. For the 13 players at 7 under par or better, putting contributed 40 percent of their strokes-gained advantage on the field, followed by approach shots at 28 percent and driving and the short game tied at 16 percent.

Surprisingly, perhaps, putting was also the biggest contributing factor to Justin Thomas’ record-breaking 63 on Saturday. The reason that might seem surprising is that Thomas’ final-hole eagle on Saturday could easily leave the impression that his score was all about overpowering the course. On the par-5 18th, he pounded 3-wood 331 yards off the tee and then, using the same club, lofted an already legendary 302-yard cut-shot approach to 8 feet. The ensuing dead-center putt seemed like an afterthought.

But for the day, driving and approach shots contributed only 23 percent and 22 percent, respectively, to Thomas’ 9.01 strokes gained advantage on the field. His short game chipped in another 25 percent and his putting 30 percent. Compared to most of the other leaders, those percentage contributions were more evenly allocated, but the round clearly wasn’t all about power.

Strokes gained per round (ranks in parentheses)

Player

Total

Drive

Appr

Short

Putt

Brian Harman

4.88 (1)

0.50 (22)

1.58 (5)

1.35 (3)

1.46 (19) 

 Brooks Koepka

4.54 (T2)

1.96 (2)

1.26 (9)

-0.41 (51)

1.74 (12) 

 Justin Thomas

4.54 (T2)

0.91 (10)

1.16 (14)

1.28 (4)

1.20 (25) 

 Tommy Fleetwood

4.54 (T2)

0.71 (16)

1.18 (11)

0.94 (9)

1.71 (13) 

 Rickie Fowler

4.21 (5)

-0.02 (43)

1.16 (13)

1.23 (6)

1.84 (10) 

 Si Woo Kim

3.88 (6)

0.30 (33)

1.69 (3)

0.85 (10)

1.04 (31) 

 Patrick Reed

3.54 (T7)

0.43 (26)

0.59 (29)

1.46 (2)

1.07 (30) 

 Russell Henley

3.54 (T7)

0.58 (19)

1.10 (15)

0.19 (34)

1.67 (14) 

 Charley Hoffman

3.54 (T7)

0.47 (23)

1.17 (12)

0.11 (38)

1.80 (11) 

 Xander Schauffele

3.21 (T10)

1.22 (5)

-0.08 (45)

1.26 (5)

0.81 (33) 

 Brendan Steele

3.21 (T10)

0.11 (40)

1.05 (20)

-0.45 (54)

2.49 (2) 

 Brandt Snedeker

3.21 (T10)

-0.44 (57)

1.35 (7)

-0.42 (52)

2.71 (1) 

 Bill Haas

3.21 (T10)

1.05 (8)

0.85 (23)

0.75 (14)

0.55 (36) 

Of note is that Thomas’ approach-shot performance was the least important of the four categories, even though the most talked about shot of the championship was his prodigious 3-wood into the green at 18. That single shot gained him 1.3 strokes on the field. Thomas also gained 1.3 strokes on a shot three holes earlier, his 288-yard tee shot on the par-4 15th that stopped 6 feet from the hole. He missed the eagle putt and settled for birdie.

For the championship thus far, the shot that gained the most strokes was Henrik Stenson’s first-round, 152-yard holeout from the fairway on the 11th hole. That single shot gained Stenson 1.9 strokes on the field, though he missed the cut.

It’s easy for powerful, crowd-wowing drives and approaches like these to mask the significance of more subtly excellent shots. For example, the 8-foot putt that Thomas dropped for eagle on Saturday seemed inevitable and almost trivial compared to his approach shot. But 8 feet is the distance at which PGA Tour pros make only half their putts. Thomas’ putt at 18 gained him 0.5 strokes, or 38 percent as much as the approach shot did – and more than the 0.3 strokes than his 331-yard tee shot.

Debate raged after Thomas’ 63 as to how it compared to the four other 63s shot in U.S. Opens, in particular to Johnny Miller’s 63 in the final round at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club in 1973. Miller that day came from six strokes off the lead to win.

In favor of Thomas, his 63 Saturday set a new U.S. Open record for strokes under par, at nine. Miller’s 63 was eight strokes under par.

But a strokes-gained comparison favors Miller’s round as the greater accomplishment. His 63 was 10.8 strokes better than the field average at Oakmont that day, whereas Thomas’ 63 gained “only” 9.0 strokes on the field.

Thomas’ performance, as impressive as it was, ranks only seventh in strokes gained on the field at U.S. Opens since 1983. Paul Casey’s 66 in the second round at Oakmont in 2007 was 10.9 strokes better than the field average that day of 76.9.

Even just considering strokes gained in U.S. Opens after the cut, when the fields are stronger, Thomas’ 63 ranks only fourth, behind Miller in 1973, Larry Nelson’s 65 at Oakmont in 1983 (10.0 strokes gained) and Gil Morgan’s 65 at Medinah Country Club in 1990 (9.8 strokes gained).

Another consideration favoring Miller’s 63 over Thomas’: In the final round at Oakmont in 1973, only seven players finished under par. At Erin Hills on Saturday, 32 players did so. Mild winds and rain-soaked turf have put the players in this year’s Open on pace to shatter the record for most under-par rounds, which currently stands at 124 (1990 at Medinah). Through three rounds at Erin Hills, we’ve seen 122 sub-par rounds.