Strokes Gained: Putting Proving to be Primary Factor in Success
June 17, 2017 ERIN, WIS. By John Paul Newport with Mark Broadie
Jamie Lovemark, playing in his second U.S. Open, is one stroke off the lead through 36 holes. (USGA/JD Cuban)

In the popular imagination, U.S. Open courses are most feared for their skinny fairways and impenetrable rough. Keeping drives on the straight and narrow is the historical key to success.

But things are a bit different this year at Erin Hills. Yes, the rough – in particular the tall fescue second cut of rough – is more penal than any in recent memory, but the fairways themselves, combined with the first cut of rough, are relatively generous by U.S. Open standards. That makes driving, compared to many previous Opens, somewhat less of a factor.

The leaders’ stats back this up. Through two rounds, driving has made roughly half the contribution to the top players’ great scores that putting has. Driving has also contributed less than approach-shot accuracy.

For the top 12 players (those tied at 5 under par or better), driving accounts for less than a stroke (0.87 stroke, or 21 percent) of their 4.16 strokes-gained advantage over the field. The average driving rank among the leaders is only 35th.

Putting, on the other hand, contributed 1.66 strokes to their advantage, or 39 percent.  Five of the top 12 leaders ranked in the top 12 in strokes-gained putting:  Brandt Snedeker (2nd), J.B. Holmes (4th), Tommy Fleetwood (8th), Brooks Koepka (9th) and Jamie Lovemark (12th).

Approach-shot accuracy contributed 1.11 strokes, or 26 percent, and the short game, defined as shots originating off the green within 100 yards of the hole, contributed 0.61 stroke, or 14 percent.

“I love the way the greens are rolling,” said Snedeker, not surprisingly after his second-round 69. He sits at 5 under par total with three other players, two strokes off the lead. “I made a bunch of 20-footers. That’s really what made my round what it was.” Hideki Matsuyama, also at 5 under par, needed only 25 putts Friday on his way to a brilliant 65.

Not one player in the top 33 has lost strokes to the field because of putting, but several in that group have lost strokes in other areas. Six (including Snedeker) lost strokes with their driving, five lost strokes because of their approach games and seven lost strokes because of below-average short games. 

Top 12 Players: Strokes Gained Through 36 Holes (w/rank)
Player Total Drive Approach Short Game Putting
 Brooks Koepka  4.81 (T1)  2.18 (1)  0.84 (39)  -0.44 (108)  2.23 (9)  
 Tommy Fleetwood  4.81 (T1)  0.83 (28)  0.89 (36)  0.78 (34)  2.30 (8)  
 Brian Harman  4.81 (T1)  0.86 (27)  1.45 (16)  1.56 (5)  0.92 (41)  
 Paul Casey  4.81 (T1)  0.14 (72)  3.37 (1)  -0.01 (79)  1.32 (25)  
 Rickie Fowler  4.31 (T5)  0.44 (47)  1.32 (21)  1.40 (7)  1.14 (33)  
 Jamie Lovemark  4.31 (T5)  1.04 (16)  0.81 (43)  0.43 (49)  2.04 (12)  
 J.B. Holmes  4.31 (T5)  1.61 (5)  -0.60 (108)  0.71 (38)  2.58 (4)  
 Cameron Champ (a)  3.81 (T8)  1.78 (3)  0.28 (72)  0.47 (44)  1.27 (28)  
 Xander Schauffele  3.81 (T8)  0.73 (30)  0.83 (40)  1.72 (3)  0.53 (63)  
 Si Woo Kim  3.81 (T8)  0.35 (52)  1.83 (4)  0.59 (42)  1.03 (38)  
 Hideki Matsuyama  3.81 (T8)  0.87 (26)  1.33 (19)  0.35 (59)  1.25 (29)  
 Brandt Snedeker  3.81 (T8)  -0.35 (104)  1.00 (35)  -0.20 (92)  3.35 (2)  

Putting – in this case, awful putting – also explains why the world’s top two players missed the cut at Erin Hills. No. 1 Dustin Johnson ranked 144th out of 155 in strokes-gained putting, while world No. 2 Rory McIlroy ranked 149th.  World No. 3 Jason Day putted a bit better (he ranked 50th), but the rest of his game was terrible. He ranked 152nd in the short game, 145th in driving and 135th in approach shots, and missed the cut by nine.

Holmes, one of the Tour’s longest hitters, suggested that the wide fairways and Erin Hills’ 7,800-plus-yard length might actually help shorter hitters. He cited the 676-yard 18th hole as an example.

“Nobody's hitting to that (in two), so that kind of takes the advantage away from the bombers,” he said.  “You're all hitting in the same spot.”  Another factor: some of the longest holes have downslopes that even moderate hitters can reach off the tee and get big rolls, negating some of the value of super-long smashes.

Jordan Spieth suggested another reason for putting’s relative importance this year. “The defense of the course is hole locations,” he said, which prioritizes deadeye iron shots and good putting over length.

Spieth is middle of the pack in driving distance, ranking 86th for the year on the PGA Tour, but he still had 15 good looks at birdie in Round 1.  “All of them were actual makeable putts and I only made one,” he said. For one of the world’s best putters, that many misses was an aberration, and he followed his first-round 73 with a 27-putt 71 on Friday, to start the third round at even par. Good putters, he said, “can definitely go out there and make plenty of birdies, even with the tough hole locations, if you leave the ball in the right spots.”

One aspect of driving is proving crucial, however: avoiding the high-fescue second cut of rough. And the leaders excelled at that. On average, the top 12 hit only 5 percent of their drives into the fescue, compared to 10 percent, or twice as many, for the field. That is a precious advantage, since balls in the second cut have cost players ¾ of a stroke at Erin Hills, compared to just ½ of a stroke lost for balls hit into the still-difficult first cut of rough. 

Brian Harman, one of four players tied for the lead, has thus far hit zero balls into the fescue. Six of the top 12 have hit just one ball into the second cut, and the rest, except Paul Casey, have hit just two. Casey has hit three.

Thus the key factors for success at Erin Hills appear to be avoiding the high fescue, knocking approach shots reasonably close to the hole and, especially, rolling in those putts.

Thunderstorms are possible Saturday night and Sunday morning. Snedeker said that could make putting even more important. “If (the course) gets wet and plays soft, the fairways will get wide again and you're going to have to be aggressive and make a ton of birdies,” he said. “Guys will be throwing darts out there.”

Players with the hottest putters will prosper.