Perceptions can be funny things. Throw a bit of time and distance in the mix, and memory can start playing tricks, too. This is true of many things, golf tournaments being no exception.
Major championships should, in theory, stick in the brain better than most other weeks on the golf calendar, but as the years go by, the details can become a bit fuzzy for even the most ardent fan.
With the U.S. Open taking place at Winged Foot this week, I decided to test a hypothesis that I’ve been mentally toying with for a while. My starting point was that there usually seems to be one major each year that throws up a surprising winner. By “surprising,” I don’t necessarily mean a complete outsider but certainly someone who would not be amongst the favorites. Shane Lowry at last year’s Open Championship would be a prime example. But perceptions can be deceiving.
Just how much of a long shot, really, were some of the players that we now look back on as being shock winners of golf’s most prestigious tournaments?
Rankings, Retrospect and Recency Bias
In an attempt to find at least a partial answer to this question, I went back through the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) archives to find out the world ranking in the week of the tournament of every men’s major winner since 2000. For the purposes of this article, let’s leave aside any misgivings we may have about the minutiae of the OWGR, and agree that it’s probably the best, if an imperfect, way of measuring the relative strength of golfers at a given point in time. I figured, a little arbitrarily I know, that if a player was ranked outside the top 20, then that is a pretty good indication that they would not have been one of the first names given by most pundits when predicting the winner. For those that dabble in such things, they’re also the players that would likely have slightly more attractive odds in the betting markets.
So, was my theory accurate? The most truthful answer is probably yes, but by luck more than judgment. In the 20 years since 2000 in which four majors have been played, there have only been two years in which every major winner was ranked inside the top 20: 2000 and 2006. As with so many golf statistics, Tiger Woods distorted the picture somewhat by winning five of the eight majors in these two years. Intriguingly, the most “unlikely” winner of a major in those years came the last time the U.S. Open was played at Winged Foot – Geoff Ogilvy was ranked 17th in the world when he triumphed in 2006.
Overall, then, my theory held true. On average, 1.35 majors per year were won by a player outside the top 20. But it’s also worth looking at which players were ranked in the top 20 at the time of their victory, who I wouldn’t necessarily have placed that high through guesswork. For example, Danny Willett was the beneficiary of a Jordan Spieth meltdown at Augusta in 2016, but he was ranked 12th in the world in the week of his Masters win. Hardly a no-hoper who simply got lucky. (Interestingly, Bubba Watson was 12th in the OWGR when he triumphed in 2014, as was Tiger in 2019).
But the strong effect of recency bias can easily cause us to forget how good Willett was at that point in time, given that he has not looked like winning a major since, whether through injury or loss of form.
Similarly, Mike Weir was 10th in the world rankings in the week of his 2003 Masters victory, but – particularly for a younger generation of fan – his win can appear unlikely in retrospect.
Almost paradoxically, sometimes recency bias can trick us (unless it’s just me) in the other direction, too. For instance, in recent years Webb Simpson has started to gain the appreciation that his talent deserves, but for a long time he was not viewed in so positive a light in many quarters. So, was he an outsider when he won the 2012 U.S. Open? Not really. He was ranked 14th at the time.
Was Sergio Garcia a fading star grasping at one last chance for major glory when he won the 2017 Masters? That may well be how the history books one day spin the narrative, but he was the world No. 11 going into that week, still a strong contender in anyone’s books.
The Majors Are What We Thought They Were
We could go on, but apart from being a fun game to play, are there any meaningful conclusions to take away from this analysis? In general, I would say it confirms much of what golf fans may have instinctively suspected.
The major with the lowest (mean) average ranked winners in the past 20 years is the Open Championship. The unpredictable nature of links golf, including the “best” weather that the British weather has to offer, have thrown up some unlikely champions, not least the 396th-ranked Ben Curtis in 2003. However, Curtis is very much an outlier, and the median average ranking for the winner is 12, the same as the U.S. Open.
The Masters has the highest (mean) average ranking for its winners of the majors, at 16, which makes sense given that the field consists of only the very best players in the world, plus former champions who often have almost no chance of winning.
However, the PGA Championship is arguably the most “predictable” of the majors, as the median ranking of its winners this century has been five, with four victories for world number ones (three Tiger, one Rory). Perhaps that reflects the tournament’s reputation as being the most similar in set-up to a regular PGA Tour event. Nonetheless, the PGA has had its crazier moments too – Shaun Micheel was 169th in the world when he was victorious in 2003.
Oh, and in case we didn’t already know, 2009 to 2011 was truly the Wild West period of men’s golf. As Tiger’s era of dominance had ended, but McIlroy’s (shorter, less absolute) era of supremacy had not yet arrived, the average ranking of major winners in those years was 54.
Winging It: U.S. Open Stats
What, then, of this week’s action at Winged Foot? Should any of this affect who you back, whether you’re wagering money or simply your reputation among friends as a golf Nostradamus? Extreme reader discretion is advised, but for what it’s worth, here are a few nuggets that you might wish to consider:
- The only world No. 1 to win a U.S. Open this century has been Tiger Woods (three times: 2000, 2002, 2008). Current No. 1 Dustin Johnson is the favorite this week, but that doesn’t guarantee anything. Then again, you probably knew that by virtue of this being a) golf, and b) it's Dustin Johnson we’re talking about.
- Lower-ranked players don’t have an amazing recent U.S. Open track record, but long shots do occasionally come out on top, such as Michael Campbell in 2005 (ranked 80th) and Lucas Glover in 2009 (71st).
- Players ranked in the 20s have won three of the last six U.S. Opens: Martin Kaymer (2014, 28th), Brooks Koepka (2017, 22nd), Gary Woodland (2019, 25th). Some contenders with OWGR rankings in that range this year would include Sungjae Im (24th), Abraham Ancer (23rd) and Tiger Woods (21st). Personally, I don’t much like the chances of any of those three, but that could be a case of famous last words come Sunday evening.
- The mean average ranking of U.S. Open winners since 2000 is 22nd (after rounding). This week the 22nd ranked player in the world is Marc Leishman, but given his recent form, you’d probably be better off avoiding placing a bet on him, too.
In truth, it is difficult to look past the world’s very best golfers to win this week. The sheer talent of the top five of Johnson, Rahm, Thomas, McIlroy and Morikawa is mouth-watering. Perhaps with this level of ability at the top table of the men’s game, it will be increasingly rare over the coming years for those long shots to win majors. But that doesn’t mean that the underdogs should give up hope. After all, 72-hole stroke play is gloriously unpredictable. And here’s one final stat that caught my eye:
- The median average ranking of U.S. Open winners since 2000 is 12th. This week, that’s Adam Scott.
He’s 45/1 with some bookmakers, you know.