Numbers predict fantastic finish at Olympic

June, 12, 2012
We at Numbers Game aren't in the business of providing gambling advice.

Trivia question

Who won the first U.S. Open ever held in California? (Answer below)

However, if you happen to take the information provided below and use it for any predictive support of your own, we consider that a compliment. And what you happen to use that prediction for is completely up to you, the reader.

With that said, here are three things to keep in mind for this week's U.S. Open:

-- Only one player older than 37 has won the U.S. Open in the past 20 years. The numbers support the long-held adage about "Golf's Toughest Test." This tournament is a grind, and younger men tend to win it. Since Tom Kite won in 1992, the only player older than 37 to win this event was Payne Stewart in 1999.

If the trend holds, several notable names would be out of the mix, including Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker.

-- In each of the four previous U.S. Opens held at Olympic Club, the winner came from behind on Sunday. Not only that -- but three of them were at least 3 shots behind, and Lee Janzen was 5 shots back entering Sunday in 1998 when he won.

Nine of the past 12 major winners were trailing after 54 holes -- one of the key exceptions coming last year at Congressional. All of it adds up to the promise of an exciting Sunday, something that was lacking a bit in 2011 during Rory McIlroy's runaway win.

-- During the past 14 majors, more players from outside the Official World Golf Ranking top 100 (three) have won than inside the top 10 (two). And during that same span, we've seen 14 different champions.

Parity can make for some exciting Sundays, but it certainly makes it more difficult to pick a winner. Which is why, like we said, we aren't in the business of providing gambling advice.

After each of the past eight major championships and 11 of the past 12, we have seen a first-time major winner emerge victorious. That's also been the case at six of the past seven U.S. Opens and at two of the four held all time at Olympic.

For the past few years, we at Numbers Game have used a formula to deduce who is the best player in the world who has yet to win a major championship. With seven of the top 10 players in this week's Official World Golf Ranking currently majorless, it seems appropriate to refresh our math and revisit the list.

Our formula, which we've named the Almost Index, takes into account PGA and European tour victories, top-10 percentages and past major championship performances. For full disclosure, the formula is spelled out like this:

(2 + [PGA Tour top 10 percent]) + (1 + [European Tour top 10 percent]) + PGA Tour wins + (European Tour wins x 0.5) + ([Top 10 percent in majors x 100] x 0.25) + (major points x 0.1) + (54-hole leads in majors x 3) + (54-hole shares in majors x 1.5) = Almost Index

Let's get to the top five and the name that is just outside it:

6. Luke Donald
Almost Index Score: 20.7
Best major finish: T-3 (twice)
PGA & European tour wins: 11

Considered maybe the best player in the world from 150 yards and in, current Official World Golf Ranking No. 1 Luke Donald would shock very few by removing his name from this list on Sunday. But history says that the top spot doesn't mean major championship success. Consider this: The last time the top-ranked player in the world not named Tiger Woods won a major as No. 1 was Fred Couples at the 1992 Masters.

There are other notes to be wary of before wagering on Donald this week. The Englishman hasn't finished in the top 10 in eight previous U.S. Open starts, and he hasn't finished inside the top 40 since 2006. Since the beginning of 2010, Donald has 33 top-10 finishes in 52 non-major starts on the PGA and European tours -- a clip of nearly 64 percent. In that same span, he has just two top-10 finishes in nine majors played.

5. Adam Scott
Almost Index Score: 20.9
Best major finish: T-2
PGA & European tour wins: 13

On the flip side, recently Adam Scott seems to have been saving his best golf for the biggest events. His lone top-10 on the PGA Tour in 2012 came at Augusta (T-8). In 2011, Scott had seven top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour -- with all but one coming in a major, WGC or FedEx Cup playoff event.

The U.S. Open, though, has not been kind to Scott. He has zero finishes in the top 20 and six missed cuts in 10 career starts. He also has as many rounds of 80 or worse -- two -- as career rounds under par in U.S. Open play.

4. Dustin Johnson
Almost Index Score: 22.0
Best major finish: T-2
PGA & European tour wins: 6

No player has won on the PGA Tour and gone on to win the U.S. Open the next week.

That being said, few have knocked on the door as loudly as Johnson the past three years. DJ has been in the top seven entering the final round of a major four times since the beginning of 2010. In each of those four subsequent final rounds, he failed to break par. That, of course, includes the last time a major was held in California -- at Pebble Beach two years ago -- when he carded a final-round 82 after entering Sunday with a 3-shot lead.

3. Steve Stricker
Almost Index Score: 24.8
Best major finish: 2nd
PGA & European tour wins: 12

No player has had more victories on the PGA Tour since 2009 than Steve Stricker (eight). Unfortunately for Stricker, major championship success has been elusive -- he hasn't finished inside the top five in a major since the 1999 U.S. Open.

And at age 45 and change, if Stricker wins this week, not only would he be the third-oldest major champion of all-time, he also would be the oldest U.S. Open winner in the tournament's history. He hasn't been great lately, either, with just one top-10 finish in his past five regular PGA Tour starts.

2. Lee Westwood
Almost Index Score: 33.4
Best major finish: 2nd (twice)
PGA & European tour wins: 24

Sunday at Augusta this year, after the dust from Bubba Watson's and Louis Oosthuizen's phenomenal finish settled, a familiar name could be seen a few spots down on the leaderboard -- again.

Lee Westwood has seven top-three finishes in majors yet is still winless. That's the most top-three finishes without a win of anybody dating back to 1934, the first year the Masters was held. And amazingly, all seven have been since the last time Tiger Woods won a major at the 2008 U.S. Open.

In eight of his past 10 starts in majors, Westwood has finished T-11 or better. His win at last week's Nordea Masters was his 22nd on the European Tour, and he's finished in the top 10 in seven of 13 worldwide starts this year. If not now, then when?

1. Sergio Garcia
Almost Index Score: 34.1
Best major finish: 2nd (twice)
PGA & European tour wins: 16

Just incrementally ahead of Westwood, Sergio Garcia tops the Almost Index. And judging from his comments at Augusta earlier this year, Garcia's personal belief that he can remove himself from this list is lacking.

Let's look at the positives for Sergio, though. He finished tied for seventh at the U.S. Open last year. He has four straight top-25 finishes in this event and a pair of top-5s in his career. He also finished tied for third at last week's Nordea Masters, a sign that his game is moving in the right direction.

Garcia and Westwood define "almost" in this context. Both have held outright 54-hole leads in major championships. Garcia has 17 career top-10s in majors, while Westwood has 13. They each have nine top-5 finishes in majors. They've done all this in a near-identical number of starts -- 56 for Westwood, 54 for Garcia.

The Almost Index is no stranger to seeing names on its leaderboard evaporate. McIlroy was fourth entering 2011, and Watson was in the top 20 before this year's Masters. This week and twice more in 2012, Garcia and Westwood will have the chance to change that leaderboard again -- as well as their place in golf's history books.

Trivia answer

Question: Who won the first U.S. Open ever held in California?

Answer: Ben Hogan in the 1948 U.S. Open at Riviera.

Justin Ray is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He has contributed to ESPN's golf coverage since joining the network out of college in 2008. He is based in Austin, Texas, with the Longhorn Network. Send comments and suggestions to





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