The 2018 U.S. Open was acknowledged by most as having been too difficult on Saturday’s third round. Most players were upset by the conditions, arguing that fans don’t want to see the best players in the world struggle.
After his third round, Zach Johnson said this, “Unfortunately, they’ve lost the golf course. I feel for the membership, because I know many of them. I feel for the spectators because they are seeing pure carnage — unless that’s what they want. And I feel for the USGA because I don’t think this was their intent. But when you think of the things that happened in the past, you have to err on the side of caution. And that wasn’t done today.”
I’d like to analyze how difficult the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills played relative to previous U.S. Opens. First, let’s look at where Shinnecock stands in average strokes above par, for all players who made the cut (most analysis in this post was only done on players who made the cut, due to the fact that cut players, with their higher scores, provided too many outliers and noise in the first two rounds).
The plot below shows, for each U.S. Open from 2003 to 2018, the average number of strokes above par for all players that made the cut:
The 2018 U.S. Open had the sixth highest average, at just over +3. This shows that Shinnecock played difficult from a strokes to par perspective this year, however we have seen much more difficult.
The problem with the above plot is that it shows average cumulative score across all four rounds of each tournament. The complaint with this year’s U.S. Open was that the third round in particular was too difficult. Let’s see how this year’s third round stacks up against all other U.S. Open rounds since 2003.
Here, we begin to see why players were frustrated. This year, round three at Shinnecock was the second highest round, on average, in every round played at the U.S. Open since 2003. Shinnecock played notoriously difficult in 2004 as well, where in the fourth round we saw the highest average score. Looking at the 20 lowest average scores to par by round, we see the following:
There have been 64 rounds of golf played in the U.S. Open since 2003. In 2018, we simultaneously saw the course play as one of the most difficult (2nd most difficult overall) in the last 15 years on Saturday, to a course that played relatively easy Sunday. Similarly, in 2004, at what is known to have been one of the most difficult U.S. Opens in history, Shinnecock played relatively easy on Thursday (48th most difficult overall) and Friday’s (55th most difficult overall) round, only to give us two of the most difficult rounds on Saturday (17th most difficult overall) and Sunday (most difficult overall).
Interestingly, the first round at this years U.S. Open ranked as the 16th most difficult. This level of difficulty produced applause from players and pundits, who felt the tournament needed to be made more difficult, considering the ease at which Erin Hills played in 2017. By Saturday, the course difficulty increased by an average of 1.67 strokes, enough to cause all players and media personalities to question the course setup.
The final point I’d like to make has to do with how tee-time impacts score. One of the prevailing complaints that came from the players was that winds picked up in the afternoon, making the course much tougher on players with afternoon tee times than those with morning tee times. This may be true, however, did this happen in previous U.S. Opens as well?
As shown in the above plot, the third round at this year’s U.S. Open saw the second largest difference in score between those who teed off in the morning (before 12:00 PM), and those who teed off in the afternoon. The only round that had a larger difference came last year at Erin Hills. No correlation (-0.11) was found between the stroke difference in the morning and afternoon tee times, and the average strokes over par that a particular round played at.
In conclusion, we can safely say that this years U.S. Open played incredibly difficult. However, given the positive feedback that the course received after Thursday’s round, and the hostility that it met during and particularly after Saturday’s round, there was still only a 1.67 stroke difference between the two days. Therefore, with the exception of the fact that the course played much more difficult in the afternoon than the morning on Saturday, I don’t think there was reason for players to feel as cheated as they did this year at Shinnecock.