Golf Magazine

Us Open: What Do the First, Second and Third Round Leads Mean?

By Theteesheet @theteesheet

The Thursday rain delay has moved the end of the first round to Friday and potentially the end of the second round to Saturday. That gives us a bit of extra time to consider the meaning of the first and second round leads at the U.S. Open in recent history.

Like we did for the Masters, we considered whether it has been significant to be the first, second and third round leaders. In the case of the U.S. Open, we went back to 2005. The reasoning is that this was when Mike Davis took over course set-up for U.S. Opens introducing graduated rough and the greater potential for scoring on the weekend. As we noted in our preview, the U.S. Open has shown statistically to provide more comebacks than the other majors.

When we considered the first round lead at the Masters, we found that since the course changes in 2002, the first round lead was a decent indicator of success because over 50% of the time, the leader finished in the top 10 on Sunday. The trend continued this year when Marc Lieshman, who was tied in first with Sergio Garcia after the first round, finished T4. Essentially the same holds true of the U.S. Open. From 2005, the first round leader has finished in the top ten 50% of the time.

Only McIlroy has gone wire to wire since 2005 [click to enlarge]
Only McIlroy has gone wire to wire since 2005 [click to enlarge]

So what do the numbers suggest for Phil Mickelson, the first round leader after the weather fragmented first round? It may not be that promising. Only Rory McIlroy has gone on to win the U.S. Open since 2005. Of the 12 players that were in the lead or tied with the lead after round 1 since 2005, only four of those leaders were in the top ten by the end of the third round. In turn, one of those four finished Sunday out of the top 10. In other words, aside from the Rory McIlroy dominant performance, only Mike Weir and Colin Montgomerie remained consistently in the hunt by Sunday afternmoon (and Weir was 6 strokes of the lead in 2009). In other words, Mickelson would be really going against recent trends to be in the hunt by Sunday.

Of course a Hall of Famer like Phil Mickelson is certainly a candidate to be an exception to this trand. But, he also can implode with the best of them (and is it just my experience or is the day after you have a sleepless night, eg. like a cross country red-eye flight, that is the most challenging).

With some second round tee times starting after 5pm on Friday because of Thursday's delay, we likely won't be certain of the second round leader until Saturday, although I expect Saturday morning won't be as intriguing as the Saturday morning ruling drama of the Masters. Speaking of rulings, one of the more interesting situations requiring an understanding of the rules was the almost inconceivable situation that happened to Carl Petterson. Petterson was lining up a shot in the fairway and an errant tee shot from a neighboring hole came rolling along and hit his ball out of the way during his backswing. Remarkeable. ESPN actually caught it on video. 

In the case of the U.S. Open, perhaps the second round lead does mean something. Aside from 2008 and Stuart Appleby, a player in the lead or in the share of the lead has remained at least T7 by the end of the third round. Even more interestingly, three times the winner of the U.S. Open over this period has had at least a share of the second round lead (37.5% of the time since 2005). While this may seem obvious, it is interesting because the U.S. Open has also shown to the major where a player from behind had been the most likely to win. In contrast, during the same time period at the Masters, only longshot Tevor Immelman has led after the second round and gone on to win (although there were some close playoff calls).

The second round leader has won 3 of the last 8 U.S. Opens [click to enlarge]
The second round leader has won 3 of the last 8 U.S. Opens [click to enlarge]

So which is it? Compared to the Masters, is the U.S. Open a tournament in which the leader stay in the hunt or a tournament in which a player can come from behind? Perhaps it is both. 

Consider that since 2005, the player in 10th place at the U.S. Open (or in a tied position including 10th place) after the third round was within 5 strokes of the lead 75% of the time (6 out of eight times). In the Masters, the player in 10th place (in in a tied position including 10th place) after the third round was only within 5 strokes of the lead 2 times or 25% of the time. In other words, the U.S. Open consistently has a more densley packed leaderboard. This would explain why there are more come from behind vitories in the U.S. Open (there are more players close to the leader) but is not inconsistent with early leaders staying in the hunt.

This also seem consistent with the grinding nature of the U.S. Open. The Masters provides a lot of risk and reward and typically at least a couple people get hot and go low. In the U.S. Open, the slogging is tough and people stay bunched together. The U.S. Open is both less predictable because of a greater number of people in the hunt, yet there is less overall volatility and so players that get into the hunt stay in the hunt.

So where do the winners come from? Consider the past eight U.S. Opens.

The U.S. Open Champion come from outside the final group 50% of time - not even including Rocco Mediate in 2008 [click to enlarge]
The U.S. Open Champion come from outside the final group 50% of time - not even including Rocco Mediate in 2008 [click to enlarge]

This chart would support the theory of the bunched leaderboards mentioned above. The winners (and Rocco Mediate in the playoff in 2008) all got in he hunt after round two and stuck around in round three. 

In the Masters, since 2005, the champion has improved his position in the third round 5 of the past 8 years (62.5% of the time). Saturday in Augusta is more of a critical moving day as we mentioned back then. For the U.S. Open during the same period, only Tiger in 2008 and Michael Campbell in 2005 improved their positions on Saturday (and nominally at that).

For U.S. Open Champions, Saturday has been less a moving day and more of a milling-about day. 

Of course all that said, the Merion has shown to be amazing relisient so far with danger everywhere. I'll be watching intently with my Yuengling and Philly cheesesteak in hand. I agree: that sounds dirtier that it is.

Douglas Han


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