British Open 2018: One man's advanced formula to pick the Open winner

July 18, 2018
144th Open Championship - Day Two

Ian Walton/R&A

When it comes to the Open Championship, it turns out I’ve been misled. Misled by facts, of course. Which, as it turns out, is what my major championship predictions have come to be known for: Misleading facts. When you haven’t made a correct pick ever like I have, you’re either incompetent, unlucky or well, not understanding the difference statistical analysis and wasting peoples’ time.

Still, I feel misled by who has won the British—I mean, “Open”—Championship over the last decade or so. Yes, the average age of the “Champion Golfer of the Year” since the last time the Open was played at Carnoustie (2007) is about 37. (Well, 35 1/2 actually, but I was basing Jordan Spieth’s age on his hairline.) Still, it’s probably two job promotions older than the average age of any of the other major winners, which seem to be trending toward the age when they’ve just transitioned out of kids' clubs.

Nevertheless, Open Championship winners seemed to be different. Maybe it was because the course and the conditions and the comfortably controlled speed of the greens and the generally atypical collection of skill sets it required made the Open the kind of major only appreciated by someone who could remember using cell phones only to make calls and watching "Friends" on Thursday nights. Nowadays, it’s all texting and binge-ing, young lives of empty excess.

But I digress. Of course, that theory of the mighty guile of the wise over the brute strength and blind ambition of youth, though supported by facts, leaves us in a blender of uncertainty when placed against the backdrop of Carnoustie. (By the way, blender of uncertainty is what I generally serve myself for breakfast.) Though generally regarded as the toughest in the Open rota, burnt-out conditions and starved rough has even the shorter hitters talking about bludgeoning fearsome Carnoustie while it sleeps. So while I have focused on age- and experience-related metrics in my much-addled algorithms in determining past Open Championship predictions, I tossed all that out the window before cranking up this year’s spread sheet machine. Instead, I wanted current form over ancient history. Like choosing Uber over a taxi. Or a kale smoothie over a milkshake. Or Dropbox over FedEx. There are risks, yes, but the benefits, like hitting driver at Carnoustie’s 18th, are pretty obvious. This isn’t lawn bowling or croquet in white pants. No, what we have now in golf is what amounts to smash mouth, so if you’re not bringing the heat, just trundle yourself on over to that little boulevard of broken dreams known as “reinstated amateur”-land.

While I did look to history, it was selective. I factored in the performance of the last eight winners of Open Championships played in Scotland dating back to the last time the Open was contested at Carnoustie, starting with their world ranking. Why only the Opens played in Scotland? Just seems Opens played in Scotland, given the venues, are more worthy of our attention to detail and our awareness of terror, like ice climbing or fire walking or say, traditional Scottish breakfast (Stornoway black pudding, anyone?).

Then, I calculated where each winner ranked that week in four key performance metrics: driving distance (top 28 percent), driving accuracy (top 25 percent), scrambling (top five percent) and putts per round (top seven percent). Why those? First, the winners of the Open in Scotland haven’t been outside the top 54 in the world. Second, distance is everything these days, and the rulemakers seem so unnaturally terrified of driving distance they’ve decided to randomly test drivers at Carnoustie this week like East German female swimmers in the 1970s. So distance is a big deal and major winners not named Spieth more often than not are destroying the tee ball. But distance and accuracy? Well, the rough may not be what it was supposed to be at Carnoustie but it won’t be like playing a practice round at the Waste Management. Fairways will matter at Carnoustie because shots that land on that brown asphalt will run another 70 yards. Scrambling, of course, is always vital to winning the Open Championship. Five of the last seven winners of Opens played in Scotland finished in the top 5 in scrambling, including Padraig Harrington who was first in the stat at Carnoustie in 2007 and basically scrambled his way into the playoff with a ridiculous up and down for double on the 72nd hole. Finally, putting seems important in that, well, the top putters at the Open win a lot of the time. The worst finish in the putting stat for a winner of the last seven Open Championships played in Scotland: 9th.

Then, I winnowed the current field down to only those who ranked relatively as high or better in each of those criteria vs. the field on the PGA Tour or European Tour or both.

What that left me with is what we think is needed to win the Open Championship. Someone not so old, but with the brashness of youth still lingering right next to the wisdom of experience. A proven major champion who’s won big by hitting the driver longer and straighter than he did those many years ago when he was young and puffy-cheeked and floppy-haired. How long ago? Well, 11 years ago to be precise. He was 18 then, low amateur at the Open Championship, at Carnoustie no less, and in a tie for 2nd after an opening round 68. We saw great things then, and my prediction is we are due to see great things now. We will see the Herculean drives of his long-ago youth mix neatly with the deft Euclidean contemplation of angles and speeds, all touched ever so gently by the quiet reflection of a man who knows he is four years removed from his last major and sees autumn closing in.

My pick for “Champion Golfer of the Year” is Rory McIlroy. He is 29 going on “What happened?” But that realization has him playing better and smarter than ever, just waiting to reassert himself like Jay-Z reminding us that 30’s the new 20.

Of my five possible requirements, McIlroy notches seven of them. (Francesco Molinari, clearly the hottest player in golf, was second with five.) Yes, McIlroy double dips in a couple of stat categories thanks to his European Tour numbers, which some might suggest is unfair math or misapplied statistics.

To that I simply say, “I majored in philosophy.”