U.S. Open

U.S. Open 2024: This stat shows the secret to success at Pinehurst after two days

June 14, 2024

Alex Slitz

PINEHURST, N.C. -- Back in 2021, I contacted Rick Gehman with an idea for a project, and it began with a question: What part of the golf game matters most for PGA Tour success? What we found is that the answer is the approach shot. From a variety of metrics, iron play mattered more than putting or driving.

However, while that was true writ large, it doesn't always apply to an individual tournament or an individual course. Coming into this week's U.S. Open, if you spent any time reading preview stories, you probably heard all of the following:

1. Keeping drives in the fairway is most important

2. This is a second-shot (i.e. approach) course

3. Whoever gets up and down the best from these greens will win

4. Putting is the most critical part of the game at Pinehurst

Clearly, all of these can't be true. And with two days at the U.S. Open nearing completion, it's become clear that only one is valid.

Which one?

It's the putting, folks.

A quick look at the Strokes Gained stats for all 17 players under par at the time of writing shows the following: From Ludvig Aberg to Russell Henley, these 17 players average 1.3 strokes gained on the field, which—if they were an individual—would put them around 24th.

SG: Around the Green, a more volatile stat (though it should be said that they're all volatile within a single event), comes up with an average of 1.06 strokes gained among these players, which matches up with 25th place, but which, again, is the least reliable of the strokes gained stats.

SG: Approach, the gold standard with a sample size of all PGA Tour events, has mattered less here at Pinehurst, with the under par crowd averaging 0.91 strokes gained, or about 34th place on the list.

And finally, SG: Off the Tee seems to be least correlated to success of all, with the average hovering at 0.67 strokes gained, or around 29th place.

In short, and with the caveat that we're only dealing with 36 holes of output, putting has seemed to matter the most when it comes to climbing the leaderboard at Pinehurst. This may look surprising in light SG: Approach's usual predominance, but perhaps it shouldn't be; when you see the trouble players have with controlling pace on the actual green, and how many attempts come up woefully short due to caution or run off the green due to hyper-aggression, you can see how Pinehurst might buck the trend and put a premium on the putting game.

Breaking it down to a more granular level, it's interesting to see that the players at the very top of the leaderboard, particularly Mathieu Pavon, Thomas Detry, and Ludvig Aberg, who are all in the top five in the tournament, are also in the top six in SG: Putting, while Cantlay, currently one shot off the lead, is tenth. Of the 17 players under par, only Rory McIlroy and Akshay Bhatia have lost strokes to the field in this metric.

You can view the compiled stats here. They'll shift a little before the second round is over, but the conclusion—that putters are kings at Pinehurst, at least so far—will not. At the U.S. Open, rolling them straight is the best way to thrive.