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Historical Keys to Success at Torrey Pines

June 16, 2021 San Diego, Calif. By Justin Ray
To win at Torrey Pines, players must excel on longer approach shots, as 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose did when he won the Farmers Insurance Open in 2019. (Kohjiro Kinno/USGA)

For just the fourth time in the last 20 years, the U.S. Open will be contested at a golf course that hosted a PGA Tour event earlier in the season. Torrey Pines has been an annual stop on the U.S. pro circuit since 1968, yielding champions such as Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson and, of course, Tiger Woods.

One benefit of the U.S. Open being held at an annual venue is access to the troves of data generated by years of the Farmers Insurance Open. While we don’t yet have oceans of shot-level information at championship venues like Oakmont or Pinehurst No. 2, the statistics kept for years on the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines can give us a peek at what numbers may be most important this June.

So what statistics will be most telling at this year’s U.S. Open? Which will prove to be less significant? After looking through more than 6,000 rounds of detailed performance information, we extracted some key takeaways. Detailed numbers for this exercise were from the South Course at Torrey Pines only – not the North, where the field spends one round per week during the PGA Tour stop.

Missed Fairways Not Fatal

In his historic 2008 U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines, Tiger Woods wasn’t exactly precise off the tee. For the week, the 15-time major champion ranked 56th of the 78 players to make the cut that week in percentage of fairways hit. Five years later, when Woods won his seventh Farmers Insurance Open title, he was even more wild. Woods ranked dead last in the field in “average distance from the edge of the fairway,” a statistic that measures not just if a player’s tee shot misses the fairway – but how offline it is.

Woods isn’t alone in the lineage of champions at Torrey Pines who were wild with the driver. Forty percent of the players to win the Farmers Insurance Open over the last 20 years ranked outside the top 50 for the week in fairways hit. The average field ranking in driving accuracy for winners at Torrey Pines the last 15 years is 32.4. While the modern player isn’t as focused on accuracy off the tee, that number is a far cry from the PGA Tour average during that same span – 24.4.

Since 2010, players on Torrey Pines South who hit just half of their fairways have averaged positive strokes gained on the field. Players who hit 8 or more fairways in a round – just 57 percent – gain more than one-third of a stroke on the field. Over the last 15 years, players who win at Torrey have gained just over 11 percent of their strokes for the week off the tee. The PGA Tour average for tournament winners in that span is 17.8 percent.

This isn’t to say that driving accuracy goes completely out the window, but it does infer that there are other opportunities to pick up shots against the opposition on this Southern California layout.

Significance of Longer Iron Play

With players less apt to gain strokes with the driver at Torrey Pines, it makes sense that approach play would be of paramount significance. Over the last 15 years, players who have won the Farmers Insurance Open have gained more than 46 percent of their strokes for the week on approach shots. The PGA Tour average for tournament winners during that same stretch is 35.5 percent.

But what type of approaches separate the winners from the pack? At nearly 7,700 yards on the scorecard, Torrey Pines South demands more long approach shots into greens than the typical layout. Since 2004, 31 percent of the approach shots hit by winners at Torrey Pines have been from outside 200 yards. That is an enormous jump from the PGA Tour average in that stretch, 23.4 percent.

To win at Torrey Pines, players have to excel on those longer approaches into the greens. The last five winners of the Farmers Insurance Open are a combined 23 under par when presented with approach opportunities outside 200 yards. Those five champions have had an average proximity to the hole of just under 44 feet – more than 6 feet better than the field’s average proximity to the hole in that span. In 2017, Jon Rahm outperformed the field average from that range by 8 feet, 8 inches. Two years later, Justin Rose beat the field by more than 9 feet when 200-plus yards away.

Players can expect to have fewer scoring opportunities with wedges than at the usual PGA Tour stop. Those who have won overall on the PGA Tour since 2004 have had about 20 percent of their approach shots that week come from 50 to 125 yards away. The winners at Torrey Pines South see just 15.5 percent of their approaches from that range.

Missable from Mid-Range

Typically the most bemoaned of the putting surfaces, Poa annua has gained a bumpy reputation. Typically, a PGA Tour field will make about 2 percent fewer putts from 4-8 feet on greens with any Poa annua grass than they would on greens without.

In recent years, that differential is significantly higher on the South Course. Each of the last six seasons, Torrey has ranked as either the toughest or second-toughest course on Tour in make percentage of putts from 4 to 8 feet. In January, the field made 60.6 percent of their putts from that range – a steep drop from the 68.3% mark the entire Tour has posted for the season. Since 2018, in any given round, the field will make anywhere from 3 percent to 8 percent fewer putts from 4-8 feet than the Tour median.

Players who have had success at Torrey Pines have outperformed the field from this specifically tedious distance. Over the last 10 years, players who finish in the top 10 at the Farmers Insurance Open have made 68.4 percent of their putts from 4 to 8 feet. Tournament winners have made those putts 71.7% of the time. Players to finish outside the top 10 had a make percentage under 62%.

A Perfect Fit

No player is more synonymous with success at this venue than Woods, whose eight professional wins at Torrey Pines stretch across three different decades. Considering the analysis above – and what his biggest strengths have been throughout his career – that immense success makes perfect sense.

Consider this: from 2004 through 2008, Woods led the PGA Tour each season in strokes gained total, despite always ranking outside the top 100 in driving accuracy. His outstanding approach play performance in that span was only increased by his long irons. In his seven full PGA Tour seasons played from 2004 through 2013, Tiger was in the top 10 in proximity to the hole from 200 or more yards away all seven times. Woods ranked in the top five on Tour in strokes gained putting five times from 2004-2009, finishing in the top 50 in make percentage from 4 to 8 feet in four of those seasons.

This week, a player who fits that statistical profile will have the opportunity to follow Woods as a U.S. Open champion at Torrey Pines.

Justin Ray is the head of content for Twenty First Group. He has also worked as a senior researcher at ESPN and Golf Channel.