I dived deep into the stats — here’s what it reveals about this year’s winner

Is it true that the best players at the Open Championship are the ones that hit the ball the lowest?

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Welcome to Play Smart, a column to help you play smarter, better golf from Game Improvement Editor Luke Kerr-Dineen (who you can follow on Twitter right here).

Every year at the Open Championship, you’ll occasionally hear the same piece of perceived wisdom. That to win the Open, players need to hit the ball low. That those who keep the ball close to the ground, and running along it, will fair best.

It sounds good, and sort of makes sense. But is it actually true?

To see if the low-ball-hitters-thrive-across-the-pond idea was indeed true, I took quick dive into three key advanced ball striking metrics that the PGA Tour measures:

  • Apex height, which measures the highest point players’ shots reach on measured drives.
  • Launch angle, which is the number of degrees the ball launches into the air immediately off the clubface.
  • Spin rate, which the how much the ball spins backwards after impact.

Do low-ball hitters really dominate at the Open?

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Since 2007, the year the PGA Tour started keeping these metrics, there have been 14 Open Championships contested. Advanced PGA Tour statistics are available for 11 of those winners — Louis Oosthuizen, Darren Clarke, and Henrik Stenson are the three who didn’t register enough PGA Tour rounds in the year they won in order to be eligible for these metrics.

Starting with the apex of players’ measured drives, recent Open Champions tend to hit the ball almost 10 percent higher than Tour average. The lowest among them was last year’s champion Collin Morikawa, but even he hits the ball less than two feet below the tour’s average apex.

Phil Mickelson is one of next lowest players, but his statistics that year played are something of an anomaly: He played the 2013 season (including that year’s Open) with a strong 3-wood instead of a driver. Though he was slightly below average that season as a result, he’s generally a high-ball hitter, ranking fifth, eighth, 17th, eighth, first, ninth and first in apex height on Tour since 2015.

Taking all that into account along with the numbers, recent history suggests Open champions tend to hit the ball higher than average.

YearWinnerAvg apex (feet)Winner apexDifference
2021Collin Morikawa100.899-1.8
2019Shane Lowry*100.198.5-1.6
2018Francesco Molinari105.2119.914.7
2017Jordan Spieth104107.63.6
2015Zach Johnson99.41044.6
2014Rory McIlroy98.1111.213.1
2013Phil Mickelson96.194.5-1.6
2012Ernie Els96.4106.19.7
2009Stewart Cink92.1198.15.99
2008Padraig Harrington90.6113.1122.51
2007Padraig Harrington88.8106.617.8
*Lowry’s stats from 2020 season

But there are different ways of hitting the ball high, depending on how you swing the club. Some golfers tend to hit the ball more on the upswing, which sends the ball higher into the air initially with lower spin. Other golfers do the opposite: They hit more down on the ball, which generally starts the ball lower and generates more backspin.

What do recent Open champions do? They tend towards the former. The launch angle on their stock, measured drives on tour are squarely in the “above average zone.” More than half a degree higher than their peers, but almost two degrees below the highest launches on Tour.

YearWinnerAvg Launch (degrees)Winner LaunchDifference
2021Collin Morikawa10.5210.27-0.25
2019Shane Lowry*10.499.7-0.79
2018Francesco Molinari11.0612.721.66
2017Jordan Spieth11.111.880.78
2015Zach Johnson10.7713.072.3
2014Rory McIlroy11.0111.530.52
2013Phil Mickelson10.8710.54-0.33
2012Ernie Els10.9312.671.74
2009Stewart Cink11.2711.13-0.14
2008Padraig Harrington11.2612.481.22
2007Padraig Harrington10.8311.740.91

And along those lines, they’re putting ever-so-slightly less backspin than the Tour’s average.

YearWinnerAvg spin (RPMs)Winner spinDifference
2021Collin Morikawa2,526.902,286.30-240.60
2019Shane Lowry*2,542.102,317.00-225.10
2018Francesco Molinari2,641.302,725.0083.70
2017Jordan Spieth2,578.602,449.20-129.40
2015Zach Johnson2,599.002,363.40-235.60
2014Rory McIlroy2,618.902,383.40-235.50
2013Phil Mickelson2,639.402,618.10-21.30
2012Ernie Els2,685.902,458.10-227.80
2009Stewart Cink2,670.102,472.30-197.80
2008Padraig Harrington2,670.102,803.70133.60
2007Padraig Harrington2,814.202,783.00-31.20

Take this all with a grain of salt, because there’s still room for plenty of work to be done on this, but my first look at some of these metrics shows the players best suited for the Open aren’t severely on either end of the spectrum. Instead, they can control their backspin enough to take advantage of a higher-than-average ball flight.

When we see which players in the 2022 field fit that profile — golfers who hit the ball no lower than two feet below the average apex, with a higher launch angle and corresponding lower spin rate — there are 21 players who pop out the other end. They’re all listed below, with those in the current top 20 of the world ranking bolded.

Aaron Wise, Cameron Smith, Chris Kirk, Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, Emiliano Grillo, Erik van Rooyen, Hideki Matsuyama, J.T. Poston, Jason Kokrak, Justin Rose, Keegan Bradley, Kevin Kisner, Mackenzie Hughes, Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler, Sepp Straka, Stewart Cink, Tyrrell Hatton, Viktor Hovland, Webb Simpson

There are certainly some names in that group that pass the smell test. Will the current trend hold true again this year?

Luke Kerr-Dineen

Golf.com Contributor

Luke Kerr-Dineen is the Game Improvement Editor at GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. In his role he oversees the brand’s game improvement content spanning instruction, equipment, health and fitness, across all of GOLF’s multimedia platforms.

An alumni of the International Junior Golf Academy and the University of South Carolina–Beaufort golf team, where he helped them to No. 1 in the national NAIA rankings, Luke moved to New York in 2012 to pursue his Masters degree in Journalism from Columbia University. His work has also appeared in USA Today, Golf Digest, Newsweek and The Daily Beast.