Data-backed U.S. Open picks: 6 players stats say should excel at Torrey Pines

wilco nienaber

Wilco Nienaber's 350-yard drives will be a serious weapon at Torrey.

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GOLF has partnered with CDW and VMware to explore not only how the world’s best golfers use technology to secure game plans for the U.S. Open but also how data can point toward which 2021 U.S. Open competitors are primed for a big week. First up, data-based prognostication:

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Another major championship is at our doorstep, and with it all kinds of odds that Bryson DeChambeau might repeat, that Brooks Koepka could bag a third career U.S. Open, or that Phil Mickelson might do the unthinkable … and win again.

But who does Torrey Pines secretly favor? And who has been flying under the radar the last few months? The stats rarely lie when it comes to good form entering a major championship. Below are six players whose numbers say should factor into how the U.S. Open plays out this week.

Jon Rahm

Rahm, yet again, is the player most experts expect to contend — he’s the perfect mix of elite talent, current form and great history at Torrey Pines. You cannot poke a hole in Rahm’s case. He’s won at Torrey before (his first career Tour win), and before he was forced to withdraw at the Memorial earlier this month, he was the best player in the field by a large margin. Couple that with the fact that he’s probably played better golf than any other player in the world over the last year and Rahm feels like a sure thing. 

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Even if he doesn’t start hot, he tends to rise to the top over the course of four rounds. That happened at Augusta in the spring, when Rahm shot 66 on Sunday. That was just one of his 10 top 10s this season, best on Tour by two, and a tally that would be 11 if not for his positive Covid test two weeks ago. Rahm has missed just three cuts in the last two years worldwide. He’s amassed 17 top-5 finishes in that time. Seventeen! Don’t be the one filled with regret for betting on someone else when Rahm is in the mix come Sunday.

Wilco Nienaber

If Torrey Pines plays the way we expect it to, with bomb-and-gougers rising to the top of the leaderboard, Nienaber is one player who might benefit the most. The 21-year-old South African actually hits it longer than Bryson DeChambeau, our 2020 U.S. Open champion. Nienaber’s game is still raw, but he will whittle the 7,800-yard setup down to nothing with his 350-yard drives.

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According to DataGolf, Nienaber’s game is better suited for Torrey Pines’ South Course (compared to other courses on Tour) than anyone else in the field. He’s just that long. During his first PGA Tour event last week, at the Palmetto Championship, he averaged 361 yards off the tee, getting all kinds of rollout on Congaree’s firm fairways. So, if he drives it straight at Torrey, we could see him hitting a lot of wedges into the poa annua greens.

Tony Finau

The golf world is waiting, with decreasing patience, for Finau to breakthrough and win again. This could be his week. According to DataGolf, Finau can expect a boost from the Torrey setup, given he’s one of the best drivers on the planet. (Finau ranks 6th on Tour in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green.) Finau’s most recent proof point: the Farmers Insurance Open in January, where he finished T2 behind Patrick Reed. TV viewers will recall it was Finau who stood in the 18th fairway with a hybrid in hand, trying to play the hero shot into the green to set up an eagle. It didn’t work out, but this is a new week. Perhaps we’ll see history repeat itself in a slightly different way. 

Viktor Hovland

Like Rahm, the case for Hovland is an easy one to make. He was in contention at Torrey in January. He drives the ball as straight and as long as anyone on Tour he ranks 5th in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee — which is a good formula for U.S. Opens. He’s also playing as well as he ever has. It’s in these moments where the Official World Golf Ranking can lie to you. Hovland is ranked 13th in the world ranking that matters most. But he’s ranked 6th in the DataGolf ranking, which is a truer representation of the golf that has been played worldwide over players’ last 150 rounds or so. Recent form has a greater influence over the DataGolf rankings so, yeah, Hovland is playing great lately. His 65 during the second round at Torrey this January was one of the best rounds on Tour this season.

Hovland is both long and straight.

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Brian Harman

From the less-heralded crowd, we present Harman, who the world golf ranking also is lying to you about. Harman is ranked 47th in the OWGR, but that ranking places a big emphasis on winning tournaments. Harman hasn’t done that, but he has finished in the top 15 six times since the start of 2021, missing just one cut this calendar year. As a result, DataGolf ranks him 22nd in the world. He won’t beat down Torrey with prodigious length, but remember Erin Hills? Harman made that course look easy in his T2 finish behind Brooks Koepka. There are plenty of ways to skin the cat if you are an accurate player.

Cameron Young

You might be asking, “Cameron who?” There’s no shame in that. He’ll have full status on the PGA Tour next season. But right now, he’s going to be one of the most underrated players in the field. Earlier this year, he missed four straight cuts on the Korn Ferry Tour, but has bounced back and won back-to-back events at the end of May. To continue our theme of distance dominates, Young is 9th on the KFT in driving distance, averaging 316 yards off the tee. That type of performance will rank him in the top 5 on the PGA Tour when he graduates later this summer. Can he make the jump and contend at a major championship? His odds will be juicy. 

Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

A senior editor for GOLF.com, Zak joined the GOLF staff three weeks after college graduation. He is the utility infielder of the brand, spanning digital, print and video. His main duty is as a host for various GOLF.com video properties and its award-winning podcasts. When the Masters comes around, be sure to tune in to hear him and fellow staffers recount the most memorable tournaments in Augusta National history on A Pod Unlike Any Other.