The U.S. Open week has passed, and this year’s edition at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club was quite controversial.
When Shinnecock first hosted the championship in 1896 the game was dominated by Scottish and English professionals. That all changed in 1911 when John McDermott, a 19 year-old from Philadelphia with a penchant for heavy drinking (surprise!) won the first of his back-to-back titles at Chicago Golf Club. Americans have won 83 of the 101 U.S. Opens played since McDermott’s victories.
The Open holds a special place in the hearts of American golfers and has produced some of the game’s most iconic moments: Hogan’s 1-iron at Merion. Johnny Miller’s 63 at Oakmont. Tiger’s rout at Pebble. Incredible and magical memories. The U.S. Open literally provides the stuff dreams are made of. As a child, I must have won over a thousand imaginary U.S. Opens, draining the clinching five-footer time and again as I waited for my mom’s station wagon to pull up and bring me home (still waiting for the career achievement letter from the USGA.)
For some lucky and hardworking youngsters the dream does come true. But it’s hard these days, maybe harder than ever. And if data tells an accurate story, it’s downright impossible for people from certain parts of the United States to fulfill their dream of playing on the PGA Tour.
‘It’s Not Where You’re From…’
By looking at the June 10th Official World Golf Rankings and filtering for the top 100 American players a trend forms that comes as no surprise: warm weather plays a huge roll in the development of young would-be PGA Tour professionals. Here’s a look at where the top 100 ranked professionals in the U.S. are from:
No shock at the top: California and Florida top the charts as expected. Anyone who is surprised that Georgia ranks 3rd is forgetting that the best place to find sports-obsessed parents vicariously living through their children is The Peach State. Texas holding its own in 4th position while most of SEC country stands tall in yet another ranking.
Zeros and No Heroes: Don’t look now, but Branden Thornberry is playing for the golf soul of Mississippi. Troy Merritt is fighting a similar battle for the Gopher State. Meanwhile, Curtis Strange is getting ready to don the red Sansabelt slacks he won the ’88 Open in if nobody else from Virginia is going to step up. Pennsylvania had Jim Furyk up until a week ago when he got bumped by former Illini standout and 99th ranked American Scott Langley (further proof schools from Pennsylvania shouldn’t mess with the Big Ten.)
Odds and Ends: North Dakota? Let me tell you something: North Dakota is full of great players who know how to work the wind. Iowa? Another fine golf state. Several fun courses dot the gently rolling countryside. Not to mention Cedar Rapids is a bigger town than you think. While Massachusetts gets credit for Keegan Bradley he could’ve easily counted for New Hampshire, but he won a high school championship in Massachusetts and he wears Red Sox hats a lot so he’s in. Folks in Tennessee should be proud of their five players, but also be ready to pump the breaks a bit. Harris English and Keith Mitchell both count for Tennessee by virtue of attending boarding school in Chattanooga, but they could easily have been counted among the Georgia crowd.
Leveling the Playing Field: Pros Per Million
Look at North Dakota! I Perhaps there’s something to be said for the similarities that exist between the desolate prairies of North Dakota and the Central Lowlands of Scotland? Probably not. Another nice surprise here is Kyle Stanley and Ryan Moore making the Pacific Northwest look like fertile golf ground. And once again we find SEC country exceedingly well represented in this metric. Texas stumbles and California drops to the middle of the pack.
These Are The People In Your Neighborhood
A more plotting of the data shows what areas in each state excel and exposes others that somehow fall short.
Beacons of Light
The Greater San Diego area which has produced PGA Tour stars Phil Mickelson, Charley Hoffman, Pat Perez, Xander Schauffele- all in the top fifty in the Official World golf Rankings- boasts a population of about 3 million people and a passion for golf. Across the country and just outside of Columbia, South Carolina you’ll find a little town called Irmo and Dutch Fork High School, home of Wesley Bryan and Dustin Johnson (you think that alumni golf scramble any fun?) And somewhere in the middle of the two is Port Neches, Texas (population 13,000) where Andrew Landry and Chris Stroud honed their craft. Atlanta also delivers talent with a handful of players like Roberto Castro, Oliver Schniederjans and Chris Kirk emanating from just OTL (outside the loop.) In terms of architecture Florida gives us Seminole and Streamsong but not much else. Be that as it may, the state has certainly been a springboard for several great players from Jacksonville to Miami and just about every city in between.
For everything San Diego is, Los Angeles isn’t. Public golf in L.A. is a war zone. If you’d like to know what a hostage in a bank robbery feels like, go try and walk on as a single at one of L.A.’s munis. Despite the prefect year-round weather there are no players from Los Angeles (Diamond Bar is not L.A. Nor is La Canada Flintridge.) There is hope with Sean Crocker and Matthew Wolff, both Valley kids who could lead a pack of newcomers that will give Angelenos something to cheer about.
Chicago might be the best golf city in the world. It boasts an embarrassment of historic golf clubs, ample public golf courses and a passion for sport that isn’t matched in too many other cities. But somehow, despite all of these riches, Kevin Streelman who ranks 56th among Americans and a respectable 119 in the OWGR is the only Chicagoland representative. Most golf fans are expecting Doug Ghim to breakthrough in a big way and a few of us are hoping his chain-smoking dad is on his bag.
Houston is conspicuously absent from the list. The place is a sports factory with 6.5 million people, but where’s the golf? Strangely, I don’t think I’ve seen a college football game that didn’t have at least a few kids from Houston/Sugar Land/The Woodlands playing, so this really surprised me. Maybe Rice Owl graduate and Memorial High product Mario Carmona can break through.
No matter where they live the dream of the American golfer can come true. Whether you learn to hold a 5-iron against the cold cutting wind of Fargo, North Dakota or you hit buckets of balls between buckets of rain in Tacoma, if you have the talent it can happen. But in a game that largely comes down to skill, repetition and experience how does the 10 year-old prodigy hitting balls at Chelsea Piers in New York City compete with the home schooled kid in Coral Springs who plays six rounds a week?
He probably doesn’t. At least that’s what the data says.
There’s an old saying among golf professionals that holds true and doesn’t care about the data- ‘If you’re good enough, you’ll make it’ and that’s all that any kid with a dream hitting balls into a net needs to know. If you’re good enough, you’ll make it.