US Open Preview: Geoff Shackelford vs Clippd's Digital Twin

Words by
Dan Davies
US Open Preview: Geoff Shackelford vs Clippd's Digital Twin

Respected golf writer, author and course architect Geoff Shackelford knows a thing or two about the North Course at LA Country Club, hotly anticipated venue of this week's US Open.

Not only has he played the course countless times, he was part of the team of architects, alongside Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner, that restored it to something more closely resembling the original vision of George C. Thomas, who also designed the revered courses at nearby Riviera CC and Bel-Air CC.

Geoff is the author of the Quadrilateral Substack newsletter, which offers in-depth coverage of all golf’s major championships, as well as many books on golf. His latest, ‘Golf Architecture For Normal People’, is currently riding high in best seller lists.

This is the first time the US Open will be played at LA Country Club, which unfolds across stunning terrain that just happens to be some of the city’s most desirable real estate. The North Course, as Geoff confirms, will present a very different test to the US Open template of narrow fairways and thick, penal rough.

“The fairways are going to be a lot wider. Bermuda fairways, Bermuda rough, which they haven't had since 2005,” he says. “I don't know how much the Bermuda rough is going to perform the way people think. It's a little different kind of Bermuda called Bandera. The ball doesn't quite go down to the bottom as much.”

Players who perform best in Around The Green shots from Bermuda grass

Without ShotLink data from the course, which has only agreed to stage one big event – the 2017 Walker Cup – in the last 60 years, data-based analysis is difficult. This is where Clippd’s Digital Twin technology comes in, which we have used to model millions of shots played around the course by the “average tour pro”. 

The Digital Twin breakdown for LA Country Club North Course. Find out more about Importance to Scoring

In terms of what a blueprint for success at LA Country Club might look like, Digital Twin ranks the following skills in terms of importance to scoring: 1. Off The Tee 36%; 2. Approach 27%; 3. Around The Green 18%; 4. Putting 19%. 

“Yeah, I would say that's fair,” says Geoff. “There's a few really tough greens, but for the most part they're fairly simple. George Thomas was not a great putter so he tended to not build a lot of contour. I don't see a lot of creativity needed other than on maybe four or five greens where you're going to really need touch. 

“But if you can hit a distinct draw off the tee, you're going to really have a big advantage on several holes: 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 16 and 18.”

“I'm pretty sure 80-120 yards is going to be a really key number” – Geoff Shackelford

According to Digital Twin, the four most important specific skills are Off The Tee with the driver (30%), Approach 180-plus yards (11%), Approach 140-180 yards (10%) and Putting 3-8 feet (9%).

“The one I disagree on is the 140-180 yards,” says Geoff. “I'm pretty sure 80-120 yards is going to be a really key number.” He goes on to list a catalogue of shots at this length, caused both by missing fairways and laying up. Digital Twin, however, predicts that only 12% of approach shots played on the North Course will be from 80-135 yards versus 18% at 140-180 yards.  

Two holes in particular offer up interesting advantages for those who elect the right strategy and then execute. The first is hole 6, a drivable par 4.

The short par-4 6th offers a variety of strategic options

“Six is a short par 4 with options,” Geoff explains. “It’s the only one where there might be a thought to go for it or lay up down the fairway, but it's so short that I anticipate them all trying to drive it and play like a par 3  like they do on 10 at Riviera.

"What I cannot grasp is what the data says about if you try to drive the green on the 10th at Riv, the scoring average is better. The amount of stress, the amount of work that goes into making par, you just think, was that worth it when you watch somebody lay up? By trying to drive the green you bring six into play. You never bring six into play when you lay up all four days.”

“By trying to drive the green on 6 you bring six into play” – Geoff Shackelford

Geoff suggests we'll see exactly this dynamic with the 6th at LACC: “You'll probably have a lower scoring average if you drive the green every day but that approach brings the spectre of one of those shots going awry, either left into the little ditch in front or way right where everything goes away from you. It just brings in a whole element of stress. 

“You really have to hit it hard to go through the fairway because it's got a little bank at the end," Geoff continues. "The more you get down the hole, the more you hit past the green and then come back, the easier it is. When you're heading into the length of the green, it's pitched toward you. But it's just counterintuitive to players who will think, 'If I can hit past the green, why wouldn't I just go right at it?'”

Will the players treat the 6th as a log par-3 or play the strategy?

Verdict: Digital Twin confirms that Geoff’s stress-free lay-up theory is backed by the data but players must execute the perfect 280 lay-up to the far end of the fairway to make sure they won’t be disadvantaged in any way.

In comparison to this strategy, the likelihood of birdie is increased when going for the green, but so too is the likelihood of a five or worse. The 250-yard layup to the centre of the fairway is the worst of the three options, producing the highest average score when played to a far right pin position.

The long par-4 13th will pose a challenge all week

Hole 13 is a brute of a par-4 that plays at over 500 yards into the prevailing wind. It's teeth are likely to be bared more for those with later starting times and Geoff firmly believes it will be the hardest hole at the 2023 US Open

“On 13, there aren't many options,” he says. “It's really long from the back tee and they're going to play the back tee I think all four days. If the sun comes out and gets real windy and for the afternoon starters, 13 plays about 560 yards dead into a 10 to 12 mph wind with gusts up to 20. It's a driver.

"I think it's a huge advantage to drive up the 25 yard-wide shoot on the high, left side of the fairway. If you hit it right down the middle, it will run down and you'll have a blind shot over a steep hill. Players won't have a problem clearing the hill and a lot of them will have a fairway lie, but the green is big and steeply pitched with a bump on the left and you really want to see it when you hit into it because you don't want to miss it left. 

“The bunker is very deep to the right, it's very hard to get up and down. You really don't want to be past the pin on 13. It's a very steep pitch, especially the front part of the green. So it really helps to see into it.”

It's vital players find the final in the left hand side of the 13th's fairway

Verdict: Clippd’s Digital Twin underlines just how important it is to find the funnel on the high side of the fairway. It will give players more than half a shot advantage on those whose drives are gathered by the swale and ushered into the rough to the right of the fairway.

And one final thought from us: given that 15 of the last 20 US Open champions have become first-time major winners, we’ve taken a look at players who have not yet won a major and perform markedly better on hard courses. There a few very interesting names listed below.

Could this be hometown hero Max Homa's week?

Thank you to Geoff Shackelford for his expert insights into the North Course at Los Angeles Country Club. It promises to be a fascinating and very different US Open, and one in which the venue might well turn out to be this week's star of Tinseltown.

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