How Are US Open Pairings Determined?

Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods paired together during a golf tournament
If Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are together in a US Open pairing, it's not just coincidence. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The short answer is this: The U.S. Open pairings are determined by a handful of USGA officials during a single meeting in which options are discussed and groupings are manually settled upon.

When this question is asked, what is being referred to are the first- and second-round groupings. (Third- and fourth-round pairings are determined solely by golfers' scores.) At the U.S. Open, golfers play in the same groups of three for the first 36 holes. Are those pairings random? Are they computer-generated? Is there a specific formula the USGA follows? Written guidelines to which the pairings must adhere?

The U.S. Open pairings are made by a small group of USGA officials (sometimes even just a single individual), and those officials set the pairings at their sole discretion, anyway they want. There is no formalized set of rules that the USGA officials are bound to follow; however, there are informal guidelines and traditions that the pairings-makers keep in mind.

The Basic US Open Pairings Process

The basic process is this: When the U.S. Open field is known, the USGA officials in charge of pairings for Rounds 1 and 2 get together, sit down and hash out the groupings. That's it. At the 2012 U.S. Open, for example, USGA Executive Director Mike Davis and USGA Rules & Competitions Director Jeff Hall were solely responsible for deciding which golfers played together the first two rounds, and what their tee times would be. Davis and Hall met, kicked around ideas, and came up with the groups and start times during a single, lengthy meeting.

What are the "informal guidelines" that these USGA officials are considering? They look at things such as world rankings (they tend to group higher-ranked players together, although sometimes, due to the makeup of the field, it's impossible to avoid putting a highly credentialed golfer into the same group as a club pro who made it in through qualifying); playing history (both recent history and U.S. Open history); and pace of play (the preference is not to stick a very fast player with a couple of very slow players).

They also consider fan interest, both the excitement of the fans at the tournament site and the excitement of fans watching from home on television. In other words, are there groupings that will generate high interest and high ratings? At the 2012 U.S. Open, for example, the USGA pairings poo-bahs placed superstars Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the same group for the first two rounds with the also very popular and reigning Masters champion Bubba Watson. Now that's a grouping that generates fan interest!

Another example of such a pairing from the 2012 U.S. Open: Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, and Lee Westwood -- the then-Nos. 1, 2 and 3 players in the world rankings -- played together the first two rounds. All three are also U.K. golfers, which pleases the USGA's British broadcast partners. Yes, that's another thing that USGA officials might consider; placing three golfers of the same nationality in the same group is not an uncommon sight when U.S. Open pairings are unveiled each year.

So as you can see, the U.S. Open pairings are not random, but they are definitely not auto-generated or generated according to some set-in-stone formula. USGA officials meet, discuss, mix and match, and produce groupings that try to honor multiple informal guidelines while also generating fan excitement.

Having Fun with the US Open Pairings

And the USGA likes to have some fun with the U.S. Open pairings, too. That's another factor in the process of producing groupings: USGA officials' sense of mirth.

What do we mean? Consider what might be called the "Three C's" or "Charles in Charge" grouping at the 2012 U.S. Open: Charl Schwartzel, Carl Pettersen, Charles Howell III. Or the "Korean Initials" group: K.J. Choi, K.T. Kim, Y.E. Yang (also a pairing that Korean TV would appreciate), or a "Long Bombers" group consisting of three of the longest drivers.

There is sometimes a "Heartthrob Group" or "Hunk Group," three golfers who are popular with female fans. At the 2009 U.S. Open, for example, Sergio Garcia, Camilo Villegas, and Adam Scott were grouped.

A group might consist of three former U.S. Amateur winners; of three golfers who went to the same college; of three golfers with the same first or last names; of three golfers from the same country or same state; of three 40-plus stars or of three "young guns" -- or a combination, such as in a 2010 group when Ryo Ishikawa and McIlroy played the first two rounds with Tom Watson.

Former USGA president David Fay even once admitted to writer John Feinstein grouping three golfers because he knew all three were in therapy (that actually happened in a U.S. Women's Open, where the same pairings process is used). Fay also admitted to the existence of a grouping whose nickname is unsuitable to print, but it begins with "p" and rhymes with "crick -- the "p**** pairing." These are three golfers who are considered (by some, anyway) to be jerks. (Trying to spot that pairing, which doesn't happen every tournament, is a popular game each year when pairings are announced.)

Summing Up

Obviously, not every pairing at the U.S. Open carries any special meaning or significance -- in fact, most do not. Most are just your average, ordinary groupings of tour players. Plus, every U.S. Open includes a significant number of little-known amateurs and club pros and mini-tour pros, and the USGA officials tend to group those players together.

As for tee times? That's the same as in most other golf tournaments: USGA officials want to evenly split up their marquee groups between morning and afternoon times, ensuring that each of the first two days of television coverage includes one of the star groupings. And the groups made up of lesser-known golfers are the ones most likely to go off first thing in the morning or among the last groups in the afternoon.

So, to summarize, and repeat what we stated at the top: The first-and second-round U.S. Open pairings are determined in a manual process involving a very small number of USGA officials who meet, discuss and group golfers, without any hard-and-fast rules but with informal guidelines, plus a healthy dose of fun.