It's now officially US Open week -- so if you're reading this, it means you're a fan and are likely looking forward to seeing the best players in the world get hit over the head for four days by Old Man Par. It also means you need to play our Majors Championship game -- $10, pick a team of any six golfers, and if they play well enough you'll win $1,000. It's a lot of fun and anyone can play, so spread the word.
It seems like we were just here a couple of months ago: Tiger, Rory and Luke all coming off wins heading into The Masters. What happened? Donald was the highest finisher of that triumvirate with a less-than-stellar t32. Of those three, Luke probably has the fewest questions to answer this week, although he does not have a good US Open record (t12 at Winged Foot in 2006 is his best finish -- more on that later).
Last year, McIlroy ripped through the US Open record books with a finishing score of -16 at Congressional Country Club, which surely was on the minds of the USGA as they set up Olympic Club for this year’s event. Granted, torrential rains aren’t expected to soften up the course as they did in 2011, but it doesn’t appear that they are taking any chances in San Fran. Matt Kuchar, who played a practice round at Olympic last week and who is striking it as well as anyone right now, said he played great -- and made no birdies and two bogeys. That was during a practice round the week before the tourney. Yikes.
Still, it’s guys such as Kooch who I favor this week: great ballstrikers, maybe even potentially average-or-worse putters. The recently renovated Olympic Club is unlike other classic US Open courses that simply shrink the fairways for the major to help protect relatively flat greens or bring certain bunkers into play. No, Olympic winds its way around trees with sharp doglegs and overhanging trees, sloping fairways and multi-tiered and raised greens that are often unfair even once on the surface (Payne Stewart is nodding from above us). Some of that has been corrected, but my point is this: players must be able to hit it VERY straight and/or bend it both ways to hit the fairways, and they have to have precise iron games to hit the greens. Everyone is going to struggle putting, so it somewhat equalizes the field in that regard.
I’ll let James Dalthorp get into the full history of Olympic Club and the Lake Course -- he played the Junior Amateur there back in the day -- in Wednesday’s preview, but it’s safe to say the list of Open champs and runners-up such Lee Janzen (1998; beat Payne Stewart by a stroke), Scott Simpson (1987; beat Tom Watson by a stroke), Billy Casper (1966; beat Arnold Palmer in a playoff) and Jack Fleck (1955; beat Ben Hogan in a playoff) supports my theory: this is a course that rewards dudes who can strike it with a full swing. It’s also where the giants of the game are inched out by some of the lesser-knowns. With a group of up to 10 players who could be considered the best players in the world right now, it’s harder to identify which giant might be slain this week, and which underdog could sling the rock.
Remember, check the official tee times for withdrawals before entering your player of team in our games. Onto the list, and I'm not picking darkhorses this week as this is a big one:
11. Bonus pick: Francesco Molinari. He hits an astounding percentage of greens (77.1%), is a very straight driver and has had good results lately, including a win last month in Spain and 19th at The Masters in April. He hasn’t done much in US Opens, but every year there are two or three surprises in the top 10 and his measurables look good for Olympic. I also like that he's playing with Euro Tour stalwart and all-around nice guy Peter Hanson the first two days -- he should be comfortable.
10. Rory McIlroy. I don't trust the Memphis results, and I don't like how he played at the last major in Augusta. He could clearly win the event, but I saw way too many loose shots in Memphis with the tourney in his grasp -- on the heels of three consecutive missed cuts -- to fully trust him at the US Open. But it's still a tough decision.
9. Dustin Johnson. A leap of faith here with DJ, but not without merit. Much has and will be said about the fact that no one has won the Open after winning a Tour event the week before, but it's a new age and guys fly around on private jets and don't have to sluff it from tourney to tourney like they did just a decade or two ago. So we're ultimately not talking about a ton of history here. I'm not sure if DJ will ever be able to hold it together for 72 holes in this environment, but he's contended in several majors now and he has a unique kind of game: 10th in driving distance, 34th in GIR%, 50th in putting and 22nd in scrambling. That's a good combo when you're in the 150's in driving accuracy (which happened to be t18 in Memphis last week, where he won). He also shot 82 in the final round at Pebble two years ago and still finished in the top-10.
8. Ryo Ishikawa. (Originally had John Huh here, but he's not in the field.) Is it too much to expect a relatively unproven young player to contend at the US Open? Probably. But every year a less-heralded young gun manages to sneak up the leaderboard: Kevin Chappell in 2011, Martin Kaymer in 2010, Ricky Barnes in 2009, DJ Trahan and John Merrick in 2008, etc., etc. I thought about Rickie Fowler in this spot, but his best finish in an Open is t60 three years ago. Ishikawa has tow top-35's in Opens in two attempts despite not ranking well in driving accuracy or GIR%. All of the guys above had good, if not excellent, amateur careers as well. He will have a big following San Fran -- practically a home game for the phenom.
7. Luke Donald. I honestly almost didn’t include him, as I think his driving game is sporadic enough that he might not be able to contend – he’s already short off the tee, and he can get it going sideways for stretches during a round. But I like that his best US Open finish was at Winged Foot (even it was six years ago). Winged Foot is a lot more like Olympic than Congressional, or even Pebble or Bethpage. There’s some shaping to do off the tee and the greens have plenty of tiers to them. I also like that he’s back on one of his consistency streaks, with two wins and two other top-6’s worldwide since mid-March. And even if he does spray it sometimes, he is in the top-10 in driving accuracy, 41st in GIR% and first in putting. On paper, the World No. 1 should be the favorite. But as Kenny Mayne used to say: they don’t play games on paper, they play them inside your tv set.
--------------- Below will be my Majors Challenge team ---------------
6. Tiger Woods. He's got to be on the list, right? But my confidence in his game just isn't there yet. No one would be shocked if he won, but I don't think too many people would be shocked if he missed the cut. He finished t18 at Olympic in 1998 as he was storming onto the world scene, but as we all know, that was a different Tiger and the field has caught him the last 14 years. I think he'll middle around +3 to +5 the first couple of rounds, have a good Saturday, but end up somewhere around 10th. I'm not a huge fan of his paring with Phil and Bubba for him, even if he could get off well with 7:33 a.m. tee time on Thursday. If he starts off with an under-par round or on page one of the leaderboard on Thursday, watch out.
5. Peter Hanson. The Swede has become a major force in big tournaments, including a t3 at The Masters, and t7 in 2011 and 16th in 2010 at the US Open. I actually look at his result at Augusta more favorably than Congressional last year – Augusta National was much firmer and faster, which is how Olympic will play. He hits a lot of greens and putts fairly well, always a good combo. Olympic’s new bent grass greens should also help him.
4. Jason Dufner. Hard not to pick the guy, as he's been a contender in the last two majors, has been the hottest golfer on the planet this year, and is in the top-11 in both GIR% and fairways hit. But winning in New Orleans and Dallas is a lot different that winning a major, and he's shown a propensity to let guys back in tournaments or falter down the stretch. That's probably still in his mind, but does his newfound confidence trump it? We'll see. I'm also not convinced he can move the ball left to right with any consistency, or more accurately not hit some sort of slight draw. He'll have to soften some of those drives and approaches to hit fairways and greens at Olympic. Ultimately, I think he'll be a factor.
3. Matt Kuchar. He seems destined to win an Open or PGA at some point, although the same could be said for Luke Donald. While Donald’s putter and short game are his biggest strengths, I will take Kooch’s fairways (25th in driving accuracy), greens (10th in GIR%) and average putter (79th in SG-P) at a US Open course. He leads the Tour in scoring average and has a good recent track record at Opens (t14 in 2012, t6 in 2010). He’s also made 19 consecutive cuts, leading the Tour.
2. Phil Mickelson. Everyone knows about his ridiculous run of second-place finishes in the US Open, and that he's a California kid, and that he's playing some of the most consistent golf of his life. But he also finished t10 here in 1998, and he has a knack of upping his driving game for the US Open. He and Tiger are the two guys in the field who have consistently proven that they have all the physical elements -- driving, timely iron play, scrambling and putting -- to win the US Open. For Phil, it's a positive in this sense that he's playing with Tiger on Thursday and Friday -- he's had his number head-to-head recently. It's on the weekends where Phil has lacked the course management aspect -- vital this week. There's some Tom Watson comparisons here -- the original TW never won the PGA, his nemesis. So Phil is a prime candidate to be the big fish who gets knocked off by the the guy who's never won a major. Just like Watson in 1987 to Simpson…
1. Winner: Lee Westwood. On the front end, I like his afternoon/morning tee times -- there's a decent chance that no one goes too low in the morning on Thursday and everything is laid out in front of him. More intangibly, it doesn't really matter that he finished t7 at Olympic in 1998, or t3 the last two US Opens in Northern California, or that he just won the Nordea Masters in Sweden last week… All of that's meaningless to a certain degree with Westwood. His battle is more mental than physical – there’s no one who hits the ball straighter than he does, or has consistently performed well in the majors in recent years as he has without a win. His last eight US major championships: t3 (2012 Masters), t8 (2011 PGA), t3 (2011 US Open), t11 (Masters), t16 (2010 US Open), 2nd (2010 Masters), t3 (2009 PGA), t23 (2009 US Open). That’s three top-5's, five top-10's and a bottoming out at t23 three years ago. It's also a wide variety of major championship tests at which he’s performed exceedingly well, so the conditions at Olympic shouldn’t be an issue. It’s whether or not he can hit an iron shot or putt on the back nine on Sunday like he has the previous 63 holes. He’s not a good putter – but on this track, this week, with such a premium on fairways and greens, all he needs is to do is putt a little better than usual… or to have fortune call his name for a couple of hours. It's time for Lee to win one.
Others I strongly considered: Bubba Watson, Jim Furyk, Ian Poulter, Geoff Ogilvy, Freddy Jacobsen, Brandt Snedeker (injured), Spencer Levin, Hunter Mahan and Zach Johnson. I like all of those guys here, but that would've been a 20-Fer.
Player who will disappoint: Justin Rose. As well as he's played this year -- and I had him on my original list of those to consider -- his record in the US Open is too much to ignore. Three consecutive MC's, with a t10 in 2007 and a t5 in 2003 and another MC sandwiched in there. I believe he'll make the weekend, but I think expectations are too high for him this year.
Good picks last week: DJ (winner), Ken Duke (t7), JB Holmes (t19 after a disappointing Sunday). Martin Laird (t24) and Bob Estes (t34) had decent returns.
Bad picks: Robert Karlsson inexplicably missed the cut, as did David Toms (although I hedged that one) and Spencer Levin.
Good luck this week -- and get your friends into our US Open Pick 6.
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Photo: US Presswire