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The season’s second major, our national championship, heads back to one of the country’s more famed tracks, Merion Golf Club. Located just outside of Philadelphia in Ardmore, Pa., and designed in 1912 by Hugh Wilson, Merion is dripping with history. In its lifetime, the course has hosted five U.S. Opens, six U.S. Amateurs, and four U.S. Women’s Amateurs. Merion is unconventional by today’s course standards, with 18 holes packed into only 120 acres of land – most major’s today are hosted on 250+ acres. Also, the pins are topped with small wicker baskets rather than flags, so best of luck to the caddies trying to judge the wind. But above all else, Merion is unlike most major courses played nowadays because of its length (or lack thereof), stretching to only 6,996 yards. It is only a par 70, so these guys won’t be able to beat up on the par 5’s; still, that is a paltry yardage for the distances the Tour guys hit the ball now.
The plan was for the USGA to set up the course firm and fast, but the five-plus inches of rain that fell late last week and the additional deluge the course got on Monday has rendered that plan under water. With all that rain (and more in the forecast) the rough will play much thicker and more penal, but the fairways will now be wider and the greens much more receptive. Reports from the USGA early Tuesday were that green speeds were still running around 13 on the stimpmeter, an amazing feat of science. They even had to slow down the 5th green, which slopes towards a hazard bordering the left side. With all the talk of players shattering records on a defenseless course, I think the closing stretch will hold its own; by the end of the weekend the greens will be faster than most anticipate and the rough will certainly cause some problems for the players. Graeme McDowell said on Tuesday, “I think spin is going to be a massive issue coming into these greens” and that he would “take eight-under par right now and take my chances.” The official over/under number from the betting parlors is a four-round total of 270.5, which would be 10 or 11 under par. The wet conditions combined with no recent course history for the majority of the pros, there is no clear-cut favorite. The 113th U.S. Open is shrouded in mystery.
There are, however, a few types of stats and players that could have success on this precision layout. The recipe to win at Merion is not to overpower it. Instead, it is a test of golf that demands accuracy and strategy. Par-4 performance, wedge shots from 100-150 yards, and putting from 10-25 feet are the statistics that could come to the forefront this week. Accuracy off of the tee is a given, but with players hitting anything from 5-irons to 5-woods off of some of the tees, that stat doesn’t hold as much water for me this week. Finally, and as with every U.S. Open Championship, if there were a mental toughness statistic, it would surely be a must-have.
Here are some of the feature pairings and local times:
Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Nicolas Colsaerts – 7:00 a.m.
Keegan Bradley, Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker – 7:11 a.m.
Matt Kuchar, Justin Rose, Brandt Snedeker – 7:22 a.m.
Sergio Garcia, Stewart Cink, Paddy Harrington – 7:44 a.m.
Ian Poulter, Boo Weekley, Jason Dufner – 7:55 a.m.
Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Matteo Manassero – 8:06 a.m.
Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer – 12:52 p.m.
Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson, Graeme McDowell – 1:03 p.m.
Tiger Woods, Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy – 1:14 p.m.
1. Tiger Woods. The major drought ends here. While the par-70 layouts do not typically favor his traditional way of winning (dominating on the Par 5’s), Tiger’s game has evolved. He plays more conservative and wins with strategy, iron play and short game. While Woods might tell the media he is going to hit six or seven drivers, once the tournament starts I expect that number to be more like three or four. His play at the Players Championship is exactly what is needed at Merion this week: precision off the tee, an iron or fairway wood, and sinking putts. His play at Memorial was his worst of the year in just about every aspect of his game, but clearly, I am in the camp that believes it was an aberration. I would love to see the 2-iron stinger back in the bag, but expect plenty of cut 5-woods and 3-irons, a high GIR % and a good week on these sneaky fast greens. This could be major number 15 in his march towards the magic number of 18.
2. Graeme McDowell. See CA Schmidt’s breakdown – maybe the premium U.S. Open player in the game, McDowell blends a game of mental toughness, exact precision and clutch mid–range putting. In my mind, he is almost a co-favorite with Tiger, and I would be shocked if McDowell is not in or near the lead on the back nine on Sunday… and in that scenario, it’s tough to pick against him.
3. Steve Stricker. Almost an automatic to make the cut, with only two MC’s in 17 appearances, but no top 10s since 2006 at Winged Foot. I think most of that can be attributed to the length of most Open courses, but with Merion’s under 7,000-yard layout, this week could be a welcome change for Stricker. He puts the ball in play off the tee and from that point, there might not be a better wedge/putter combo player in the world.
4. Lee Westwood. With top 25’s in this event since 2008, Westwood’s ball-striking prowess really shines on difficult setups. If you throw out the Memorial, Westwood comes in riding four straight top 10’s, so his game is there. Like it always does with Lee, his tournament will ride on the short stick – if he’s average on the greens, it will most likely be another high finish in a major, but if he gets hot, he could win his first major championship.
5. Matt Kuchar. Comes into Merion in great form, and has racked up three top 10s in his last five majors. The only thing Kuch is missing on his resume is a major, and Merion could be the fit he has been waiting for. He’s 10th in Scrambling, 13th in the All Around, 13th in Strokes Gained Putting, and 7th in Par 4 scoring average. If Kuchar can have a good week off the tee, the rest of his game is good enough for him to be at the top of the leaderboard at the end of the week.
- Phil Mickelson – At this point, he is seriously undervalued by the media and even by the betting parlors. Phil would love to win this championship, as it would cap off his Hall of Fame career. He is prone to hitting it anywhere off the tee and pile up some big numbers on the scorecard, but, again, he loves this Championship. Flying under the radar, I think Phil could sneak up the leaderboard by Sunday.
- Rory McIlroy – Most people are down on him, few are picking him and if he decides to be aggressive and hit driver frequently, I am right along with those people. But if Rory decides to hit 2-irons off of more tees and play the wedge game, I think he could surprise this week.
- Luke Donald – Would seem like the perfect course for him to capture his first major, but never better than a T12 in the U.S. Open. I don’t think the vibe this week will be any different.
- Justin Rose – The stat machine, every statistical category would point to Rose being the winner this week. But, like Donald, his major record scares me away.
- Jim Furyk – A steely veteran that can grind and scrap when conditions get tough. He bases his game off of accuracy and short game rather than trying to overpower a golf course: both attributes which could benefit him this week. Should have won last year at Olympic, when many thought it was his last shot at a major, but a short course in his home state might get Furyk up for one more chance at it.
- Adam Scott – The past five major championships Adam Scott is a combined 15 under par; the next closest competitor is Tiger Woods…AT 2 OVER PAR. Playing great golf in 2013 with that Masters win and five top 25s in only seven events. But he’s made the cut in less than half of his U.S. Open appearances and has never logged a top 10.
- Kevin Chappell – Back-to-back Top 10s in this championship, Chappell plays tough golf courses very well. Coming in off of a solo 2nd at Memorial, Chappell might be able to sneak his way onto the Sunday leaderboard once again.
- Billy Horschel – No history as a professional, but based purely on stats, hard to find a guy better than BillyHo. He is 7th in Par 4 scoring, 17th in Strokes Gained, 34th in GIR% and 31st in Driving Accuracy, but will the major championship spotlight get the best of him?
- Potential Busts: Brandt Snedeker, Louis Oosthuizen, Zach Johnson, Rickie Fowler
- Sleepers: KJ Choi, David Hern, Kevin Chappell, Boo Weekley
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Photo: USA Today Sports Images