US Open Golf 2013: Ranking the Top 10 Head Cases at Merion

Richard Leivenberg@@richiemarketingContributor IIIJune 9, 2013

US Open Golf 2013: Ranking the Top 10 Head Cases at Merion

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    Imagine being in the lead with only two holes to play at the U.S. Open only to misplay your next shots and lose the lead and your chance at a major.

    That is what happened to Jim Furyk in 2012.  Perhaps the only way to rationalize his failure is that it wasn't his swing that failed him; it was his head.

    Head cases do that.  They let their heads get in the way of their games and can't play through it.

    These golfers could be characterized by overt emotional outbursts, club-throwing, wild swings of great play and record-making poor play, terrible choices, physical tics that delay their game and outright bad behavior.

    Such players are often comedic, mostly frustrating and always disappointing to both their fans and themselves.  Their antics can lead to abject failure; think David Duvall, who fell from the pinnacle of fame while ballooning in weight and scores.

    There may be nothing worse in all of sports than to lose the grasp of glory not by a physical miscue or by being beaten by a foe, but by your own mental implosion. 

    As fans, it gives us pause every time we see one of these players with the game on the line.  Will he chunk a chip shot?  Leave a birdie putt short? Duck-hook a tee shot into the woods?

    As we head into the U.S. Open, let's look at 10 players who epitomize the head case as we know it and wonder if they will be able to play through their own mental barriers while on one of golf's biggest stages.

No. 10: Boo Weekley

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    What can you say about a guy whose nickname is derived from Yogi Bear's sidekick, BooBoo the Bear?

    Is he a top-notch golfer or simply a comedian with a driver in his hand?  Perhaps a little of both.

    Boo may not be your quintessential head case in that his light-hearted demeanor lends itself to a nonchalance that doesn't necessarily get in the way of his performance.

    In Boo's case, he is more of a goof-ball who makes it hard for us to take him seriously.

    Assuredly, Boo has had an up and down career determined by what some may call his lack of professionalism.  Yet, there also may be a method to his madness, as witnessed by his hysterical Happy Gilmore gallop at the 37th Ryder Cup at Valhalla that diffused the pressure of the moment, undermined the Euros and helped bring a much-needed win to the American team.

    With a recent win at the Crown Plaza International, Boo may be back on his game and ready to thrill and entertain the crowds at Merion. 

    Wouldn't it be great to see him making the walk in the last group on Sunday?  Who knows what he would do?

No. 9: Dustin Johnson

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    Dustin Johnson may not only be the best golfer on the tour not to have won a major, but also the best athlete.

    The 6'4" Johnson can dunk a basketball in his bare feet, loves to surf and approaches golf with an aggressive, go-for-it style reminiscent of a cleanup hitter in baseball.

    This all-or-nothing attitude doesn't always make for the right moves in golf, where caution is often the best choice.

    It may have been what got in the way of him winning the 2010 PGA Championship when he inadvertently grounded his club leading to a two-shot penalty.  At the time, he was one-up on the 18th, seemingly in control of the tournament.

    A par would have given him his first and only major.  Instead, a mental miscue got in his way.  He had failed to familiarize himself with the local rules and didn't even know he was in a sand trap.

    This was not the only time he let his aggressiveness get in his way.  It happened earlier that same year at U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he let the lead slip through his fingers by shooting an 82 on the final round.

    Johnson has won since, most recently this year at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, and he assuredly will win again.  He just has way too much talent.

    Let's just hope he's learned a little about keeping his head on straight.

No. 8: Tiger Woods

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    Tiger Woods is as notorious for pounding clubs, grimacing and cursing after a bad shot as he is for his wild fist-pumps when he scores well.

    As the best front-runner in the history of golf, it is difficult to say that he lets his emotions get in the way of winning.  He may, in fact, play better when he is angry.

    Still, he is capable of monumental lapses for no apparent reason, like two weeks ago at Muirfield Village.

    Here he is, in the midst of a fantastic year that includes four wins already, he has his 15th major in sight and he implodes.  He not only shot a 79 that included the worst nine-hole score of his career, he faded from the pack and was never able to rebound.

    In other words, he looked awful and played awfully, making his fans and critics wonder which Tiger would show up this week at the Open.

    When the history books are written, among other things, Tiger will go down as the greatest front-runner ever.

    Now, he may be the architect of the greatest comeback.  He won the U.S. Open on one leg, then fell from grace and from the top of the golf rankings.  Not only was his game tested by his ultimate return, but his mental toughness.

    Entering 2013, he had seemingly overcome his physical and psychological maladies, once again striking fear in his opponents while returning to his rightful spot as the No. 1 player in the world.

    Then, in dramatic and truly unforeseen fashion, his awful performance at Muirfield cast a cloud over his play. 

    Sure, he had trouble with the weather and his putting stroke, but maybe it was his head that got in the way of his performance.  Is it possible that golf's greatest competitor got ahead of himself and was already planning his acceptance speech at Merion?

    Whatever the case, in true Tiger fashion, he has prepared us all for a dramatic and unpredictable U.S. Open tournament.

No. 7: Phil Mickelson

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    Way back in 2006, Phil Mickelson was going to win the U.S. Open at Winged Foot.  All he needed was a par on the 72nd hole.  Instead, he pulled out his "trusty" driver, knocked the ball off the hospitality tent,  hit a tree with his next shot, hit the next one into a bunker and ended the round and his big chance at an Open win with a double bogey.

    At the time, Phil said about this monstrous miscue, "I'm still in shock.  I can't believe I did that."

    Well, we can.  He hadn't been hitting his driver well at all, having hit just two of 13 fairways previously in the round.  Where was his head?  What could he have been thinking?

    Mickelson is somewhat infamous for this type of aggressive play and, of course, it has paid off many times. Perhaps the most famous is the shot off the pine needles at the Masters in 2010.

    It's the kind of shot and the type of play we all hope for on the grand stage, and Phil is most likely to grant our wish.  But watching Phil can also be a little like watching a NASCAR event and wondering when the next big crash will occur.

    Mickelson has yet to win a U.S. Open, and it may be because it is so often played on tight, short, rough-laden courses that demand cautious play, conservative course management and...cautious play. Not Phil's forte.

    Phil won in Phoenix in February but is not necessarily playing his best golf right now.  He will have to control his drives and manage his putter if he hopes to have a chance at Merion.

    Don't be surprised if  there is a moment when you yell at the TV, "Don't pull out the driver, Phil!"

No. 6: Ian Poulter

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    Recognizable by his loud clothes and even louder mouth, Ian Poulter is the golfer fans love to hate.

    In and of itself, his flamboyant style hasn't adversely affected his play.  The straight-shooting Poulter is known as one of golf's top match play competitors.  Still, he has yet to transfer his marvelous Ryder Cup play to a major championship, probably because of his brash, in-your-face attitude.

    After a record-setting performance at the Ryder Cup, Poulter, who has never halved a match, told the Mail Online, "If I go down, I'm going down in flames."

    Heady or head case?

    Poulter epitomizes the guy who lets it all hang out, consequences be damned.  It is no wonder he has never won a major.  How can a guy so volatile keep things on an even keel for four consecutive rounds?

    He just always seems like he is playing with a chip on his shoulder, which doesn't bode well when playing on center stage.

No. 5: Rory Sabbatini

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    We haven't heard much from Rory Sabbatini lately, and thankfully so.

    A live wire with a history of inappropriate course behavior, Rory was once close to USGA sanctions due to his unprofessional demeanor.

    Over the course of his career, he has yelled at a teenage fan who tried to help him find his ball, got into a profanity-laced argument with playing partner Sean O'Hair at the Zurich Classic and complained about Ben Crane's slow play, earning the unofficial but very apt title of "tour jackass of the week."

    His karma may have caught up to him.  He has missed the cut seven times already this year and ranks 139th in FedEX Cup points.

    Sabbatini may be the worst type of head case, a player no one wants to be around and whom none of the fans care for.

No. 4: Lucas Glover

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    Where have you gone, Lucas Glover?

    Once a college star at Clemson, Glover turned pro in 2003 and has three tour wins, one of which is at the U.S. Open in 2009.

    Since then, he has all but disappeared from the top of leaderboards and may be the perfect test case for how early success can be as damaging as it is rewarding.

    His current official world golf ranking is No. 204, and other than his Open win, he is probably most notable for his on-again, off-again werewolf beard that by itself would get him placed on this list.

    He surprised fans by taking a brief lead at the Zurich Classic earlier this year, ultimately finishing fourth, but there is little reason to believe he will make a run at the upcoming Open.

No. 3: Jim Furyk

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    You really never see Jim Furyk get ruffled, pound a club, yell at a fan, use profanity or break a rule.  He is a likeable, steady player with an excellent golf pedigree.

    Oh yeah, except for the year 2012, a year that Furyk, more than anyone else, would like to forget.

    Furyk had three chances to win last year and blew all of them in unconscionable and very un-Furyk like fashion.

    There was the playoff at Tampa Bay where he lost to Luke Donald, who made a great shot to win it.

    But then came the U.S. Open, when he snap-hooked his tee shot on the 16th, made a double bogey and lost his chance at another major win.  He then took the lead into the final round at Sea Island, only to finish two shots behind.

    As bad as that was, he still made it onto the Ryder Cup team, where he sought redemption. That was not to be.  He continued his slide by losing to Sergio Garcia with a one-up lead with two holes to play.

    The guy with the pro tour's oddest swing had suddenly become a punch line.

    No one would ever call Furyk, who has won 16 times on the tour including the 2003 U.S. Open, a choker.  But he hasn't returned to his former self this season.

    He could do a lot to seal the past and redeem himself with a good showing at Merion.

No. 2: Rory McIlroy

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    The world's No. 2 player has lost sight of his game, and in the process, we have lost sight of him.

    Rory McIlroy has failed to win a PGA event this year in a season that includes at least one ignominious mid-tournament withdrawal from the Honda Classic and a very mediocre 29th-place finish at the Masters.

    We all know about his switch to his sponsor Nike's clubs, which many feel has factored into his subpar season.  But is there more to it than just that?

    McIlroy came to his world ranking in credible high style, winning four times last year including his dominant PGA Championship win.  He amassed more than $8 million in winnings in 2012.

    He was and is the heir apparent.

    So, has he lost his way in addition to his stroke?   Is he succumbing to his celebrity?

    Going into Merion, he will assuredly have to improve his putting, where he ranks 122nd on the tour.  More than that, he needs to regain his swagger.  He sounds like someone still searching for his game, a game that once dominated the tour. 

    'It's one of these years where I'm waiting for one week where it all clicks together and then I can get on a run," he told the Manila Bulletin.  "I've had a couple of chances to win this year and I haven't taken them. I've had a few indifferent performances as well.

    ''When this all clicks into place one week, I should be off and running.''

    It would be a good time for McIlroy to shrug off whatever has been ailing him and show the golfing world just how good he is.

No. 1: Sergio Garcia

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    So many screw-ups, so little time.

    We thought we were done with all of that, Sergio, and then you reel us back in.

    We could start this report with Sergio Garcia's remark about what he would serve if he and Tiger Woods had dinner together during the U.S. Open.  "We will have him round every night," García told the Guardian.  "We will serve fried chicken."

    But, that's a different story and one that will plague him the rest of his career.

    Garcia began as an exuberant 19-year-old who faced off against Tiger and seemingly had all of the physical skills to compete against him over time.

    But that was not to be.  Even though he has 23 wins to his credit, he has yet to win the big one.  Unless he does so, he will be relegated to that worst of epithets: the "best player not to have won a major."

    This has actually been a stellar year for Sergio, who has seemingly cast off his previous problems on the green.  For many years, he was just unable to make the big putt.

    For much of his career, though, he has also not been able to close in a major.  His capacity for fading under pressure is virtually unmatched.

    Just look at the 2012 Masters, when he was in contention going into Saturday, then shot a 71, followed that with a 75 and later said the unspeakable for any pro athlete: "I'm not good enough... I don't have the thing I need to have. In 13 years I've come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place."

    Worse was his choke at the 2007 British Open, when he entered last day with a four-stroke lead, then went to a playoff, which he lost.

    While that was a monumental miscue, it was reminiscent of his misadventure during the 2006 British Open when he was also in the last group yet lost his composure only to watch Tiger shoot past him and win the tournament. 

    Then there was this year's Players Championship.  Sergio began by complaining that Tiger disrupted him during his backswing, one of the silliest things ever said since Tiger has to play while thousands of onlookers watch his every move.

    Both men played well throughout the tournament until the last two holes, when Sergio unraveled.  He hit three balls in the water for a quadruple-bogey-double-bogey finish. 

    Who you gonna blame now, Sergio?

    It is sad to see so much natural talent wasted.  But at 33 years old, Sergio has plenty of time to get his major.

    Sergio vs. Tiger.  Sergio vs. Merion.  Sergio vs. himself.

    Should be a dramatic U.S. Open, with plenty of head cases to go around.