US Open Golf 2013: Dark-Horse Candidates to Win at Merion

Kirk KenneyFeatured ColumnistJune 11, 2013

US Open Golf 2013: Dark-Horse Candidates to Win at Merion

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    The 113th edition of the U.S. Open comes to Merion Golf Club for the fifth time, although this is the first visit in 32 years.

    That explains why only 11 golfers in the 156-player field have any previous experience on the course in a competitive situation. Relatively limited course knowledge, further restricted by rain that has kept practice rounds to a minimum, provides an opportunity for a dark-horse candidate to emerge from the field and challenge for the championship.

    The focus will be on the favorites—Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Matt Kuchar and Phil Mickelson, among others—positioned at or near the top of the world rankings. But the following group includes five major winners—including two-time U.S. Open winner Ernie Els—eager to see their names atop the leaderboard. 

    Statistics from PGATour.com.

Keegan Bradley

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    U.S. Open History: He tied for 68th last year at Olympic Club in his only U.S. Open appearance.

    Momentum Meter: He has six top-10 finishes in 16 events this year, highlighted by a second place last month at the HP Byron Nelson Championship. He tied for 50th two weeks ago at the Memorial.

    Why He Can Win: The 2011 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year doesn't have the pressure of trying to win his first major. He did that two years ago at the PGA Championship, becoming the third player in history—with Ben Curtis and Francis Ouimet—to win his first time out in a major. He figures to get a few useful tips from five-time runner-up Phil Mickelson, who is a mentor and practice partner.

Jason Dufner

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    U.S. Open History: He tied for 33rd in his first Open appearance in 2010 and missed the cut in 2011, but finished tied for fourth last year at Olympic Club.

    Momentum Meter: He has four top-25 finishes this season, although he tied for 46th at the Colonial in his most recent outing.

    Why He Can Win: Majors require patience and perseverance and he has learned what it takes to win the past couple of years. It wouldn't be a shock to the system if he finds himself contending on the back nine Sunday, not after finishing fourth last season in the Open and finishing second to Keegan Bradley after a playoff in the 2011 PGA Championship.

Ernie Els

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    U.S. Open History: Few players have had more success at the U.S. Open than Els, a two-time winner who has nine top-10 finishes in his 20 appearances. He won in 1994 at Oakmont (beating Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts in a playoff) and in 1997 at Congressional, finished second three times and third once. He was ninth last year at Olympic Club.

    Momentum Meter: He has three top-25 finishes in 10 events this season. He tied for 37th two weeks ago at the Memorial.

    Why He Can Win: As a four-time major winner—including last year's British Open—Els knows better than most what it takes to win. He also has one of the sweetest swings in the game, which serves him well in tight conditions favored by the USGA when it sets up an Open course. While it would be unusual for a player in his 40s to hoist the winner's trophy, it wouldn't be unprecedented. At 43, Els is younger than Hale Irwin was in 1990 at Medinah when he became the oldest Open champion (45 years, 15 days).

Rickie Fowler

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    U.S. Open History: His best finish in four appearances—two cuts made—was 41st place last year at Olympic Club.

    Momentum Meter: He has three top-10 finishes in 13 starts this season, including a third place at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He finished tied for 37th two weeks ago at the Memorial.

    Why He Can Win: He is one of only 11 players in the field who has played competitive rounds at Merion after competing in the 2009 Walker Cup. Fowler won all four of his matches in the event. Although it was match play, the experience and confidence should prove invaluable for the Open.

Jim Furyk

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    U.S. Open History: He won his one major in the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, where his 272 tied the record for the lowest 72-hole score at the Open. He has six top-10 finishes in 18 Open appearances. He finished second in both 2006 and 2007 and was in the hunt going into the final day last year at Olympic Club before finishing fourth.

    Momentum Meter: A tie for third place at the Valero Texas Open and a tie for seventh at the Tampa Bay Championship are the highlights in the 12 events he has played this year.

    Why He Can Win: He possesses the patience one needs to succeed in a major and as a native of Lancaster, Pa., he will be comfortable with his surroundings. Furyk played in the 1989 U.S. Amateur at Merion, so he has that going for him. At 43, rain delays and slow play could cause fatigue. Fortunately, he has a good supply of 5-Hour Energy.

Padraig Harrington

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    U.S. Open History: His 15 U.S. Open appearances include five top-10 finishes, highlighted by a tie for fourth place last year at Olympic Club.

    Momentum Meter: He has finished among the top 10 three times in his 10 events this year. That includes last week's tie for 10th in the St. Jude Classic.

    Why He Can Win: It appeared he had several majors in his future when he won three—back-to-back British Opens and a PGA Championship—in a two-year span in 2007-08. It's been five years now without another major victory, although Harrington has been playing with confidence. He said, according to The Irish Times, that putting "has been my Achilles' heel over the last year." It is a situation he believes was remedied recently by switching to a belly putter.

Steve Stricker

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    U.S. Open History: His 17 U.S. Open appearances include three top-10 finishes. He tied for 15th last year at Olympic Club.

    Momentum Meter: He opened the season with a bang, finishing second in both the Tournament of Champions and WGC-Cadillac Championship. He has trimmed back his schedule substantially, playing just six events this year. In his most recent event, he tied for 37th at The Players Championship last month.

    Why He Can Win: Stricker is tanned, rested and ready to take on a course he first got to know when it hosted the 1989 U.S. Amateur. There has been so much rain the past week that course conditions at Merion will be soft. That should play right into the hands of Stricker, whose strengths are with the wedge and putter.

Bubba Watson

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    U.S. Open History: This will be his seventh U.S. Open appearance. He has missed the cut three times, including last year at the Olympic Club. His best finish was a tie for fifth in 2007 at Oakmont Country Club.

    Momentum Meter: His two top-10 finishes this season came within the first two months of the year. He finished tied for 37th last month at The Players Championship. He was in contention midway through the Memorial two weeks ago before back-to-back 75s dropped him into a tie for 29th.

    Why He Can Win: He won the 2012 Masters, so he knows the pressure of leading a major on the final day. He is one of the tour's longest hitters off the tee and could drive some of the shorter par fours, especially in the middle of the course, in his search for birdies.