As we head into this week's descent of the world's top golfers to southeastern Pennsylvania for the 2013 U.S. Open, there is one prevailing storyline: What will happen with Tiger Woods?
With Woods reaching the fifth year since his last major championship, the conversation about the world's best golfer heading into Slams has become near-obsessive. To borrow from frightening recent events, the Woods conversation has almost taken on a Tebowian feel. And I mean that in terms of excess. Because, I mean, c'mon. To try to juxtapose the resumes of the two would be akin to doing the Chateau Marmont and a Motel 6.
What the Woods conversation does—and this is also a popular, albeit true trope—is shadows the other players in the field. We know of the Rory McIlroys, the Phil Mickelsons. But all it takes is one look at recent U.S. Open history to acknowledge one of those trio of players probably isn't winning. Strip away McIlroy in 2011, and the last three Open winners have a combined eight PGA Tour victories.
Heck, someone named Michael Campbell won the thing in 2005. Major golf tournaments are inherently weird, and we've learned that more and more as the gap between the Michael Campbells and Tiger Woodses of the world narrow. You don't have to be inherently brilliant to win the U.S. Open. You have to survive, to subsist against the conditions and hope to not wrap your 7-iron around a tree in frustration.
So, it's important to check in on these players who just might give Woods and McIlroy and Mickelson a smidgen of competition. Just to give some semblance of criterion, every golfer named is currently going off at 40-1 or worse odds at Bovada. That eliminates 12 golfers from consideration—enough to still take risks while not going completely batty.
So with that in mind, here's a look at a few guys you can expect to see contend this weekend at Merion.
When: Thursday, June 13 through Sunday, June 16
Watch: ESPN (Thursday & Friday), NBC (Saturday & Sunday)
Dark-Horse Contenders (Odds via Bovada)
Jim Furyk (40-1)
One of the most oft-mentioned storylines heading into this week has been the length of Merion Golf Club's East Course. At just 6,996 yards in length, Merion measures as the shortest U.S. Open course since Shinnecock Hills in 2004—which was eerily equidistant to the 2013 course. In the years since, every Open course has been above 7,000 yards, playing into the increasingly long distances the tour's top players can rocket the ball.
The big difference here, though, is weather. Heavy rains have washed down on the southeastern part of Pennsylvania this week, leaving parts of the Merion course flooded with water. While all is expected to be copacetic come Thursday, this is obviously worrisome to organizers. U.S. Open courses are supposed to be litmus tests, not relatively short and playing soft.
As a result, it seems prudent to note that accuracy—not power—will win this tournament. You're not going to need booming, Dustin Johnson-style drives to compete this week. Merely being able to place the ball well will be enough, and there are few better players in the world at doing so than Jim Furyk.
Always worth mentioning heading into major tournaments, Furyk has hit a bit of a struggle patch this season. He competed well at the Masters before closing out with a brutal 76 on Sunday, but the positives have been few this year. The 43-year-old has finished inside the top 10 just twice this season, not once since April 4.
But there is reason for optimism this week—and plenty of it. Furyk has the fourth-best driving accuracy on tour this year, and leads all golfers in proximity to the hole. Even at age 43, with that goofy swing, he's still crazy accurate.
Plus, Furyk has grown in to something of a U.S. Open leaderboard staple over this past decade. His only major tournament win was at this event in 2003, finished tied for second twice and held a 72-hole lead 12 months ago before shooting a 74 on Sunday to finish in fourth.
Furyk is accurate, he's consistently great in this tournament and he's from Pennsylvania. What's not to like?
Henrik Stenson (66-1)
You might as well just get used to the pattern. Accuracy matters. Outside of the mere mentioning of the course length, the deluge of details also necessitates mentioning the narrow fairways on this course. Wetness may do wonders for softening up greens and the like, but it also creates a marshiness in the deep stuff that makes for nightmarish results.
You know and I know that it's good to stay out of the bunkers, the rough, etc. Whatever. But of all the extreme value bets—and 66-1 is pretty darned extreme—Stenson is undoubtedly the best at doing so.
Heading into this week's action, Stenson leads all golfers in driving accuracy (70.98 percent) and is third in greens in regulation (71.18 percent). Seeing as accuracy in those two overarching statistics usually tends to bring forth top-notch scores and Stenson has been cut as many times as he's finished inside the top 10 this year (twice), you can probably guess where his problems have been.
Stenson ranks 103rd on the tour in strokes gained via putting this year, and he has one-putted on just 36.28 percent of his holes. That's very bad considering the PGA Tour lists just 183 golfers as having qualified for the latter statistic. Couple that with a 50 percent cut rate at U.S. Opens (he's only played in four), and you can quickly see that skepticism is at least somewhat warranted.
That being said, we're working on minute chances here with all golfers. Stenson drives the ball beautifully, and he's also above the tour average at 291.4 yards off the tee. If he can even work his way into a replacement-level putter this weekend, not many flaws exist in his candidacy.
Stenson even fits into the guys-we've-heard-of-but-never-really-watched-closely trend of recent U.S. Open winners. Before their U.S. Open wins, you could roughly throw Graeme McDowell, Lucas Glover, Webb Simpson and Stenson into a big melting pot of back-of-the-mind PGA Tour contention.
Should he find the short stick, Stenson could be next on that list.
Billy Horschel (66-1)
Let's step away from toting the accuracy statistics for a bit. Instead, how about looking at a player who has just been really, really good of late?
That's Billy Horschel. The 26-year-old has quietly been among the best players in the world this year. He sits fourth in the current FedEx Cup standings, fifth on the PGA Tour money list for 2013 and is tied with a gaggle of folks for a tour-best six top-10 finishes.
All but one of Horschel's top-10 triumphs have come in his last seven events. He's been in contention on a near-weekly basis, with the only two exceptions being the Players Championship and the Memorial. Here's a look at just how good Horschel has been over the past couple of months:
|St. Jude Classic||T-10|
It would have been easy to poke holes in Horschel's candidacy had he not come back with a strong performance at St. Jude last week. Quietly, assuredly and without hardly any fanfare, Horschel has been one of the world's most consistent performers heading into this week's action.
Now, of course, not everything is perfect. Horschel has just one PGA Tour win (at Zurich) and has only played in the U.S. Open once—in 2006, where he was cut as an amateur. In the seven years since, he's never played in a major championship. Not one. Horschel is a neophyte when it comes to playing on the grandest stage.
Perhaps that's a good thing. Like the aforementioned veterans, Horschel has been among the most accurate PGA Tour players this season, though not in the top five area. His game has been consistently strong all-around, so there's no reason on the surface that he wouldn't compete this weekend.
Nevertheless, it's equally possible that Horschel flames out and I spend my Friday evening questioning myself for touting the extreme underdog. That the moment of playing in this tournament trumps any massive improvements made to his game this season. But if you're looking for a guy who could completely come out of nowhere while hiding in plain sight all along, Horschel is as good a name to watch as any.
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