US Open 2013: Ranking the Biggest Surprises at Merion

Will Leivenberg@@will_leivenbergFeatured ColumnistJune 17, 2013

US Open 2013: Ranking the Biggest Surprises at Merion

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    The 113th U.S. Open was Phil Mickelson's to lose Sunday at Merion Golf Club.

    But no matter what mistakes we recall from Lefty's ebb and flow final round, there's no denying that Justin Rose (+1) deservedly won the Open and in doing so, his first major championship.

    The 32-year-old Englishman performed with the poise of a veteran beginning with his first tee shot Thursday. Rose never carded anything worse than a bogey at Merion, a feat very few competitors own after trudging through one of the most grueling U.S. Open tracks in recent memory.

    Rose is no fluke either.

    He owns four top 10s this season on tour and two top 10s in his career at the US Open. This is a player who's been chomping at the bit in majors, grabbing a pair of top 10s last year, first at the Masters (T8) and then at the PGA Championship (T3).

    Rose was a favorite to win the U.S. Open—a strong driver of the golf ball and an even better ball-striker—so his victory is by no means as surprising as some of the other storylines from Merion, ranging from the heavy contenders that collapsed to the memorable performances of some unlikely golfers.

    Let's take a look!

No. 1: Phil Mickelson's Putter Failed Him, Plain and Simple

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    Phil Mickelson needed 35 putts before he reached the 18th green. That says it all.

    You can point to his struggles off the tee Sunday (eight of 14 fairways hit) or the glaring struggles he had with distance control (a consequence of hitting out of Merion's thick rough), but his putter ultimately let him down at Merion.

    His putter was his Achilles Heel since Day 1 of the championship. Mickelson made just nine birdies on the week, and one in his final round.

    Rose made 15 this week, five of which came in the final round.

    Granted, Lefty's hole out on the 10th hole was amazing. It changed the entire momentum of the championship considering Mickelson had fallen a few shots back of Rose.

    It was classic Phil—making magic with a wedge at the most unlikely of moments.

    But his two double-bogeys at holes 3 and 5 cost him, as well as a host of other missed opportunities on the greens. After Sunday's round he holds one of the more dubious records in the history of golf—six runner up finishes at the U.S. Open.

No. 2: Tiger Woods Cards 20 Bogeys and Worst Major Finish of Career

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    The best golfer in the world just posted his worst major championship performance, a four day total of 13-over-par, 293. It's not surprise golf fans feel; it's shock.

    Before Thursday, Woods had shown all the signs that he was ready to once again begin his journey to catch Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships. However, the narrative has drastically shifted to whether or not Woods will ever win another major.

    That's how awful Woods played and how pessimistic the outlook is.

    Woods entered Merion with four wins in eight events. He ranked No. 1 in scoring average on tour, 5th in Putting and he’d proven his strength with his wedges in his victory at the Players Championship just a few weeks ago; a skill that boded well for this short U.S. Open track.

    His chances at Merion seemed like a simple mathematical equation. He was the undisputed favorite. All he had to do was show up. Instead, we saw the Woods of last season at the majors, the one who started strong and finished poorly.

    Last year Woods shot a collective eight under par over the first two days of the four majors, while shooting a combined 15-over-par in the final two days.

    After Thursday and Friday at Merion, Woods was +3 for the championship, four shots behind the leader and without a doubt in contention for his 15th major victory. But his ghastly weekend performance (76-74) ended his chances.

    You can pick from any host of stats to decipher Woods' travails at Merion.

    As ESPN Golf Writer Bob Harig noted, "Woods missed too many fairways and took too many putts, a simple yet realistic way to look at his week. The 21 holes he played over par are the second most ever for Woods in a PGA Tour event."

    He needed 127 putts over four days.

    Would you bet on Woods at the British Open?

No. 3: Final Pairings Collapse Sunday

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    There were so many talented players in the final three groups of the U.S. Open and all were within just a few strokes of the lead. Sunday seemed destined to be a battle among this array of heavy contenders.

    Instead, almost all faltered fast.

    Charl Schwartzel began the day at even-par, but plummeted due to a mix of poor tee shots and uncharacteristic putting. The 2011 Masters champion would go on to shoot eight-over-par, 78, Sunday and finish alone in 14th place at eight-over-par.

    Steve Stricker also began the day at even, but got off to an awful start with a triple bogey, 8, at the par-5 second hole after hitting two balls out of bounds. Once the wheels came off Stricker did his best to recover, but never found a rhythm. He shot six-over-par, 76, for a T8 finish at six-over-par.

    Luke Donald was perhaps the most distressing downfall of all on Sunday.

    His resume includes Money Titles on the PGA and European Tours in 2011, he's owned the No. 1 World Golf Ranking and won World Golf Championships, but there’s a glaring void in the major championship column. Sunday looked to be the day Donald filled that void.

    He showed poise throughout the championship that was unlike any of his other bouts with a major. Donald, however, struggled mightily early on Sunday.

    He went five-over-par through his first six holes.

    Costly mistakes early damaged Donald’s momentum and led to a final round 75 and T8 finish.

No. 4: Welcome to the Michael Kim Show

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    A 19-year-old sophomore from the University of California, Berkeley, just beat this year’s Masters champ, Adam Scott, a 14-time major champ in Tiger Woods, as well as the reigning PGA and European Tour Player of the Year, Rory McIlroy. 

    Michael Kim (+10) finished T17 at the 113th U.S. Open, earning the honor of the Low Amateur.

    Kim, though, embodies humility.

    “I didn't really know what to expect coming in, honestly. Just wanted to make the cut," Kim told Bob Costas after Saturday’s round. Kim had played excellent golf over the first two days, but he grabbed hold of the spotlight when he made a string of back-nine birdies at holes 10, 12, 13 and 15 to shoot a 1-over-par 71 Saturday. 

    He tied for 3rd among Birdie Leaders this week, cashing in on 13 total (Rose had 15).

    This is no fluke, Kim is the real deal.

    His putting stroke is smooth as butter. He can shape his iron shots with the control of a pro and most impressive of all was his resolve under the pressure of a major championship.

    Kim came to America with his family from South Korea when he was seven years old and now plays for the Golf Team at Cal. He won four college events this year and earned the Jack Nicklaus Award for the top college golfer.

    Don't be surprised if you see Michael Kim's name rising up leaderboards soon.

No. 5: Merion Buries Early Contenders, McDowell and Furyk

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    Ask any U.S. Open champion, from Lucas Glover in 2009 at Bethpage to Rory McIlroy in 2011 at Congressional, and they'll tell you that you don't win the U.S. Open without hitting fairways.

    It's like one of those indisputable mathematical formulas. Sure enough, Justin Rose hit 75% of the fairways this week, which ranked T2 among the field.

    Finding the fairway was crucial at Merion, which is notorious for it’s diabolically narrow fairways, some barely 20 yards in width. Graeme McDowell was the logical choice to contend this week at Merion because he leads the tour in accuracy off the tee.

    McDowell, already a U.S. Open champ at Pebble Beach in 2010, didn't quite live up to expectations.

    Yahoo! Golf writer Shane Bacon aptly tweeted, “This number is not a typo – Graeme McDowell made seven (7) double-bogeys in two rounds this week at Merion.”

    Merion ate up McDowell. He hit just 17 of 28 fairways, and consequently struggled to hit greens, punching just 22 of 36 greens in regulation. McDowell posted underwhelming rounds of 76-77.

    Jim Furyk, unfortunately, was no better. Despite his wealth of experience as a champion and in the pressure of a major championship, Furyk shot 16-over-par (77-79) through just two rounds at Merion.

    Scanning the leaderboard only to find Furyk's name below the cut line barely computed for golf fans. Furyk won this very championship in 2003, has earned a pair T2s at the U.S. Open and finished T4 last year at Olympic Club. His ability to minimize mistakes blended with his ‘short and straight’ style was the ideal combination in theory for Merion.

    Instead Furyk looked like a fish out of water. Luckily for Furyk, he wasn't the only early contender Merion beat down.

No. 6: The Resurgence of Mike Weir

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    OK, maybe ‘resurgence’ is an exaggeration. But consider this: Mike Weir is ranked 967th in the world, he hasn’t made a cut in a major since the 2010 U.S. Open, has missed six cuts in eights events this season and missed 14 consecutive cuts on the PGA Tour in 2012.

    To have made the cut in a U.S. Open as grueling as this one at Merion is the definition of progress for the 2003 Masters champ (ranked sixth in the world that year).

    Weir shot rounds of 72-76-75-69 to finish T28 at 12-over-par.

    His stats this week were steady; he hit 36 of 56 fairways, 36 of 72 greens in regulation and had three birdies each round for 12 overall.

    Weir has dealt with a variety of injuries over the last decade, most recently one affecting his ribcage.

    Some athletes thrive on momentum and who knows if this is the kind of spark that will reignite Weir's career.

No. 7: Rory McIlroy Exposes Childish, Poor Attitude

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    Earlier in the week I predicted Rory McIlroy would break out of his 2013 funk at Merion, perhaps with a victory.

    He had as many top 10 finishes this season (four) as he did poor performances on the PGA Tour and Merion set up well for a golfer like McIlroy, who is an elite ball striker and covets the pressure of majors.

    Had Rory played poorly this week —which he did, finishing 13-over-par for a T32 finish—he would've endured criticism, but it wouldn't be the end of the world. He's 24 years old, a two-time major champion and the most promising young player in the world. 

    Instead, we got this.

    Sunday at the 11th hole, McIlroy hit his ball in the water and promptly attempted to snap his club.

    Here's some context. Steve Stricker was within a shot of the lead, when on the second hole he hit his drive out of bounds. Then, on the same hole, Stricker shanked his fourth shot from the fairway immediately to the right, also out of bounds. Stricker took an eight on the hole, a triple bogey, and never for a second looked like he'd take his frustration out on his clubs.

    McIlroy was nowhere near the lead at the 11th hole, in fact he hadn't been close to contention since his second hole on Saturday.

    He has constantly been praised for being well beyond his years, both on and off the golf course, but that display at the 11th hole, as well as the way he toiled around Merion Golf Club, was as childish as it gets.

    Unfortunately this isn't the first time this year McIlroy's exposed his own immaturity.

    Earlier in the year at the Honda Classic, McIlroy was having a similarly tough time scoring on the golf course, but this time walked off, citing a distressing 'wisdom tooth' issue.

    McIlroy doesn't appear to understand just yet the repercussions of his actions. What of the aspiring young golfers watching his every swing? And what about his respect for one of the underlying principles at the heart of golf? Integrity.

    McIlroy exposed more than problems with his game this week and the most debilitating one lies between the ears.