The Biggest Concern for Golf's Top Stars at the 2014 US Open
The U.S. Open always poses a unique set of challenges for the world's best players, bringing them to their knees in many ways. The sadist loves to see them squirm for a bogey.
And even though it's another Tiger-less major, there's still a reason to watch, even for the casual golf fan.
All the best players have something needling at them heading into the 114th U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Some need to keep the driver in the bag. Some have to keep their confidence riding on cruise control, while others simply need to block out all the nonsense taking place around them.
It could be cameras in the face or the pressure of repeating. These are some of golf's biggest stars and the concerns they carry into North Carolina.
Rory McIlroy: Playing It Safe
Rory McIlroy is a serious golf player trapped inside the carefree hubris of someone in his 20s. It’s only natural. He’s won two major golf tournaments—the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship. He has a reputation for being a touch reckless. Instead of Wreck it Ralph, the Disney movie, it could be Wreck it Rory.
He’s not intent on that, telling The Telegraph:
I’m going to adopt a really conservative game plan. Middle of the green, middle of the green, middle of the green. I think if your iron game is in really good shape, then you can hit the middle of those greens. Even if it’s a 30- or 40-foot birdie putt every time, you’re going to do really well. If you short-side yourself, you bring a really large number into play.
The angel on his left shoulder will be his irons, and the devil on his right shoulder will be his driver. He added:
I think I’m pretty mature for a 25-year-old. On the course I’m really happy with how I don’t let runs get away from me any more and I can fight back and I don’t let my shoulders slump or my head get down. I’m proud of myself in that way. And off the course, you know, I’ve had a few tough learning curves. And I’ve learnt from them and trying to become more mature and make better decisions as well.
He's first in birdie average and third in scoring average this year on the tour. He'll need every bit of that muscle at Pinehurst.
Bubba Watson: Does He Have the Right Temperament?
Bubba Watson is third in the world and coming off a smokin’ hot piece of Augusta. He stands alone as the one golfer who can win all the majors. It’s never been done, but don’t tell that to him.
Watson's impulsiveness has hurt him at past U.S. Opens, kind of like when Walter White got mad and decided to (spoiler alert) off Mike. It was a moment where the protagonist, once so calculating, was weakened by emotion. That was Watson’s vice at one time. Now? Maybe not so much.
Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee told Golf Digest:
I remember he was either leading or a shot or two off on Saturday (at the 2007 U.S. Open) and flubbed a bunker shot, and went up and hit the next bunker shot as fast as he could, like he was playing a round of golf with his buddies. I remember that bunker shot, and I remember thinking: This guy, he has lost his mind. He gets that easily frustrated with a chance to win a U.S. Open? How could you dishonor your talent this way? . . . Well, he's not as easily frustrated anymore. He's a more complete player through the bag. We know how long he is but his ball striking is just mesmerizing. . . . He doesn't have any flaws.
At 36 years old and two Masters' championships older, his game looks perfect for this 7,565-yard course.
With Tiger Woods out with a back injury, Phil Mickelson playing mediocre golf and Rory McIlroy being hit and miss, Watson could be heading to the British with the weight of Augusta and Pinehurst in his bag.
Adam Scott: Maintaining Confidence
Golf has a way of gelding even the strongest of golfers. As it stands right now, No. 1 player Adam Scott is brimming with confidence after winning the Colonial and finishing fourth at Memorial two weeks ago.
He is crushing it this year. In nine events he’s won one tournament and has five top 10s.
He’s never finished in the top 10 at the U.S. Open, so it will be key for him to keep the confidence he has manufactured in 2014. He told Golf Monthly:
I’m playing really well. I think I’ve got good momentum going into the major, absolutely. It’s been a lot of work the last couple of years to play this consistent, to bring my game to the level of where I really wanted in the big events, and to maintain it you’ve got to continue to have that drive.
Another concern could be driving accuracy. Any U.S. Open success is predicated on keeping the ball in the fairway. Scott is just 56th on the Tour in driving accuracy and 27th in driving distance. He’s overcome those pitfalls this year with his five top 10s, but Pinehurst No. 2 will be a different beast altogether if he can’t maintain his confidence and grind for four days.
He’s a genuine threat to win his first U.S. Open.
Phil Mickelson: Putting Distractions Behind Him
Of all tournaments to be twisted into an insider trading scandal. Couldn’t this have happened while he was in Great Britain? But, no, it has to happen at the tournament Phil Mickelson has coveted his entire career. He truly is a special kind of moron.
But what a swing! And who better to caddy your bag than a couple of FBI agents?
Mickelson has been so close to winning the U.S. Open. He’s tied for second three times (and has six total seconds in the U.S. Open). At Winged Foot he hit the hospitality tent in pure Mickelsonian gall.
“It was right there and I let it go,” he said later. “I’m still in shock that I did that. I am such an idiot.”
He’s just one tournament away from completing the career Grand Slam. As if this U.S. Open specter hasn’t been hanging over his head since 1999, he has been dealing with a federal investigation into insider trading. There’s nothing quite like the looming presence of cribbage and chess in a minimum security facility to cloud one's ball striking.
Back to Pinehurst. Mickelson told The New York Times, “If we all miss the greens, I feel I’ve got the best chance.”
Justin Rose: The Pressure of Repeating
Justin Rose is the defending champion of the U.S. Open, and along with that comes a special set of challenges.
It’s been 25 years since Curtis Strange repeated as U.S. Open champion. Only five players have ever done it. Since Strange did it, Lee Janzen, Payne Stewart, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen have won multiple U.S. Opens but never consecutively.
The U.S. Open is usually the hardest course that these players face in a given year, and to be that sharp in consecutive years has obviously proved to be near impossible.
"It’s special to come here as the reigning U.S. Open champion," Rose told The Boston Globe. "I didn’t play [the U.S. Open at Pinehurst] in ’99 or ’05, so I really didn’t have a frame of reference, but I really enjoy natural-style golf...and I can see exactly what this test is going to be about."
And maybe that’s his best chance at winning his first tournament since last year’s U.S. Open: the fact that he doesn’t have a frame of reference at Pinehurst. It wouldn’t so much be beginner’s luck, but when there’s no history to speak of, there are also no demons to chase off. He further said:
My preparation’s going to be key. It’s developing and designing a game plan that you believe will hold up over 72 holes that you can execute, that suits your game, and that will produce the winning score. That’s what I did at Merion. I produced a game plan to shoot even par, and that held up [his winning total was 1-over-par 281]. I need to do the same at Pinehurst.
Sergio Garcia: Can He Win His First Major?
Sergio Garcia’s best finish at the U.S. Open was in 2005 (at Pinehurst No. 2) when he finished third. His best single round came at the 2002 U.S. Open when he shot a 67. But if he’s going to break through, he needs to string together an entire weekend of near-flawless golf, something he’s rarely been able to do.
He has won 26 titles in his career but no majors. He’s ranked eighth in the world, but he’s 85th in driving accuracy, which is a sobering statistic heading into a U.S. Open.
It was about a year ago when Garcia teed off on Tiger Woods using the never-tasteful, always-racist “fried chicken” slur. Per The New Yorker, he said, “We’ll have him ‘round every night. We will serve fried chicken.”
Garcia has earned five top 10s this year and was third at The Players Championships in preparation for the U.S. Open. Two out of his last three tournaments resulted in two thirds and a missed cut (the Masters). He could knock on the door for his first major if he can play clean for four days.
Jim Furyk: Cameras in His Face
Jim Furyk has the cold demeanor of a velociraptor. Just don't put a camera in his face. Just. Don't. Do it.
He sat in the clubhouse at The Players Championship awaiting a possible playoff, while J.B. Holmes rolled in a bogey putt to win. Cameras aimed at Furyk. He told the Boston Herald:
I think it (stinks) to have a TV in your face, really. I'll be honest with you. Every time you scratch your nose it's on television. But I understand it's part of the deal. You're looking for a reaction when you know you're not going to get one, considering a guy knows that there's three cameras pointed at him. So it seems a little pointless to me, but I understand.
He was second two weeks in a row at the Wells Fargo Championship and The Players. But he tied for 51st and 19th in the following two tournaments. That's not exactly the form someone like Furyk wants heading into the year's toughest major.
He has had an up-and-down season. He'll finish fifth in one tournament and then 62nd in the next. He'll finish second in one and then follow it up with a 51st.
He won the U.S. Open in 2003, so he knows what it takes. Given that he's thrown in two mediocre tournaments, he could be ready to be on the upswing again.