For just the third time in golf history and for the first time since 2005, Pinehurst No. 2 will host the U.S. Open. While the tournament is always difficult—winning scores are usually around par—the challenge this year will come not from its usual thick, hazardous rough but from lengthened holes, fast, widened fairways, turtle-back greens and hazards filled with sand and weeds.
Those who can play the most consistent, mistake-free golf over four days will have the best chance to win. Long, accurate drives and par-saving shots will be especially useful.
Below we assess how three of the world’s best golfers may perform at this weekend’s U.S. Open.
No golfer is playing better than Bubba Watson in 2014. The world No. 3 currently ranks second in the FedEx Cup standings, trailing Jimmy Walker by less than 200 points despite playing seven fewer events. Watson has five top-three finishes this year, including a victory at the Masters—his second in three years—and the Northern Trust Open.
However, as well as he has played this season, he hasn’t had much luck at the U.S. Open. While his best finish was a tie for fifth in 2007—his only top-10 finish—he has placed 32nd or worse, including a cut, in his last three U.S. Open outings.
Like Phil Mickelson, the two-time major winner’s game should play to the difficulties at Pinehurst. Watson has the best driving distance of anyone on tour with an average of 314.2 feet per drive. This skill bodes well for the weekend, as he can shorten the elongated course with his long drives. If he can keep those drives on the fairway and make smart decisions with his short game, he will put himself in a great position to steal some birdies.
Prediction: Watson uses his ability to crush the ball off the tee to shoot a two-under 70 on Thursday, followed by a one-under 71 on Friday, good for a one-shot lead heading into the weekend. His accuracy fails him a bit on Saturday, where he finishes with a two-over 74, but he makes up for it on Sunday with a 69, his best round of the tournament. He finishes four under, good for third place.
Justin Rose is currently the ninth-best player in the world. But more importantly, he’s the defending U.S. Open champion.
Although he missed the cut at the Memorial earlier this month, he has three top-10 finishes in his last four tour events.
This weekend, he will attempt to do something that hasn’t happened in 25 years: repeat as champion, per Michael Whitmer of The Boston Globe:
Membership in the major champions club is difficult to attain. Now, with the 114th US Open set to start Thursday at Pinehurst No. 2, Rose will attempt an even tougher challenge. Only five players have ever repeated as US Open champion, and we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of the last time it happened. Curtis Strange, who won the 1988 US Open at The Country Club in Brookline, followed it with another victory a year later, at Oak Hill Country Club.
Five players have won at least two US Opens since Strange repeated in 1989. But none of those five — Payne Stewart, Lee Janzen, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, and Tiger Woods — won in back-to-back years.
Rose recognizes the challenge at hand. He told Whitmer it’s all about preparing a sound game plan:
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. I need to do the same at Pinehurst.
Rose is tied for 67th in greens hit in regulation percentage (66.05), but he has shown the ability to make up for it by saving par, as he ranks 22nd in scrambling (61.82).
Prediction: It is extremely hard to win any major back-to-back, especially the U.S. Open, which is widely regarded as the toughest tournament of the year. On Thursday Rose shoots a middle-of-the-pack round with a two-over 74. He regains a bit of confidence on Friday by saving par with his short game and finishing with a two-under 70.
Heading into Saturday with an even score, he shoots a one-under 71 to remain in the hunt for the final 18 holes. On Sunday he can’t quite find his rhythm to advance up the leaderboard, and with a one-over 73 he finishes with even par and in 10th place overall.
The world No. 7 has only played in five events in 2014. He missed almost two months after the Masters with a thumb injury, which has prevented him from getting in any sort of rhythm leading up to the U.S. Open. He was able to play at Memorial but tied for 37th. His last victory came in February when he won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
No golfer wants to come into a major off an injury and without a lot of practice leading up the tournament, especially when the event is as tough as the U.S. Open. But that is what Day will have to do this weekend, so expect some rust on such a difficult course.
However, he has had success with this tournament in the past, which should provide a small measure of comfort. He has placed runner-up in two of the last three U.S. Opens (2011, 2013), so it wouldn’t be wise to count him out just yet.
Prediction: Day gets off to a slow start by shooting a three-over 75 on Thursday, and speculation about his thumb begins. However, he is just shaking off the rust, as evident by his one-under 71 on Friday and his three-under 69 on Saturday to sit just a couple of shots off the leader heading into Sunday.
On Sunday he finds his groove on the front nine with a 33, but the back nine gives him trouble when he shoots a 38. That puts him at 71 for the day to finish the tournament at two-under and fourth overall.
Note: all stats courtesy of PGATour.com unless otherwise stated
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