U.S. Open 2014: Separating Contenders from Pretenders Before Final Round

Ben Alberstadt@benalberstadtFeatured ColumnistJune 15, 2014

U.S. Open 2014: Separating Contenders from Pretenders Before Final Round

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    Heading into Sunday of the U.S. Open 2014, the list of contenders and pretenders looks something like this: Unless Martin Kaymer screws up, he's the only contender for the trophy. Such is the margin of his lead and the quality of his play through three rounds. 

    He fired a third-round 72 but still leads the rest of the field by five strokes, which is just one stroke less than the amount he led by entering the third round. 

    The 29-year-old German's nearest pursuer is Rickie Fowler, who carded a third-round 67 and is positioned at three-under entering Sunday. 

    Does Fowler have a shot? Who else could track down Kaymer?

    Read on to find out. 

Contender: Martin Kaymer

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    Martin Kaymer began the third round at 10-under par, leading the field by six strokes. He ended the third round at eight-under, leading by five strokes. 

    On a day where Pinehurst No. 2 dried out and firmed up and the USGA cut some difficult hole locations, Kaymer's two-over 72 was a solid showing from the pack leader. While his Saturday round was seven strokes off the pace he set both Thursday and Friday (65), it was still good enough on a wicked day in North Carolina. 

    "I didn't play as well as the first two days, but I kept it together," Kaymer said in his post-round press conference, per Doug Ferguson of The Associated Press

    If Kaymer fires another 72 on Sunday, the golfers at three-under would need to fire 66 to beat him. This is incredibly unlikely. The probability of a golfer further back in the pack shooting 63, 64 or 65 is even more remote, consider that there were only two rounds under par all day at the tournament. 

    Remember this: Only one golfer in the history of the U.S. Open has lost when leading by five strokes entering the final round. 

Pretender: Erik Compton

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    Erik Compton is an inspiring figure, to be sure. The recipient of two heart transplants, he has fought his way onto the PGA Tour and showed incredible resolve in maintaining his tour card. 

    He fired an impressive 67 and made six birdies on the day. 

    Still, the 34-year-old has only competed in the U.S. Open on one previous occasion, missing the cut in 2010. He's never contended in a major and has never won on the PGA Tour. 

    While it would be fantastic to see him win, it's incredibly unlikely that he's going to shoot a Sunday 65, given the immense pressure and the difficulty of the final round at the U.S. Open. 

Contender: Rickie Fowler

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    Rickie Fowler begins his final round five strokes behind Martin Kaymer. He has the advantage, however, of being in the final group with Kaymer and having an immense amount of support in the United States.

    He also has experience playing in the final round of a significant tournament with Tiger Woods, as he did at last year's Arnold Palmer Invitational. If anything can prepare a golfer for playing in the final group in the final round of a major, it's that experience. 

    Fowler used just 24 putts during the third round, making five birdies against two bogeys. He hit just 50 percent of greens in regulation. If he's able to find more greens on Sunday and continues to putt the same way, he could easily turn in a 66 or 67. 

    With some help from his playing partner, that score could be good enough for his first major win. 

Pretender: Dustin Johnson

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    Dustin Johnson carded a third-round 70 at Pinehurst No. 2. He's positioned at two-under, six strokes behind Martin Kaymer. 

    His career-best round in a U.S. Open is 66, which he fired during the third round of the 2010 U.S. Open. Even if he's able to replicate that performance on Sunday, it would get him into a playoff with Martin Kaymer, if the leader were to replicate his third-round showing. 

    Johnson is 96th in strokes gained-putting this season. Simply, he's not good enough with the flatstick to hole enough putts on Sunday to win this tournament. 

Contender: Henrik Stenson

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    Why can Henrik Stenson (two-under) catch Martin Kaymer (eight-under) on Sunday? Because Stenson is due for a hot streak with his putter. He hit 72 percent of greens in regulation during the third round and used 30 putts. He made only two birdies on the day. 

    The Swede is worse than 150th in strokes gained-putting. Even so, if he manages to hit more than 70 percent of greens, the possibility of making five or six birdies isn't all that remote. He'll have to keep bogeys off his scorecard, but if he's able to do that, he could shoot 66. 

    Stenson has top 10s in three of the four majors, so he's been around the lead on Sunday in golf's most significant tournaments. He also won the Race to Dubai and the FedEx Cup last year, so he's accustomed to performing under significant pressure. 

    Stenson should be there down the stretch during the final round. 

Pretender: Brandt Snedeker

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    Brandt Snedeker can't make up his mind as to what putter he wants to use. This isn't a good sign entering the final round of a major championship. 

    On the putting green prior to the third round, he appeared to be practicing with multiple putters, including the Odyssey Rossie he's used for years. For the first two rounds, the Vanderbilt alum used a new Bridgestone True Balance TD-02 with a grooved face. He fired rounds of 69 and 68 with the Bridgestone putter. He used 28 putts each day. 

    During the third round, Snedeker carded a two-over 72 and needed 30 putts. While this doesn't mean he's due for a poor putting day on Sunday, it does make it seem like he's unlikely to hole the number of putts he would need in order to narrow the seven-stroke gap between him and leader Martin Kaymer. 

    Snedeker simply won't contend on Sunday.