Our national golf championship is upon us. Starting Thursday, the best golfers in the world will tee off at Pebble Beach, one of the world's most beautiful and treacherous courses, as the 110th US Open gets underway.
With an abundance of storylines--Can sentimental favorite Phil Mickelson finally break through and win a US Open? Can Tiger Woods tune out all the distractions, channel his inner 2000 form and blow away the field again? Can Lucas Glover prove that his victory in 2009 was not a fluke? Who will become this year's Lucas Glover--and the added benefit of prime time television, this Open is setting itself up to be as compelling as any in recent memory. The following is a list of 18 guys--one per hole--who all have a legitimate chance to spend their Father's Day evening hoisting the US Open Trophy and avoiding criticism from ever-crotchety analyst Johnny Miller.
The winner--or, more accurately, the survivor--of last year's rain-soaked Open at Bethpage Black, Glover has traditionally been a good, if not amazing, ball-striker. We've seen his game translate well at the US Open where a "fairway, green, two putt par" approach yields success. Unfortunately, history is not on Glover's side. The last person to repeat at the US Open? Curtis Strange, in 1989. On a shorter course such as Pebble Beach, Glover, not considered a long hitter on tour, might have a chance, although his recent performance (0 wins, 2 top 10's in 2010) has been uninspiring.
Johnson, 25, has failed to finish better than 40th in either one of his US Open performances, so he might seem like a strange/random selection. His selling point, however, is that he has won the last TWO events at Pebble Beach, the 2009 and 2010 AT&T National Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Obviously the course is make markedly more difficult for Open play, but his success at Pebble is not something that can be ignored. Johnson is a prime candidate to be this year's Glover, a guy who can hang around and make the fewest mistakes en route to a surprising victory.
Fresh off a win at the Memorial a few weeks ago, his first as on the PGA Tour, Rose, who ranks 9th on tour in scoring average, seems to be playing some of his best golf. Despite never having finished better than 12th in any of his 6 previous US Open's, Rose has a chance to surprise. The US Open usually sets up better for long hitters, although Pebble Beach is shorter than most Open courses, which helps Rose, whose strength is accuracy and not distance off the tee.
Choi has made the cut in each of the 13 events he has entered in 2010, a level of consistency that major championships require. His best US Open finish is an underwhelming 8th (2007) but he has 2 Top 5 finishes at the Masters under his belt. Choi has had a good 2010, ranking 3rd in scoring average, 5th in greens in regulation and 35th in driving accuracy, and 39th in putting. If he can put it all together for 4 rounds, Choi is the kind of guy who can avoid the big mistake and hang on for his first career major.
One of the more popular golfer on tour, Stricker, 43, has 6 career Top 10 major finishes and already has 4 Top 10's overall in 2010. The 4th-ranked player in the world, Stricker is 12th in putting average and 5th in scoring this year. If he's healthy, Pebble Beach sets us very nice for Stricker, who knows this might be his last best chance at a major.
The Goose, who has won the US Open twice (2001, 2004) has been sidelined for part of 2010 due to freak hand and toe injuries, but he appears to be getting healthy at the right time and has finshed in the Top 10 in 5 of 9 events this year. Goosen might not yet have a win in 2010, but he has traditionally been a force in major championships. One of three 2-time Open winners in the field (the other 2 are coming up shortly on this list), Goosen must be considered a strong candidate yet again.
The precocious 21-year-old from Northern Ireland has been on the verge of a breakthrough since he came on the scene two years ago. He finished 10th at Bethpage last year, ended 2009 with a 3rd place finish at the PGA Championship and finally got his first PGA Tour win at Quail Hollow earlier this year. McIlroy ranks 10th in driving distance, but 109th in driving accuracy, which could be his downfall at a course like Pebble, which requires surgical precision on its narrow fairways. If McIlroy can avoid the hazards, look for him to continue his ascenion into golf's elite.
The only reason Eldrick is this high is because of his unforgettable 15-stroke win at Pebble Beach in 2000. We know he has Major #15 in him, but he's been a huge question mark in 2010. He says he's healthy now and more focused on golf, and we all know what happens once he turns it on, but he has been making bogeys at an alarming rate. If Woods once to win the US Open, he has to put together four rounds at 70 or below. He can't go 69-74-70-68 and pull it off. But with him, even though his game recently has been as rocky at Pebble's Pacific-facing cliffs, we have all learned to expect greatness.
A fast-rising star and fan favorite--because of his demeanor AND his famously gaudy belt buckles--AK is coming off a 3rd place finish at Augusta, recently won the Shell Houston and is fourth in FedEx Cup points despite only playing 8 events in 2010. Kim ranks 1st on tour in scoring average AND birdies per round, and 23rd in greens in regulation is not too shabby either. In three US Open appearances Kim has finished 20th, 26th and 16th, but he is playing as well as almost anybody on tour and seems to be the perfect guy for the NBC prime time spotlight, especially after his impressive performance for Team USA at the 2008 Ryder Cup.
Mahan, 28, has finished 13th, 18th and 6th at his three US Opens as a professional, and has finished in the Top 10 of both majors this year. A 2010 winner (Phoenix Open), Mahan ranks in the top ten in both greens in regulation and total driving, a combination that lends itself to easy pars, which have long been the name of the game at US Opens. Another in the long line of up-and-coming Americans, Mahan seems poised to continue his breakout 2010.
Despite not having finished a US Open since 2006--he missed the cut twice and withdrew in 2008--Donald is one of the best par savers on tour. In fact, he leads the tour in sand save percentage this year, and had made a career out of scoring better than he shoots. He did win last month on the European Tour in Madrid and is the owner of four Top 10 finishes on the PGA Tour in 2010, making him the owner of a very confident golf game. Donald is the type of player who can easily string together four straight rounds at 1-under, which automatically puts you in contention at the US Open.
The Spanish sensation has 5 Top 10's in only 11 events in 2010, inlcuding a win at the Honda Classic. Villegas, who ranks 10th on tour in scoring average, is eager to be known for his all-around game more than his quirky pre-putt squats, which have become the stuff of legend and fodder for imitation by all levels of duffer. Ranked 7th in this year's FedEx Cup standingsg, Villegas should get that chance at Pebble Beach.
The 2006 US Open champion at Winged Foot, Ogilvy has five additional major Top 10's on his resume, and has shown an ability to stand up to the game's biggest stars in pressure-packed situations, such as when he outlasted Phil Mickelson to win the 2006 Open. The 33-year-old Ogilvy owns seven career PGA Tour wins, and averages nearly 4 birdies a round. If he can keep that up at Pebble, he can join Tiger, Ernie and Retief as the only 2-time US Open champs on tour.
Westwood, currently playing some of his best golf, is on the verge of his first major. And there seems to always be an Englishman at or near the top of a major leaderboard (Luke Donald, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter and Westwood himself are recent examples of that). Fresh off a win at last weekend's St. Jude Classic, Westwood, who has 20 European Tour victories on his resume, has not finished worse than 3rd in a major since last year's US Open. There is absolutely no reason to think that he won't contend at Pebble Beach.
Despite a horrid US Open record--Johnson has missed 4 cuts in his last 5 appearances and has never finished better than 45th--Johnson is having a very solid year, and recently won at the Crowne Plaza Invitational. Traditionally very solid off the tee, Johnson has cracked the top ten in driving accuracy, which automatically gives him a shot. Not the type of player to lose tournaments on account of wayward drives, Johnson is out to prove that his 2007 Masters victory was not a fluke.
The 2003 US Open champion--and two-time runner up--is playing as well as he has at any stretch of his career. Currently second in FedEx Cup points, Furyk has already won this year at the Transitions Championship and at the Heritage and is 6th on tour in the all-important category of driving accuracy. Betting on Furyk in the US Open is never a bad idea. Health problems have hindered him in recent Opens--he finished 36th in 2008 and 33rd last year--but the fan favorite Furyk appears as healthy and fit as ever.
When Phil finally won at major, at the 2004 Masters, he gracefully inherited the title of "Best Golfer Never To Have Won A US Open." He has had close calls before--Mickelson owns four 2nd place finishes--but appears to be playing some of his best golf recently. In addition to having the entire country rooting for him and his family, Mickelson has put together a phenomenal year, placing 4th on tour in scoring and 6th in driving distance. Based on his body of work alone, Lefty would have to be considered the favorite. But as always, questions will surround him until he is able to capture the one championship that has tortured him throughout his career.
In addition to being one of two 2-time US Open winners in the 2010 field--bet you can't guess the other--Els has two 2010 wins under his belt (the CA Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational) and sits comfortably atop the FedEx Cup standings. He ranks second in overall scoring and seventh in birdie-making, and is eager to at least add to his 7 career US Open Top 10's, including a second place finish (albeit a distant one) to Tiger Woods in 2000, the last time the event was held at Pebble Beach. Nobody should be a bigger favorite to bring hom the championship than the Big Easy, who has made a career out of not making mistakes and being the owner of as good an all-around game as anyone on tour.