2011 U.S. Open Favorites: Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and the Top Contenders
There’s no longer an elephant in the room about whether or not professional golf’s increasingly melodramatic and dethroned king, Tiger Woods, will be competing in the US Open. Once Woods’ tweet went viral, effectively taking himself out of one the year’s most thrilling major championships, the succession of events probably looked something like this:
Somewhere a T.V. executive yelled and threw his i-Phone 4 against a wall as he watched the ratings already begin to dwindle; the blogosphere began rapidly pumping out articles like McDonald’s makes French fries and Jack Nickalus—golf’s eternal golden bear—took a sip of the overpriced scotch in his left hand followed by a silky puff of his cigar in his right and blew out smoke in the sweet security of his record of 18 major championships becoming more and more untouchable.
But on putting greens and driving ranges and in sand traps and weight rooms all over the world, a bevy of the most talented golfers were simply going about their business.
That is because as athletes—whether they’re the kind that score touchdowns, drain buzzer-beating shots or whack tiny, little, white balls sky-high in the air—they have no other choice, no other calling, no other comfort than to compete.
This Thursday, June 16, the US Open returns to the Blue Course at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland—a monstrous and agonizing test for any and every golfer willing to tee it up. Taming this beast—which measures 7,250 yards—demands as much skill as it does mental toughness. The field is stacked with players vying to not only have their names etched into golf’s history books, but to prove to the sports world that even in the midst of what may be becoming a Tiger-less world of golf, there is still something spectacular to revel in.
Luke Donald: The Momentum Is Undeniable
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Momentum is a tricky and unsteady factor in the world of golf. Just consider Phil Mickelson, who this season won the Shell Houston Open the week before the Masters, which caused golf’s analysts and experts to place him on a pedestal above the field.
Mickelson, however, barely made the cut and was hardly a threat over the weekend.
Luke Donald’s momentum is neither in the form of a recent victory nor that of a few top finishes. Instead, he's racked up 10 consecutive top-10 finishes in 2011, highlighted by two prestigious victories, first at the WGC-Accenture Match Play and then at the BMW PGA Championship.
He’s clearly found something in his game that has clicked. Like every player, Donald has flaws, most notably in his driving accuracy. However, he’s finding a way to minimize his mistakes and bolster his strengths. To prove it, he’s perched atop one of the most impressive stats in professional golf—scoring average. Donald ranks no.1 with a 69.26 S.A.
He will need to maintain that same confidence and take advantage of his dominant skills—primarily iron play and putting—to grab his first major championship.
Lee Westwood: Underestimated, but No Underdog
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Lee Westwood does not get enough credit and cannot be underestimated headed into a major championship.
Don’t forget that Westwood ousted Tiger Woods from the No.1 World Golf Ranking after what seemed like an interminable 623 weeks. Also, Westwood has a sensational track record in major championships, which includes two runner-up finishes in 2010 alone.
He’s undeniably one of the best players in the world, but even Westwood knows there’s a glaring omission from his resume, and that’s a major championship. Although he’s a proven winner on the European Tour and in the Ryder Cup, a major championship still evades him.
Considering he’s come so close in the past and that he’s at the top of his game, currently ranked No. 2 in the world, he has an excellent shot at winning this year’s US Open.
Nick Watney: Versatility Will Make Him a Contender
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Nick Watney has finished in the top 10 in seven of his last 10 events, earned a victory at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral and is now primed for a victory heading in the US Open.
Similar to Luke Donald in a lot of ways, Watney’s skills are best with an iron or putter in his hands. He currently ranks 17th in Greens in Regulation on Tour and eighth in Total Putting, which has translated to fourth in Scoring Average (69.77).
The versatility of Watney’s game is ultimately what has turned him around into a constant contender on the PGA Tour. In addition to his phenomenal iron play and touch on the greens, he’s developed his skills off the tee to not only accentuate more distance (averaging 297 yards), but also concentrated on accuracy (hits the fairway 61 percent of the time, 83rd on Tour).
At the Open, it's going to be all about confidence for Watney. He will need to shake the meltdown at last year’s PGA Championship (when he had the lead heading into the final round) and hone in on the positives of his game to lead him to a career-defining triumph.
Phil Mickelson: The Constant Threat
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Phil Mickelson has the experience, the length, the touch and the aggressive, go-for-broke mentality that can earn him his fifth major championship.
Lefty has made 100 percent of cuts this year, 12 for 12, finished in the top-10 a third of the time and earned a victory at the Shell Houston Open back in April.
Unfortunately, Mickelson’s history at US Open’s is baffling—five runner-up finishes. That’s either a testament to his remarkable skills or his stifling inability to close big events. Perhaps it’s both.
The perplexing nature of the Big Lefty is that while he clearly has some of the most impressive skills among anyone in the game—gargantuan distance off the tee, pinpoint accuracy with irons and nearly unrivaled touch on and around the greens—they are the same skills that have been the cause for both luminous victory (the Masters in 2004) or a host of meltdowns (most notably Winged Foot in 2006).
However, part of the mystery and intrigue of Mickelson is that you don’t quite know which fusion of his skills will play out. All eyes will be on Lefty to see if he can avoid what could be a sixth runner-up finish and instead hoist the trophy that has evaded him throughout his career.
Rory McIlroy: What If?
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What if the same kid who crumbled at the Masters this past April—causing fans and viewers alike to cringe in collective despair—won the very next major championship?
Well, it’d be unheard of, and it’d be exhilarating.
Rory McIlroy is the most talented 20-something in the game of golf today. Get used to it, because he’s not going away.
At just 22 years old, McIlroy has accomplished more than the majority of professional golfers will in their entire careers. He has already won tournaments both in Europe and the U.S., broken course records—shot a final round 62 to win at Quail Hollow in 2010—and led multiple major championships.
He’s proven that he’s the real deal, but a major championship victory would silence the naysayers who believe his plummeting choke at the Masters was more than a one time thing.
Who Is Your Top Contender for the US Open?
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Dustin Johnson has the length.
Matt Kuchar has the consistency.
Ernie Els has the experience.
Who is your top contender for the US Open?