2011 U.S. Open Golf: 10 Under-the-Radar Contenders

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IJune 15, 2011

2011 U.S. Open Golf: 10 Under-the-Radar Contenders

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    The 2011 US Open tees off in a little less than 24 hours. The next four days are going to test the players more than any other tournament this season.

    To win this tournament you have to put together four solid rounds and be able to overcome some extremely difficult conditions including tight fairways and severely thick rough.

    Last year Dustin Johnson was one round away from scoring the biggest win of his career, and etching his name in history beside all-time greats like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as US Open champions.

    Then it all fell apart, and out of nowhere, Graeme McDowell claimed the win and instantly became a household name. At that time, he would have been considered an under-the-radar contender.

    Now, one year later I will look at 10 under-the-radar contenders that could win this year. For the sake of argument let's say that Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Phil Mickelson and defending Open Champion Graeme McDowell are players not considered to be flying under anyone's radar. 

    And, while I think Rory McIlroy will also be in contention, with as much coverage as he has gotten recently, he probably shouldn't be considered under the radar either. These 10 golfers are in no particular order.

1. Steve Stricker

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    Steve Stricker is the fourth-ranked player in the world, and for the first time in his career, he is the highest ranked American. Though the 44-year-old Stricker has never won a major in his career, he is coming off a win his last time out at The Memorial, and has played well all season long.

    Stricker has scored top 10s in four of 10 events this year and for his career has three top 10s in his 15 US Open starts. Stricker finished in a tie for 36th in 1997, the last time The Open was held at Congressional.

    Stricker ranks third this season in total scoring with an average round of 69.71. Finding the fairway off the tee is going to be imperative to any players chances of winning the Open. Stricker ranks 31st in fairways in regulation, and his stats improve from there.

    He is ranked 22nd in greens in regulation, and more importantly for those times when he does miss the fairway, Stricker ranks second in greens in regulation from off the fairway.

    Stricker is also known as one of the Tour's best putters, and in a US Open saving as many strokes as possible is crucial. Stricker should undoubtedly be a contender come Sunday afternoon.

2. K.J. Choi

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    K.J. Choi enters the US Open as the 16th-ranked player in the world, and although he has never won any of the four majors in golf, he is the most recent winner of the PGA Tour's unofficial fifth major, The Players Championship.

    If Choi proved anything in winning The Players Championship, it was a lot of resilience and an unflappable will to win. He made a lot of key shots down the stretch, including a knee-knocking four foot par putt on 18 to force the playoff with David Toms.

    The US Open is statistically the worst for Choi. He has never finished in the top 10, but he is in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career. His five top 10s this year are already the most he's had in a single season since the seven he scored in 2007.

3. Martin Laird

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    Martin Laird has seen his stock rise drastically in each of the last few years. He is a two-time winner on the PGA Tour, including earlier this year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Laird has already scored nine top 25 finishes this season, which is three more than in any of his previous three years on tour.

    Laird has twice played in the US Open, missing the cut in both instances, but those were both before he had established himself as one of the Tour's top players. He currently is ranked 24th in the official world golf rankings.

    Laird is a big hitter, and on a long course like Congressional, he has to take advantage of his distance. The big concern with him is accuracy. He is ranked 116th in fairways in regulation, but he is good at salvaging from off the fairway.

    Laird ranks 15th in greens in regulation from off the fairway. For as much as he misses the fairway, that is an impressive statistic.

4. Francesco Molinari

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    Francesco Molinari is an Italian born professional who spends most of his time playing on the European Tour. He is a two-time winner in Europe, which include one of the World Golf Championship events last season.

    Molinari is the 22nd-ranked player in the world, and ranks very highly in many of the categories that are important in terms of winning a US Open.

    He ranks second on the European Tour in driving accuracy, and ranks eighth on the tour in greens in regulation.

    The other thing I think Molinari has going for him is his playing partners for the first two rounds. He is sharing a tee box with his brother Edoardo, and their fellow countryman, Matteo Manassero. That should keep the mood light, and sometimes just relaxing and enjoying the game can lead to low scores.

5. Matteo Manassero

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    Matteo Manassero is only 18 years old and he is already a two-time winner on the European Tour, including this years Maybank Malaysian Open.

    I think that Manassero will play well for at least the first two rounds because of his playing partners. I liked Molinari out of this group because of who he was playing with, it's only natural to like Manassero for the same reason.

    Manassero is already up to 30th in the world rankings. At such a young age it seems the best is easily yet to come. This will be his first US Open, and while that may not sound like much of an advantage, the fact that he has no idea how difficult this tournament is may actually be a benefit. Instead of worrying about how tough the conditions are, he can just go out and play golf.

    He ranks in the top 20 on the European Tour in both driving accuracy and greens in regulation, so if he can manage to keep the ball in the fairway, this 18-year-old could really grow up before everyone's eyes.

6. Bubba Watson

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    Bubba Watson is another golfer that has seen his stock rise continuously over the last year. He is currently ranked 12th in the world, and is one of two players to have scored multiple victories on the PGA Tour this season.

    Watson is ranked second on tour in driving distance, and first in greens in regulation. That is a scary combination for the rest of the field this week.

    Watson is a terror on the par 5's, as he ranks third in scoring on those particular holes, and if he misses the fairway, there is no reason for concern. He is the top-ranked player in greens in regulation from off the fairway.

    He has played in four US Opens in his career. He has missed the cut twice, finished in a tie for fifth, and tied for 18th in the other two. I fully expect Watson to better that in this years Open.

7. Dustin Johnson

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    For anyone that may have forgotten, Dustin Johnson was the 54-hole leader at last year's US Open. On Sunday, Johnson struggled all day long, and carded an extremely disappointing 82 to end up finishing in a tie for eighth.

    Johnson is the ninth-ranked player in the world, and is quietly putting together another good season. He has scored four top 10s in 13 events so far this year, including a runner-up finish and a third-place finish.

    Johnson is one of the longest hitters on tour, and fairly accurate with the irons as well. He ranks 13th in greens in regulation.

    If he can put the memory of last year's Sunday debacle out of his mind, Johnson should be able to put himself back in contention in this years US Open.

8. Nick Watney

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    Nick Watney had to pull out of The Memorial at the last minute a couple of weeks ago due to an illness. That means it's been longer for him than for most players since he last played a competitive round. The time off could keep him off of some people's radars.

    Watney will no doubt have a career-best season in 2011. He has already posted seven top 10 finishes, which is one away from his personal best for a season, and he is only $300,000 away from a personal best on the money list as well.

    In terms of US Open preparation, Watney ranks in the top 20 in both driving distance and greens in regulation, and he has the fourth-best scoring average on tour.

    He is a solid iron striker, and if he can put all three facets of his game together, Watney will surely be a contender throughout the weekend.

9. David Toms

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    David Toms has returned to championship form in 2011. After losing in a playoff to K.J. Choi at The Players Championship, Toms bounced back the following week and won at Colonial.

    Though he missed a short putt to extend the playoff at The Players, Toms still proved he can perform under pressure. He stuck an iron shot to within 12 feet on 18 when he needed a birdie, from a divot in the fairway. Then, he proceeded to nail the putt to force the playoff.

    Toms has moved all the way up to 28th in the world rankings after being outside the top 100 just as little as three years ago. He is a former major champion, having won the PGA Championship back in 2001, and this year he appears to be back at top form.

    What he lacks in distance off the tee, he more than makes up in accuracy. Toms is only the 161st-longest driver, but he is the third-most accurate. With tight fairways at Congressional, you don't necessarily have to be the longest hitter, staying in the fairway may prove to be more important.

10. Jason Day

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    Jason Day is yet another one of the PGA Tour's young guns that only seems to continue to get better. While he has yet to score a win so far in 2011, Day has posted six top 10 finishes in his 12 starts for the season.

    His best finish was a second-place tie at The Masters back in April. That marked just the third time Day has played in a major championship. He has two top 10s in three Major appearances.

    Day is the 18th-ranked player in the world, and he is 15th on tour in scoring average.