With over 100 players competing in the US Open, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Phil Mickelson have emerged as the clear-cut favorites. Between experience, momentum, and overall skill, this trio has captured the spotlight heading into the 111th US Open, beginning Thursday June 16th at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland.
While Lee Westwood has performed exceptionally in recent major championships, Luke Donald has been a blueprint for consistency in 2011, and Phil Mickelson battles to beat his brutal history at the US Open, which player has the upper-hand this week?
Of all four of the major championships, the US Open has been Luke Donald’s Achilles' Heel, his perpetual puzzle, his enduring nemesis.
A T12 in 2006 remains his best finish to date, but it appears scattered among a sea of DNP’s (did not play) and CUT’s (that needs no explanation). But what if Donald changed all of that this week?
Recently crowned the World’s No.1 Ranked player, the Englishman has recorded 15 top-10 finishes in his last 16 events. That’s absurd. His consistency this season puts even Matt Kuchar to shame.
In addition, he’s highlighted his phenomenal year with a pair of prestigious victories, first in the U.S at the WGC-Accenture Match Play and then across the pond in Europe at the BMW PGA Championship. While Donald has never been viewed as an overpowering or intimidating figure on the course, he’s let his crafty short game and smooth-as-butter swing do the talking.
His improvement represents the confluence of a variety of factors, beginning first and foremost with his short game. Over the last four seasons, Donald has led the Tour in Sand Save Percentage and been consistently ranked in the top-10 in the Putts Per Round category. The best kept secret in the world of professional golf is that lot of guys can hit the ball far, and even more guys can hit it on the green, but very few can putt the ball in the hole.
Luke Donald is on that short list.
While his short game prowess has only made him more deadly amidst the competition, currently ranked sixth overall in Putting on the PGA Tour, Donald has also been steadily progressing in another crucial stat: Scoring Average. In 2007, he was ranked 27th (70.12), in 2008 was vaulted to sixth (69.58), in 2009 he was 13th (70.01) and then claimed the seventh spot in 2010 (69.85). Guess where he is so far in 2011? Ranked no.1 with a 69.26 Scoring Average.
If he can play his game this week—the game that is defined by patience, visualizing shots, and playing smart—than he will win his first major championship at the 111th US Open.
Finishing in the top-10, or even top-five, at a major championship is a feat professional golfers genuinely relish.
Lee Westwood is tired of it.
In fact he’d probably prefer to miss the cut and watch the weekend rounds from home then have to endure another brutal, disappointing finish at a major. In 2008 he finished third at the US Open, in 2009 he finished third at both the British Open and PGA Championship, and in 2010 he finished second at both the Masters and British Open.
He’s more than determined to lift that “bridesmaid,” and “second-best” stigma so that he can prove, once and for all, that he can shine on the biggest stage in golf.
Similar to Tiger Woods in this way, Westwood cares about the major championships because they are each in their own way an emblem for golf glory. That prestige, however, has evaded Westwood in the past. But, it be just a four rounds away.
Westwood will need to leave nothing in the bag, get off to a hot start and be utterly relentless if he wants to capture the US Open title.
The US Open will be a rescue mission for Phil Mickelson.
There will undoubtedly be errant drives, wayward iron shots, and putts that fall short for the veteran Lefty, but how he responds, and ultimately rescues himself, in these situations will determine if he wins or loses the US Open.
If you think back to this year's Masters, Mickelson couldn't buy a fairway off the tee. His driver was atrocious and yet he continued to hit it in search of some shred of accuracy. He continued to find his ball buried in the trees or wood chips, forcing him to chip out to the fairway. From there, however, he could, and often did, recover with remarkable shots onto the green and clutch putts. But if you count those shots—that often amounts to par.
Saving par will not cut it, Phil.
Here are the two most important ways Mickelson can win the US Open and finally shake his hapless history of five runner-up finishes in this major.
First, he needs to hit 75-85 percent of the fairways. Phil currently clobbers the ball 297-yards off the tee on average, good for 18th in Driving Distance on Tour. But he ranks 163rd in Driving Accuracy—that is 53.17 percent of the fairways. That is awful, but also a sign of how talented the other elements of his game are that allow him to contend (ranked ninth in Scoring Average, 70.1). Hitting fairways will not only allow him to play aggressive iron shots, but it also provides with a sense of confidence and momentum immediately after striking his tee shot.
Second, Mickelson must find a rhythm on the greens at Congressional. Now he doesn’t need to sink every putt he approaches, but when he’s within striking distance, such as a birdie putt inside ten feet, Mickelson will have to bare down and convert as often as he can. Managing the speed of the greens will provide him with another added dose of confidence, which will become increasingly crucial as the rounds go by and other players begin to surge.
With accuracy and steady putting, Mickelson can conquer his first US Open.