No favorites at a Tigerless US Open
Posted June 8, 2014
Updated June 9, 2014
As Edith and Archie used to sing, "those were the days!"
The days to which I'm referring are those when Eldrick Tont "Tiger" Woods patrolled major championship venues. The days when it was easier to point to the obvious "man to beat" during those four weeks of the year when golf mattered the most.
We love known quantities in sports. We love dominance. We love knowing who, or which team, is going to be there at the end with a chance to claim the trophy. We love the Heat, the Yankees, the Patriots, Alabama, Duke, Roger Federer, Jimmie Johnson, etc. Of course, we also hate them, but there's a fine line between love and hate. In fact, love and hate are essentially identical emotions, each just different manifestations of high levels of passion.
Let's face it, we miss Tiger Woods. We need his dominance, or somebody's. Without it, we simply don't know whom to root for -- or against. It was so much easier back in the day. Even if you didn't like him, and there were plenty who didn't, even before the midnight ride down his driveway fleeing his long iron-wielding (now) ex-wife, you knew he was going to be there. Today? It's anyone's guess because there isn't a sure thing on tour other than the guy who used to have his own video game. So, do I get behind the current world number one, Adam Scott? Or, one of the former place-holders of Tiger's crown, Rory McIlroy? What about Matt Kuchar, the best and most consistent American player of the last few years, what about him? Is he worth my rooting interest?
Then there's Phil Mickelson, the most popular player among the paying customers on the PGA Tour, should I emotionally invest in his chances to finally pull off the elusive United States Open victory lap that has eluded him since coming to Pinehurst in 15 years ago?
From his first professional major, the 1997 Masters in which he set the tournament scoring record, through the 2008 US Open, which he won on a broken leg and torn knee ligament, Tiger Woods' record in major championships was 14 wins and 20 losses. Or, a winning percentage of .412. At his best, between 1962 and 1975, Jack Nicklaus converted only 13 of 56, or a winning percentage of .232. In a sport where the best players -- historically speaking, not just in any given year -- essentially win about 10 percent of the time, less in major championships, Woods lapped the competition unlike anyone in the game's history.
Don't even pretend that we don't miss that. Even if you're predisposed to root against him, not having him as a foil leaves an empty feeling in all of us here in the Sandhills.
So, for whom should we cheer? Better stated, as a prognosticating people, who should we tab as the "man to beat"? For the record, Bovada.lv has McIlroy as the 8-to-1 favorite with Scott as the second choice at 11-to-1. In comparison, for more than a decade, even when Woods was playing with one leg tied behind his back, he was rarely worse than even money. Most conversations began with, "Tiger or the field"? And, in most cases, the smart money took Tiger.
Those days are over. The Isleworth Hydrant -- or maybe it was the back parking lot at the local Perkins -- put a stop to the pursuit of history and now, after multiple injuries, as well as the numerous psychological scars that time has inflicted, Woods' major championship putting looks a lot more like the guy in jorts holding up play at Adventure Landing than someone who won nearly half of the majors he entered for a dozen years.
So, again, I ask, who is the man to beat?
The first thing we need to do is eliminate the US Open history element of the equation. In fact, I'd argue strongly that the only person to which national championship past performance matters in this particular event is Mickelson, and that's only for the fact that he's been so close so many times before and wants it so very much.
The way this Open is going to play, with exactly zero rough off the fairways and around the greens, most resembles the style we'll see a month from now at Royal Liverpool in the Open Championship. The redesign of Donald Ross' legendary Number 2 course at Pinehurst is more like one you'd see in England and Scotland, or one of the sand belt tracks in Australia, such as Royal Melbourne, so I'd be more inclined to look towards those events for the players who are most likely to challenge this week.
So, for what it's worth, my (sure to fail) picks...
10) Hunter Mahan; still looking for his first major championship and to erase the memory we all have of his Ryder Cup meltdown against Graeme McDowell in Wales four years ago, he profiles as a player to watch. He's played reasonably well at the last two Open Championships and has a win and a runner up finish at the WGC-Match Play the last two years, over a course that produces some similar challenges around the greens that the players will face this week.
9) Ian Poulter; this may be the biggest reach on the list as Poulter, while having a very good record in the Open Championship, has not had the kind of year expected of someone who fancies himself a serious contender. But, the closer we get to the Ryder Cup, the better IJP tends to play and I contend that you won't have to be a long hitter to challenge for this trophy.
8) Graeme McDowell; the 2010 US Open champion at Pebble Beach could easily have added two more notches to his majors belt in 2012. He played in the final pairing in both the U.S. and British Opens that year and while he wasn't a factor at Muirfield last July, McDowell's strength is his play with his irons and Number 2 is a second shot golf course. He's also one of the best putters on tour and the winner here will have to save strokes on the greens to have any chance at all.
7) Jordan Spieth; we have absolutely nothing to draw upon as the second year star has played but four major championships as a professional. Yes, he could have easily won the Masters two months ago, but the moment appeared to be a little bigger than he was ready to deal with and his only experience in the Open Championship was last year's back-in-the-pack finish. Spieth likely contends only because he's one of the three or four best players on tour this year, though his inability to win thus far this season is bordering on confusing.
6) Dustin Johnson; in two of his last three trips to British Summer Time, Johnson's been right in the mix. Three years ago, he had every chance to win the Open only to fall off down the stretch as Darren Clarke was rolling back the clock. Johnson is going to win major championships in his career. Not one, but several. He's too good not to cash in at some point. He could have already won at Pebble Beach, Whistling Straits and Royal St. George's and for all his length off the tee, he is a greens-in-regulation machine.
5) Adam Scott; this is the best player in the world. He's also the most consistently good player, which don't always align. Scott has been in the top 15 at nine of the last 13 major championships and probably should have won the last two in the United Kingdom. He gift-wrapped Ernie Els' fourth major championship two summers ago and then, last year, gave away the lead with six holes to play with bogeys on four consecutive holes as Mickelson claimed his first non-American major. He drives it long and straight, which even to the untrained ear sounds like a great combination, and is among the best iron-players on tour. Throw in the fact that until they wrench his illegal putting stroke from him in two years, he's one of the best on tour in that category, and you have the makings of a serious contender. I just don't think he'll win.
4) Zach Johnson; sixth, ninth and 16th in his last three swings at the Auld Claret Jug says that the Iowa native has a great chance to win his second major this week. He'll be in play all week because he is a fairway hitting savant and he is simply brilliant around the greens. I've been saying for a long time that they can play this course as long as they want and it won't favor the longer hitters. This is a tough player's track and Zach is as tough as they come.
3) Matt Kuchar; it's going to happen soon for the most consistent American player. It has to. He crossed the line fifth at Augusta and probably went to sleep that Sunday night -- scratch that, I doubt he slept at all -- thinking that he should have been right there at the end rather than watching Bubba Watson stroll up the 72nd fairway under no pressure whatsoever. He's's long enough, straight enough, has a great demeanor and has a USGA championship pedigree, having won the United States Amateur championship 17 years ago. The 2013 Match Play champ will be right there Sunday evening.
2) Phil Mickelson; at the beginning of the year I was certain that Mickelson was going to win at Pinehurst. This is his kind of golf course, demanding imagination and creativity around the greens, and because he wouldn't likely need to bomb it off the tee, he could dial it back enough to be in play and still take advantage of his strengths. But, Mickelson hasn't contended in North America in almost a calendar year. In fact, the last time he woke up Sunday morning in America with a reasonable chance to win was at Merion last Father's Day. This is the first time in 11 years that he's showing up to the Open without at least one win to his credit. Still, I can't help but think that the only real question is how is he going to let this one get away.
1) Sergio Garcia; I thought I'd go a little off the board for the winner. Not as far off the board as Michael Campbell was nine years ago, but for the most part, the casual fan assumes that Garcia is an emotional disaster that will never be able to summon the fortitude to win a title as stout as the U.S. Open. And honestly, it's hard to disagree with that logic as he's been in position several times before and has not been able to see it through. Garcia has seven Top-10 finishes in the Open Championship, including having a putt to win it at Carnoustie in 2007, only to fall to Padraig Harrington in a playoff. But, more importantly than that, he has fond memories of Pinehurst, finishing in a third place tie in 2005, and he's become one of the premiere players on Tour today. Sergio, for all his negative reputation, is one of the best second shot artists in the game and he's solidified his short game to the point that it is one of the best in the sport. Now, if he can only overcome himself….
Of course, since not a single one of these players is the caliber of a Woods, or Jack, or Tom Watson, or even a Greg Norman, the only player to lose each of the four majors in a playoff, it shouldn't shock anyone if none of the above ends up with a chance to win come Sunday afternoon.
Such is life in our post-Eldrick world. Hurry back, Tiger. Golf was infinitely more fun when you were around to root for -- or against.