Wednesday, June 12, 2013

U.S. Open Preview

The best thing about this golf year so far has been the return of Tiger Woods, who has looked more like himself than at any time since his career ran off the rails in December 2009.  So far, Woods has won four tournaments, taken a big lead in the Fed Ex Standings, and regained his title as the World's Number One player.  But he had incredibly poor luck at the Masters, so he still hasn't won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open.  He also played quite badly in his last outing -- at the Memorial Tournament in early June.  He desperately wants to win this tournament -- but until he goes out on the course, we won't know whether he's overcome whatever troubled him at the Memorial.

The number-two player in the world, Rory McIlroy, hasn't looked all that good.  He's currently 38th in the FedEx standings, and he has yet to win a tournament since last year.  Still we know that McIlroy can heat up very quickly, and that he is likely to do so at some point.  Given his ability to lap the field, he must be taken seriously.

Adam Scott is the number-three player in the world, but I can't imagine Adam Scott will win the Masters and the U.S. Open in the same year.

Here's the rest of the top 10:

4.  Matt Kuchar
5.  Justin Rose (ENG)
6.  Luke Donald (ENG)
7.  Brandt Snedeker
8.  Graeme McDowell (NIR)
9.  Louis Oosthuizen (RSA)
10.  Phil Mickelson

Phil won the Phoenix Open earlier this year, and came in second or third in last week's St. Jude Classic.  He would, of course, be an enormously popular winner -- especially as he has finished second or tied for second in five U.S. Opens.

But at the U.S. Open, you don't get that many popular winners.  You get the occasional Tiger or Nicklaus, but you get a bunch of Lucas Glovers and Geoff Ogilvys and Michael Campbells.  The U.S. Open isn't set up like any other tournament, and therefore its list of winners doesn't like what you'd expect from a normal tournament.  Normal tournaments reward length, but the National Open often punishes long-hitters with its enormous rough.  Normal tournaments reward aggressive play, but the National Open positively discourage aggression.  (Just ask Phil).  It's the sort of tournament where your best bet is to just hang around and wait for everyone to mess up.

On the other hand, that may not work this year.  Mike Davis, who sets up golf courses for the U.S. Open, is a bit of a golf nerd, and my guess is that he played a big role in the USGA's decision to return to Merion Golf Club in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  Merion used to be one of the greatest courses in the world.  This is where Bobby Jones clinched his grand slam, where Ben Hogan won the U.S. Open after his car wreck, and where Lee Trevino beat Nicklaus to win the 1971 Open.  But it is tiny compared to most modern courses, and after David Graham won a fairly desultory Open in 1981 with a score of 7 under, the conventional wisdom said that time had passed Merion by.

Now the USGA has decided to give the old girl another chance, and no one really knows how this will work.  In 2003, the U.S. Open returned to Olympia Fields, near Chicago, to a course that hadn't hosted a major since the 1961 PGA Championship.  Most folks thought it turned out to be a mistake, as we got a boring tournament on a pretty boring course.  Merion has a much richer history than Olympia Fields, but it used to be only 6,600 yards long, and it has been stretched in an effort to make it stand up to modern players.  The result is a course that, on paper at least, appears somewhat gimmicky:

-- The front nine is 3,736 yards, par 36.  The back nine is 3,260 yards, par 34.
-- The only par 5's on the course are the 2d hole and the 4th hole.
-- The fourth hole is 628 yards long.  The 13th hole is 115 yards long (the shortest hole I've ever heard of for a real tournament).
-- The last hole on the course (a 521-yard par 4) is also the most difficult.

Most significantly, perhaps, it has five holes (1, 7, 8, 10, and 11) that are between 303 and 360 yards long.  That means the players should be hitting a lot of wedges, which should mean a lot of birdies.  Furthermore, the course has been hammered by rain, and will get a lot more rain on Thursday and Friday.  That should mean soft greens -- and even more birdies.  (I know some folks in DC who are really hoping that the scoring records set by McIlroy at Congressional Country Club two years ago will be broken in Merion).

So I'm expecting a very odd tournament.  Most play on Thursday will be washed out by a horrific storm scheduled to hit Philadelphia tomorrow afternoon.  And it's supposed to rain almost all day on Friday.  So you'll have a lot of golf crammed into Saturday and Sunday on a strange old golf course that's been set up to put long-hitters and aggressive players at a disadvantage.  It all strikes me as an odd way to pick our National Champion -- but I don't work for the USGA.


  1. One final prediction. This tournament will not be won by Brandt Snedeker, Ricky Fowler, Bubba Watson, Jason Dufner, or Dustin Johnson.

  2. I was totally wrong about Merion, by the way. It was an inspired choice to host the National Open.

  3. Yeah, but you got Justin Rose right. Shooters gotta shoot, Go Heath. Just keep shooting.