After weeks of build up and anticipation, at 6.45 EDT the 113th U.S. Open will get underway and it promises to live up to all the hype and pre-tournament comment. Historic Merion will be play host to its 5th U.S. Open and it’s first since 1981. At a mere 6,996 yards it will be the shortest U.S. Open course since 2004. Despite its lack of length, Merion will represent a very stern test for the world’s best and none of the field will be taking the challenge lightly. It is hard to gauge what sort of score will prove to be the winning total as the rain that has already fallen and further rain forecast could leave Merion prone to low scoring if the USGA don’t tuck the pins in and make getting close to flags difficult, that said softer fairways will not make the rough any easier to play from and the title won’t be won from the rough that’s for sure.
Last year, Webb Simpson won his maiden major championship after four brutal days of golf at Olympic Club with a winning total of 281 (1 over par). It is easy to criticise Webb’s pace of play, but there is little doubt of his talent and also the effective way he and his caddy work together. He played the final two days in 4 under par which was outstanding, as was the way he bounced back from two early dropped shots in his final to pick up 4 shots in 5 holes between holes 6-10 before making par on his last 8 holes to secure victory. He is one of the few players in the field to have experience of Merion as he took part in the U.S. Amateur held there in 2005 where he progressed to the 2nd round of the Matchplay stage, he will be hoping to post a spirited defence this week and he has the all round game to potentially do so.
British hopes will be pinned by many on the shoulders of world no. 2 Rory McIlroy as he seeks to claim his 2nd U.S. Open title. 2013, so far, has quite simply been one to forget for McIlroy this year; he has yet to win a tournament and has spent the past few weeks stating that his game is almost there, it clearly isn’t. On the whole he has played well tee to green all season, he is 6th in Ball Striking on the PGA Tour but there has tended to be one poor round or two average rounds each time he has played and has putted poorly most weeks. After his most recent tournament he said his putting was much improved that week, the stats paint a different picture as he putted below his season average. In my eyes, there are too many issues in the McIlroy camp at the moment for him to realistically expect to contend this week; I still think he could do with a change of caddy to help with his questionable course/round management. There is a British player who I do think has a decent shout of winning this week and he is part of my ten to follow below.
Henrik Stenson – I have earmarked Stenson for this week for a long time, if you look at the past winners at Merion they have all been ball strikers of the highest order. Stenson currently sits 2nd in Ball Striking (1st of those in the field), 3rd in Total Driving, 1st in Driving Accuracy and 3rd in Greens in Regulation (1st of those in the field). Those statistics show the make up of a player who will find Merion very much to his advantage as it will be put emphasis on those facets of the game rather than being a glorified putting contest as many tournaments tend to become stateside. Of course, he will need to sharpen up around the greens but it is noted that his best performances in that area have been on courses like Sawgrass which require solid ball striking to contend. He has every chance to improve his best U.S. Open finish of 9th this week, patience will be the key.
Rickie Fowler – I will not score any marks for originality with this pick as Fowler will be a popular pick this week largely due to his Walker Cup exploits at Merion in 2009. It is hard to understate the amount of hype and expectation that surrounds the young Californian amongst American golf fans and pundits; it is to his credit that he is not unduly weighed down by these expectations. Some will say that he should have kicked on more since his first PGA Tour victory last May but in fairness he has put in good performances without winning this year with 3 top-ten finishes to his name. The most eye catching of his performances was his 3rd place finish at Bay Hill which is a course akin to Merion which favours shot making and shaping the ball both ways. History shows that players returning to a scene of past glories have a tendency to produce great weeks; Fowler is taken to do so this week.
Justin Rose – The progression of Justin Rose’s standing in the game over the past 2 years has been swift and sustained, it is easy to forgot that his first PGA Tour victory only came 3 years ago and since then he has won an additional 3 times including his WGC Cadillac victory last March. He has finished inside the top 25 in 9 of his 11 stroke-play events worldwide in 2013 and but for a fatigued 3rd round at Bay Hill, he would have at least pushed Tiger hard at Bay Hill when finishing 2nd. He arrives at Merion with top 25 or better finishes in 4 of the last 5 majors and he is ranked on the PGA Tour as 1st in Total Driving, 7th in Greens in Regulation, 1st in Sand Save Percentage and 3rd in Ball Striking on PGA. He has a best finish of tied 5th in 2003’s US Open and looks in the form to improve on that this week.
Kevin Streelman – 2013 has been a standout year in Streelman’s career, he picked up his maiden PGA Tour victory in March and despite missing the cut at Augusta, he followed it with a tied 3rd finish at Hilton Head, tied 6th at Quail Hollow and tied 2nd at Sawgrass. He brings a very solid record on Par-70 tracks similar to Merion this week, as well as his victory at Copperhead; he had recorded top ten or better finishes at TPC River Highlands, Sedgefield, Riviera Maya-Cancun, East Lake & Sea Island in previous seasons. He is making his 4th U.S. Open appearances and has made the cut on all three previous appearances but has recorded lowly finishes of tied 53rd, tied 59th and 67th. He is ranked on the PGA Tour as 8th in Total Driving, 16th in Driving Accuracy, 8th in Scoring Average and 14th in Proximity to Hole, so the case for him to record a substantially better finish this year is strong.
Zach Johnson – If Zach picks up his 2nd major victory this week, I think there will be plenty of people thinking ‘oh yeah, we forgot about Zach this week’. Admittedly he has looked a tad inconsistent this season as his putter had been unusually cold this season but in last five starts this area of his game has looked much improved aside from one horror round at Memorial. What has also looked to be improving in recent starts is his driving accuracy; he hit 78.57% of fairways at Memorial and sits 24th in Driving Accuracy for the season. Having played at a number of long U.S. Open course since his Masters win in 2007, Merion represents a good opportunity for Johnson.
Charl Schwartzel – There could be an argument that Schwartzel should have picked up 3 victories in America this season having been in the mix for victory at Riveria, TPCFourSeasons & MuirfieldVillage only for his putting to let him down at key times. Frustratingly on all three occasions he had been supreme from tee to green, especially at Muirfield Village, hitting 70% of greens in regulation, certainly his putting has got in his despite the fact that Charl recorded 2 wide margin victories at the end of 2012 and start of 2013. If he is able to clear his head on the greens, he has the game to contend this week and I think similarly to Stenson he will benefit from a focus on long game rather than putting this week.
Brandt Snedeker – Much has been written at the time and since regarding the impressive start to 2013 by Snedeker, which was essentially a continuation of his fine end to 2012 which was highlighted by his victory at East Lake. As brilliant as his start to 2013 was, his form since a enforced 6 week break following his AT&T Pro-Am victory has been head scratching in its inconsistency, missed cuts at Bay Hill and Redstone were followed by a tied 6th finish at Augusta. He has since put in a nothing performance at Hilton and missed cuts Muirfield Village and TPC Southwind but sandwiched in between was a tied 8th finish at Sawgrass. Perhaps he is now focusing on the big weeks and he is ranked 9th in Driving Accuracy and 3rd in Birdie Average this season, he would be ignored this week at your peril.
Tim Clark – Imagine the conversation between Clark and Mike Davis on Sunday if Clark were to be crowned champion, the most vocal and controversial critic of anchored putter ban. I think strained would be a generous description of how it could go, but it could be a real possibility based on Clark’s play this season (except for last week’s debacle). He opened his season with a 2nd place finish at Waialae and has followed that up with tied 11th and 7th finishes at Augusta and Colonial, this a progression on his second half to 2012 where he finished inside the top five at both TPC River Highlands and Sedgefield CC, both par-70 layouts. He is ranked 2nd in Driving Accuracy and 20th in Total Putting so has strength off the tee and on the greens to contend this week.
Francesco Molinari – Molinari is running into some serious form and it shouldn’t be underestimated the motivation he will feel to emulate his brother’s success at Merion in 2005’s U.S. Amateur. Eduardo was extremely disappointed not to earn a place in the field this week and Francesco has discussed his desire to do his brother proud this week, it also shouldn’t be underestimated that a short course that focuses on finding fairways is right up Francesco’s street. He warmed up for Merion with a tied 5th finish at Wentworth and a solid enough top 25 finish in Sweden, He will view this week as genuine opportunity to make a serious mark on the world stage.
Justin Hicks – Michael Thompson, Kevin Chappell, Gregory Harvet and Ricky Barnes are surprise names from the top 5 of the last 4 U.S. Opens, there has in fact been a surprise package in the top 5 or 10 at most U.S. Opens and Justin Hicks is my idea of this year’s contender. He is coming to Merion on the back of a season’s best finish of tied 6th at TPC Southwind; he also has decent form on similar par-70 layouts in previous seasons. He finished tied 18th at Hilton Head, tied 27th at Copperhead and tied 15th at Waialae this year and is ranked 12th in Driving Accuracy , 18th in Greens In Regulation and 8th in Proximity To Hole. He also showed a much improved putting game last week so could be one to keep your eye on this week in regard to a serious surprise package.
Who ever lifts the trophy on Sunday (or Monday if there is a playoff) evening will certainly have earned it and will be a worthy champion.
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- U.S. Open 2013 Preview: 3 Potential Storylines On & Off the Course (carlothesportsman.wordpress.com)
- Players to watch in the U.S. Open at Merion (bnd.com)
- McIlroy stumbles to opening 78 at Memorial (espn.go.com)
- On eve of U.S. Open at Merion, remembering Saxonburg’s Simons (triblive.com)
- English Beats Mickelson for 1st PGA Tour Win Ahead of U.S. Open (bloomberg.com)
- PGA Tour Events Won by Pro Golfer Rory Mcllroy (golf.answers.com)
- US Open Preview (ballgamesports.com)
- U.S. Open: A fan’s guide, story lines and players to watch (sacbee.com)
- US Open Golf 2013: Long Shot Players Worth Betting on at Merion (bleacherreport.com)
- Woods, McIlroy, Scott Together At US Open (detroit.cbslocal.com)