The 114th US Open begins on Thursday and a field of 156 players are set to tee it up in pursuit of victory in the championship dubbed golf’s toughest test. Pinehurst’s No. 2 course will host this championship for the third time, previously hosting it in 1999 and 2005 though the course has been significantly redesigned since the latter. The redesign focused on reverting the course back to the original Donald Ross design as well as adding length to it, the biggest change is the restoration of native sandy/waste areas in the place of rough. The tough turtleback greens remain as treacherous and challenging as Ross intended them to be, even short iron approaches will require precision to the undulating greens with severe run-off areas. Michael Campbell proved the master of these in 2005 but a mix of on and off course issues have led to him forgoing his place in the field this week, a great shame for him personally and I hope the break will aid his game long term.
After being held at a relatively short course in Merion last year, this year’s U.S. Open course will be the 2nd longest in it’s history, just short of the 7,574 yards of Congressional in 2011. Four of the par-4’s are over 500 yards and the thought of a course which puts driver in your hands of the tee will appeal to Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott. After respective wins on the same weekend at the end of May, there have been some who talked in terms of them now being the big two similar to Woods and Mickelson in the previous decade. I am not so sure of this due to uncertainty in my mind about Adam Scott. At the end of this season he’ll be looking for a new caddy as Steve Williams retires, someone whose determined nature has clearly aided the realisation of Scott’s potential. Additionally, he has the impending anchored putter ban of 2016 which he has made no preparation for on course yet, the anchored putter has also aided his rise to major winner.
Rory’s place at the top of the game seems more certain, he goes into this major as favourite and on the balance of form and the course setup this is justified. I would say the forecast is not in his favour though, his wins have been in the main on rain softened courses, Pinehurst is currently basking in temperatures in the late 80’s so expect a firm and fiery course despite some chance of storms over the next 48hrs. Justin Rose will be hoping he doesn’t follow the lead of McIlroy and miss the cut in his U.S. Open defence, he does have the game that should suit this course and while I don’t have him down as one to follow, I do think he can put up a spirited defence this week. 2014 hasn’t really come alive for him this year but it’s not been disastrous and I expect him to pick up a win or two in remaining months of the season.
Ever since he lifted the Claret Jug at Muirfield last July, the thoughts of the golfing world in regard to Phil Mickelson have been pinned on this week and the potential completion of the career grand slam. My worry then and now is that it will become a bigger event then the tournament itself, Mickelson has seldom thrived when he is the focus of such attention, his quest to become World No 1 was testament to that. The off course distractions of being embroiled in an inside trading investigation , regardless of his likely innocence, are a negative too. It would be foolish to write him off as he has the mix of length off the tee and short game prowess which is required at Pinehurst.
Here are the four players who I think will have a big week and possibly land the U.S. Open
Matt Kuchar – Only Jimmy Walker and Bubba Watson are ahead of Kuchar in the FedEx standings and both have multiple wins this season. That shows his consistency has been mightily impressive, 15 starts, 13 cuts made which have been converted into 12 top 25’s, 9 of which were top tens. His win at Hilton Head could be very significant as 1999 Pinehurst winner, Payne Stewart was dual winner at Hilton Head. Statistically, there is a lot to like about his chances, on this season’s PGA Tour performance he’s ranked 6th in scoring average (actual), total putting and scrambling. He showed his accuracy off the tee at Muirfield, hitting 80.36% of fairways which is a superb preparation for this week and he rates as my top pick for this event.
Jason Day – I firmly believe that Jason Day is going to be a multiple major winner and it is only a matter of time before he opens his account in that regard. My concern about Jason Day last year was that he was contending often but not winning but two wins since November have addressed that comprehensively. It has been a interrupted season for Day due to a thumb injury that he played through when victorious in WGC Accenture Matchplay but looks to have recovered fully from this. His length off the tee will mean that Pinehurst’s yardage won’t phase him, he also boasts two runner up finishes in the U.S. Open including last year behind Rose. His competitive persona thrives in the demanding conditions on show in this event and I expect a bold bid from him this week.
Sergio Garcia – There is always a risk attached to picking a player who’s last tournament was curtailed by an injury withdrawal but the indications from Sergio are that his knee is fine. His withdrawal at Wentworth was precautionary and had this week very much in mind and before that his form was very strong indeed. Two top-5’s in his last three PGA Tour starts and an early season win in Qatar on the European Tour. He was third at Pinehurst in 2005 and that remains his best U.S. Open performance which gives him good memories to draw on. Add to those memories, his game is ideally suited to this test, he is 6th in scrambling and 2nd in sand saves as well as being in the top ten for both scoring averages, par 4 performance, greens in regulation and all around ranking. This could be his best chance to win a major.
Jimmy Walker – The rise of Jimmy Walker from consistent cut maker to three time winner and frequent contender over the past 10 months has been rapid. These performances are the result of sustained improvements in his game rather than a purple patch of form. Over the past two years the work he has been doing on his game improved his length off the tee, averaging 7 yards further compared to 2012, he is hitting more greens, a shade over 4% more than 2012. It’s not only his long game that has improved, he has improved upon on his strong putting stats from 2012 to move into the top 5 in both of the main putting measures. I consider him a genuine contender this week, his game has all round strength and top ten finishes at Augusta and Sawgrass show he’s not overawed by the big events.