Nicklaus, Watson, Kite, Woods. The last four winners of United States Open Championships contested at the Pebble Beach Golf Links. It’s a prestigious list and one every player in the field wants to join at the 110th playing of the U.S. National Championship.
But few win U.S. Opens; most simply survive better than their peers. That wasn’t the case in 2000 when Tiger Woods lapped the field but this year looks a lot different than those halcyon days of just a decade ago.
Woods is in the field this week, as in Tom Watson as each will have very different perspectives on what this Open will mean to them. For Watson, undoubtedly it will be a swan song, while Woods is hoping it will signify his return to the game at a championship level.
Like any major championship there are dozens of storylines to follow but before you pay attention to the front runners have to give respect to what is championship is really about. Every dreamer with enough ability can qualify to play in this event, adding an element unseen for most of the year, save for the British Open Championship.
The dream of young American golfers, the one they play out on the putting green as a child, is to win their national championship, and whether you are five times runner-up Phil Mickelson or Stanford standout Joseph Bramlett, you have that opportunity before you this week on the Monterrey Peninsula.
Mickelson, as the number 2 ranked player in the world and the best player who has come closest but is yet to win the U.S. Open, is “the guy”. He is the one the weight of America rests on this week. He has been in position to succeed before and if he can find fairways at Pebble (no easy task but considerably easier given the positive weather forecast for the week) it is his championship to win or lose. That is written with no disrespect to any non-American players but being that is his OWN National Championship gives him that more motivation and the edge.
In a couple days of practice at Pebble, Tiger Woods has been the polar opposite of his 2000 form. A decade ago he knew where the ball was going each and every time. This week, in practice at least, there appears to be little consistency in the results of each and every shot. It is hard not to imagine that he will find some sort of a swing to play with come Thursday when he tees it up in Group 39 with Ernie Els and Lee Westwood. Even so, by the end of the day he just might be the high man in that illustrious trio. It is just too tough to say but the memories of 2000, when he won by 15, just might be the fuel he needs to light his fire. Either way, it will be entertaining to watch.
As for other U.S. contenders – there are plenty of options. Hunter Mahan and Sean O’Hair, out of the Sean Foley stable, could make this their breakout championship. Steve Stricker is always a good pick and if you want dark horses – try David Duval or Shawn Micheel. Duval is determined to win a U.S. Open and Micheel, a man who knows how to win a major, is coming off a strong week in Memphis. Zach Johnson has both the ability and mindset to win a major and should not be discounted.
Westwood, Westwood, Westwood. After a win last week the Englishman will grab a large portion of the spotlight. But the #3 player in the world, in my estimation, was rather erratic last week. And variable shots will buy nothing but trouble this week on the gnarly U.S. Open layout strewn with wild grasses and innumerable unplayable lies.
For foreign content on the leaderboard I’ll stick to the straight and narrow players, given the layout and the inherent penalties for getting off-line. Tim Clark (Players Championship) and Luke Donald (Madrid Masters) have wins this year and might be ready for Major Championship glory. Watch too for fairway and green specialists like Stephen Ames.
At 7040 yards and playing to a par of 71, on paper Pebble Beach Golf Links does not look the typical U.S. Open configuration but as we know from past Championships here, only the best players will prevail.
Playing 194 yards longer than it did for the 2000 U.S. Open , length is not a huge factor at Pebble, but keeping a ball on the fairway and on the correct part of the greens (n fact, just hitting them), will be. Favourable weather should help players manage their fairways and greens in regulation but it is all too easy in a major to worry about where NOT to hit it than the opposite.
No hole will stand as a better barometer of play than hole #2. After an opener where birdie is a real possibility, the 502 –yard, par four, 2nd will be ready to slap players in the head and remind them that they are playing in a U.S. Open.
If they survive the first 8 holes they will get another reminder on the 9th, a par four playing 505 yards this week where the tilting fairway effectively plays half its yardage.
If players can manage to avoid disasters at those two holes they might be in the running.
And lastly, if the Championship is close, it will all come to down to the 17th and 18th holes. The tricky 208-yard 17th has been the home to U.S. Open drama in the past and there is no reason to think that another on-the-stick shot (Nicklaus, 1972), or chip-in (Tom Watson) on the way to victory cannot happen again.
Come Father’s Day on Sunday the chances are good an emotionally charged moment will take place on one of the most beautiful golf holes in the world, the 543-yard, 18th at Pebble Beach. The par five is an ideal canvas for drama with the ocean looming left.
There could be no better backdrop for any player, whether a first-time major champion or repeat victor, to make their U.S. Open dreams come true.
This report provided to GolfWRX.com by Flagstick Golf Magazine (www.flagstick.com)