Last year’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines will be remembered mostly for the fact that the guy who won did so while operating on one leg, essentially.
I think this year’s U.S. Open at Bethpage Black will also be remembered for one thing: Bad weather. In fact, if I were making a wager right now – based on the forecast – I’d say there’s a decent chance they won’t be able to get 72 holes in by Sunday evening, necessitating a Monday finish.
Nothing can wreck an outdoor sporting event – and, perhaps, provide a winner typically not worthy of the title – like bad weather, be it rain, snow, high winds, etc.
Long Island might not get snow this weekend, but rain and wind will be on site with a full access pass starting today when the U.S. Open commences at one of the fiercest tests of golf in America.
I won’t wait until the final sentence to proclaim the winner. I’ll handle that early. I hope you’re sitting down. I think Tiger Woods is going to win.
The main reason? He’s the best player in the world and he’s playing one of the toughest courses in the world. That’s a combination that favors – ta da – the BEST player. Woods is the best player. By a longshot.
That said, I also think a lot can conspire against Tiger – and some others – throughout the next four days. The weather is going to be a major factor at Bethpage starting this morning. Woods and the rest of the field who drew the “early/late” tee-time combination could get the bad end of the draw. Remember back in ’02 when Tiger triumphed at Bethpage Black? He got the GOOD end of the draw. He played only 8 of his first 36 holes in rain. The guys on the other end of the draw – notably the always-complaining Sergio Garcia – played roughly half of their 36 holes in a near downpour. Bad weather – particularly rain that darts in and out of the area throughout the day – can play havoc with the field. Woods might get the good end of the bad weather (again) or, he might get the bad end of it. We’ll have to see.
Bethpage will play much, much different if it’s wet. There’s no sense in talking about “what if it’s dry?” because that’s just not going to happen. They’ve had 4+ inches of rain there over the last 3 days alone. It has rained at Bethpage 29 of the last 38 days. The place is soaked. And more rain is on the horizon. It’s GOING to be wet and the course is going to play much longer than the advertised total of 7,400 yards.
With that in mind, who are the others I see hanging around to give Tiger a run for his money over the weekend?
Look at the PGA Tour stats and pay close attention to these two categories: Total Driving – and – Scrambling. Total driving is the combination of a player’s driving accuracy ranking and driving distance ranking. In other words, if a guy is the #15 ranked driver of the golf ball in terms of length and the #30 ranked player in terms of accuracy off the tee, his “Total Driving” number would be 45. A guy who hits it long and straight will be a threat this weekend given the soggy ground. Scrambling is a statistic derived from a player’s ability to make a par (or better) after not hitting the green in regulation. I won’t get too technical on you here, but understand it like this. If a player is struggling and not on his “A” game, he needs to scramble well in order to post a decent score. When a 7,400 yard golf course is wet – playing more like 7,500 yards – EVERYONE in the field needs to scramble well because most players will miss anywhere from 6-10 greens in regulation given the length of the golf course.
Two players stand out – to me, anyway – statistically from the Total Driving and Scrambling categories. Brian Gay is a 2-time winner this year who is in the top 10 in scrambling (and putting). He’s had a terrific last two months and is coming into the event on the heels of winning in Memphis last weekend. I realize it’s very tough to put back to back wins together on TOUR, but Gay has quickly asserted himself as an ’09 player to watch with his two wins and impressive season to date. He doesn’t drive the golf ball very long, which means he’ll need to put some pressure on those scrambling abilities.
Hunter Mahan is one of America’s bright young stars and his Total Driving stat is in the top 20 on TOUR. He hasn’t won a significant event during his professional career, but he has played well in a few majors (top 10 at The Masters this year) and gained a lot of confidence last September when he played well for the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see Mahan hanging around at Bethpage.
I’m not buying into the European contingent finally getting their act together at a U.S. Open. I think Ian Poulter and Paul Casey are both terrific players, but I don’t suspect either of them will contend this weekend. They’ve both become sexy picks for Bethpage, but I don’t see it. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Player’s Championship winner Henrik Stenson in the mix over the weekend…but on the whole, I don’t think the Open layout benefits European players all that much.
Jim Furyk is another guy getting a lot of play this week from the experts and I actually agree with the Furyk sentiment. He’s a seasoned, unflappable pro with a U.S. Open (2003) under his belt and a recent stretch of strong golf (2nd to Tiger two weeks ago at The Memorial) that could carry over to this weekend.
There are three young players to keep an eye on this weekend. None of them have anything statistically-speaking to support their chances — but all three are outstanding young players. George McNeill, John Mallinger and Michael Sim are bombers off the tee and accomplished enough to play steady golf for a few days and make it interesting on Sunday. Can any of those three win the U.S. Open? Probably not this year. But can they compete and shuttle around the leaderboard on the weekend? Sure.
I’d love to see Phil Mickelson play well this weekend and, maybe for the first time ever, I can honestly say I wouldn’t mind seeing him win the event. His wife is back home in San Diego battling breast cancer and Mickelson is in New York because you can’t play in the U.S. Open forever and he’s never triumphed in this tournament. A win here would be one for the ages. I’d like to see it. But I think it would take a minor miracle for Phil to be there – in contention – on Sunday. The issue with his wife is just too consuming…too difficult…and I don’t think ANYONE can play four rounds of golf under the pressures of the U.S. Open with that kind of weight on their mind…and I don’t think Mickelson will do it this weekend.
The one player who’s capable of handling everything – the pressure, the greens, the bad weather – is Geoff Ogilvy. Ogilvy won the Open in 2006 when Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie frittered away their chances at the 18th hole. He was, bascially, the last guy standing. He’s a little bit of a weird dude…kind of unflappable in almost a stand-off’ish kind of way. You think he might be snobbing-up on you and then you realize he just doesn’t have much to say. It’s that kind of unflappable attitude that will serve Ogilvy well in bad weather this week. While others will be bellyaching about the rain and the wind spoiling their chance, Ogilvy will just put his umbrella up and go about his business.
I like Ogilvy’s chances a lot this week. He’s a terrific player, seems sort of unfazed by Tiger, and is just a complete performer. Drives it well, stripes his irons, makes the putt.
Make no mistake: It’s Tiger’s tournament to lose. It always is.
That said, he COULD get the bad weather draw and shoot 77 on Thursday and be in trouble right away.
Or, he could play from 8am to 12:30 pm in relative calm, fire a 71, and retreat to his Long Island rent-a-mansion and watch the afternoon gang slop around in all-day rain en-route to an average score of 76.4.
All being equal, though, I see Woods being very difficult to beat.
He’s the best player in the world and that status alone gives him a considerable advantage over the rest of the field.
I’ll take Woods to win.
Really, though, I just hope the weather isn’t the story.
Any other story will be fine.