The U.S. Open golf championship makes a triumphant return to Pinehurst #2 for the 2014 edition of the event and the big question is, “Does the event produce a likely winner, a la Payne Stewart in 1999, or an unlikely winner, like Michael Campbell in 2005?”
Starting tomorrow, our nation’s golfing championship takes place over an amazing piece of land in southern North Carolina, and it’s truly “anyone’s game” in the year’s second major tournament.
It’s fairly safe to say the ultimate winner of the event is going to be the course itself, although on-again, off-again thunderstorms throughout the week should soften the course enough to make scoring a lot more reasonable than it would have been without the rain that the area is expected to get over the next five days.
I was there in late March with the Calvert Hall golf team and we played #2. Although we weren’t allowed to play it “all the way back” because the championship tees were closed for tournament preparation, I was able to walk back to the tees and see the course as the players will face it and I can say, for sure, it’s going to be extremely tough for anyone to break par over 72 holes. Now — with the rain in the area on Monday and Tuesday and the anticipated thunderstorms popping up during the event, I wouldn’t be surprised to see several players in red figures by late Sunday afternoon. That said, it’s not going to be the John Deere Classic or anything like that. Scoring and birdies will still be at a premium.
Because of the Donald Ross-designed green complexes, chipping and putting are going to be at a real premium this week. A “good” putter can’t win at Pinehurst. There will simply be far too many 4-8 foot putts for par for virtually every player in the field and the great putters make enough of those to stay in contention — and the good putters don’t.
So, let’s size up the field and give you the skinny on a few prominent players as the tournament gets set to begin 24 hours from now.
Bubba Watson — When you average 315 yards off the tee and you have the short game touch of a wizard, you’re a threat to win any golf tournament. Conventional wisdom would eliminate Bubba from consideration here because he has the propensity for one or two errant drives per-round that leave him scrambling for bogey or worse. That said, he’s a far better overall driver of the golf ball than given credit for and he can hit irons off of many of the tees and #2 and play it safe if need be. He’s not a great putter by any means, but he’s a streaky-good putter who has twice tamed the insanely difficult greens at Augusta National. Can he win at Pinehurst? Sure. Will he? No. Odds on winning: 15-1
Phil Mickelson — No matter what he says, “something’s going on” with Phil’s game. My guess is it’s the natural distraction of having the FBI investigate you for something like insider trading. As I watched him yesterday during his practice round, televised by the Golf Channel, it was clear to me his body language looked “off”. Regardless, when the U.S. Open rolls around, so does Mickelson’s game. His form in 2014 isn’t up to snuff and it would appear he’s unlikely to win at Pinehurst, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he’s there on Sunday with a chance to be victorious. In typical form, Mickelson might be 6-1, but with his terrible 2014 to date, I’ll double that to 12-1.
Jason Dufner — Simply put, putting will get the best of Dufner by the time the sun sets on Sunday. He has all the tools to win. He’s among the best ball strikers in the game and has a habit of showing up when the majors come around. In his favor at Pinehurst? He will hit a lot of greens and have plenty of birdie looks. Against him? No matter how well you play there, you’re always going to have a handful of short putts to convert for par or bogey and those remain Dufner’s biggest obstacle. Can he win? Sure, he could. He could stiff it on 15 holes over four days and make ten of them and finish at a couple under par. He won’t though. Odds on winning: 18-1.
Adam Scott — Right now, he’s the best golfer in the world. It’s not nearly by a football field margin like it was for Tiger for a decade, but the 2013 Masters champ is the best player on the planet. He can do it all. Driving the ball has never been his strength, but his iron play and putting have improved so dramatically over the last two years that he’s always a threat to win simply because he doesn’t make many mistakes. One of the few players to use a long putter on the TOUR, that could actually wind up being a major advantage for Scott this week. Rather than having to chip from areas off the green, Scott can comfortably use his long putter as a pseudo chipping club. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him hanging around on Sunday. Odds on winning: 10-1
Zach Johnson — Lots of folks on the scene at Pinehurst say Johnson is a perfect fit for the golf course. Drives it long enough and straight enough to contend anywhere, but those two traits will really come in handy this week. Isn’t a great putter, but has weeks where he produces great results on the greens. Has the boring, hit-the-fairway, hit-the-green sort of game to make some noise at the U.S. Open. Oddly enough, though, his track record at the event isn’t all that great, with a T-30 his top performance at the annual mid-June event. Could win this week if everything comes together for him, but that’s asking quite a bit from a player who has never contended for the U.S. Open. Odds on winning: 30-1
Jordan Spieth — Will win a couple of these tournaments. Yes, he’ll be a multiple U.S. Open winner in his career. It might even be this year, honestly. Has sniffed around at two of the biggest events in 2014 (Augusta, TPC Sawgrass) and has a game built for major championships because he’s a great putter. That said, he hasn’t been a great putter on Sunday at both the Masters and The Players. How much of that is nerves and how much of that is just “you can’t make ‘em all”? That’s the big question. Because Pinehurst won’t be a birdie-fest, this might be a perfect fit for him. I’d consider him to be a favorite — He’s 8:1
But those guys aren’t winning.
I’ll tell you who is.
His name is Billy Horschel.
He hits it straight. He hits a lot of greens. He’s a terrific putter. And he’s going to win.