The U.S. Open golf championship begins Thursday at historic Pebble Beach.
In years past, we’d be listing Tiger Woods as the pre-tournament winner and spend most of our time debating who might be lucky enough to finish second. Not this year. Woods hasn’t returned to form since a winter hiatus and Phil Mickelson – with The Masters title on his 2010 chart – enters the U.S. Open as the consensus favorite.
This sets up to be an interesting event because Pebble Beach is so unlike most U.S. Open venues. The golf course is short (by today’s standards) and the small greens put even more emphasis on everyone’s ball striking. And because greens are easy to miss, the short game and putting leaders figure to play prominent roles in the event.
Here are ten names to watch, along with my champion pick:
> Ryan Moore — Comes in on the heels of a great finish (5th at Memorial) two weeks ago and is just the kind of “off-the-radar screen” guy who hangs around for 3 days before shooting 77 on the final day to shoot himself out of the tournament.
> Ricky Barnes — Nearly won the event a year ago at Bethpage and has actually put together a very good 2010 with four top 10′s in his last seven starts. Wouldn’t be a shock at all if he hangs around this week.
> Charl Schwartzel — Who? Yep, Charl Schwartzel. South Africans like the U.S. Open and Schwartzel is a rock star in waiting who played well at Augusta and in the Match Play earlier this year. He bombs it off the tee – which isn’t really needed at Pebble Beach – but his iron play is terrific and that IS important.
> Tiger Woods — Who? You mean the guy who used to be really good? Yep, Woods will hang around this week/weekend. In fact, he’ll probably only need to hit driver on 3-4 holes each day, which definitely works in his favor. Knows the golf course, obviously, and has the heart of a champion even when his form isn’t of championship caliber. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t fare well. Then again, he hasn’t exactly been the “old” Tiger Woods this year. Let’s see which Tiger shows up this week.
> Dustin Johnson — Doesn’t have a pedigree in major championships, but he’s won the last two PGA TOUR events at Pebble Beach, so that has to matter at least a little bit, right? Well, this IS the U.S. Open, but if “horses for courses” means anything, Johnson will be heard from this week.
> Nick Watney — A stylish young American player who will play on Ryder Cup teams and win majors in his career. I’m not sure he wins this one, but I expect Watney to be a contender this week, boosted mainly by his superb iron play.
> Lucas Glover — Another player who won’t need to hit driver on most of the holes. As the defending champion, he brings a special swagger to the event that could keep him on the leaderboard throughout the weekend. When he’s on, he’s great. When he’s off, he’s just another player. Last year at Bethpage, he was really on. I think you’ll see a lot of “on” from him this week at Pebble Beach.
> Tim Clark — This goes against the grain a bit, because his chipping/short game are without question nearly “un-TOUR like” in their deficiency, but Clark hits it straight and has a precise iron game that bodes well for major championships and Pebble Beach in particular. Won The Players Championship this year on the heels of a great putting round on Sunday. If he hits a lot of fairways and greens, he could win the U.S. Open. But if his iron game is off and he has to pitch and chip to stay in the hunt, he’ll be leaving on the 6:30pm flight Friday night. I’m going to bet that his iron game is ON and he’s a factor.
> Ben Crane — Doesn’t have a great record in major championships (one top-10 in 15 attempts) but he’s had a very good 2010, with a win and four top 10′s. His plodding, deliberate style fits in perfectly with the U.S. Open, where rounds take five hours and patience determines the winners and losers as much as anything else. Crane is one of those American players who doesn’t stand out in any one area, but he does everything well enough to make a bunch of money and contend on a regular basis.
> Phil Mickelson — Although his form coming in hasn’t exactly been “Phil-like” he’s the favorite this week and the natural pick to win the golf tournament. Like Woods, he won’t have to hit driver often and his short-game wizardry will be on full display throughout the four days. The only knock on Mickelson in his 5 runner-up finishes…he always tends to have ONE bad putting round that comes back to cost him. If his putter cooperates this week, he’s your winner.