Let’s face it, when Jack Nicklaus was winning the U.S. Open, he probably had about a dozen guys he had to beat and if they were paired with him, with one stare from the Golden Bear, you could cross them off the list, too.
When Tiger Woods was winning the U.S. Open, not that he’s done yet (or is he?), either no one could catch him or no one wanted to, take your pick.
When Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open at Congressional last year, nobody could have beaten him, not even Tiger or Jack in his prime. Well, maybe not, but wouldn’t you like to have seen it?
When this year’s U.S. Open commences at The Olympic Club, it figures to be the most wide-open Open that anyone can remember. Sure, Olympic has been the scene for some pretty unlikely champions – Jack Fleck, Billy Casper, Scott Simpson and Lee Janzen – but this summer’s crop of who’s-gonna-win is a bushel-basket full of Jason Dufners, Rickie Fowlers and Hunter Mahans to create an ever-growing list of unusual suspects.
The romantic in us all would not so secretly like to see Phil Mickelson win his first Open after five runner-up disappointments, some more burdensome than others, like that one time when he said he was “such an idiot” on the last hole at Winged Foot. He’s already in the Hall of Fame, so wouldn’t it be one for the people if he could walk off into the San Francisco sunset, trophy in hand?
Give us a moment for reality to set back in so we can face the fact that the odds are much greater than Ladbrokes or the Vegas sports book will probably post, especially if Phil spends too much time in the eucalyptus and stresses out his short game in the first couple of rounds. Because we’re weary of hearing him say, “Well, I’m going to have to shoot a low one tomorrow.”
Fact is, there are plenty of guys out there who can shoot a low one today, but we have to realize that a low one at Olympic is probably going to be 68 or 69 and there will be scant few of those. The Lake Course is going to be a brute and Mike Davis, executive director for the USGA and the man who will supervise the set-up, says if you get through the first six holes 1- or 2-over par, you’ll be ahead of the field.
Which is to say the winning score is likely to be higher than 280, even par for four rounds, not the 16 under that McIlroy shot last year. Call it Revenge of the Blue Blazers. They call it golf’s toughest test.
And that’s the way it should be for the U.S. Open. Each of the four majors has its own distinct personality. The Masters has its roars from deep into Augusta National on Sunday afternoon. The Open Championship is subject to the quirks and humps and bounces of links golf. The PGA Championship is a blend of the other three.
The U.S. Open is the sternest examination in the game. The course setup will expose your frailties and exploit your weaknesses. It’s way too easy to get on the bogey train at the Open and the problem is, there are not enough birdie chances on an Open course to make up for very many mistakes.
So, it’s either going to take someone who can string together a bunch of pars (Dufner) or someone who makes a pile of birdies and bogeys (Fowler). Or maybe it will be someone in between, like for instance Matt Kuchar, who was tied for the lead at The Masters late on the final day.
Where does that leave the top-ranked players? McIlroy is unlikely to repeat, simply because of the odds. However, The Olympic Club would seem to suit him royally, with its requirement of good, straight driving. It might be too big a ballpark for Luke Donald but he will be one of the favorites, nonetheless. Lee Westwood might have the best chance of the new Big Three, especially since the scores won’t be much under par, if at all.
Doubtful it will be Bubba Watson, Masters champion. You can only hit so many 40-yard hooks out of the trees before it starts to catch up with you and Olympic will provide many of those opportunities for Watson if his pink driver starts to betray him.
The point is, it could be that any one of 50 or 60 – or even more – players in the field have a chance to win this U.S. Open and none of them might happen to be Woods. However, Olympic is notorious for unexpected winners and who more than Woods, in many minds, is the least likely to win this Open?
But for him to win, he not only will have to beat the course, but he will have to beat a whole bunch of guys who aren’t scared of him – or anybody else.