U.S. Open: Your primer for Thursday's action
SAN FRANCISCO – The Olympic Club will provide the stiffest major-championship test since Oakmont in 2007 . . . and, well, that’s about all we can say definitively on the eve of the 112th U.S. Open.
With that in mind, here are a few thoughts before the year’s second major:
• ALL EYES WILL BE . . . on the Big Three, or, if you’re growing as tired of that nickname as I am, the Mega-Watt Trio of Americans who will play in the same group Thursday at Olympic. Tiger Woods, Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson - Nos. 4, 5 and 13 in the world order, respectively -- tee off No. 9 at 7:33 a.m. PDT. Vertically-challenged fans will have a difficult time following the moving circus, which is unfortunate. It should be great theater. Each mono-named superstar in the group carries a compelling storyline: Will Tiger, fresh off a victory at the Memorial, resume his pursuit of Jack’s record and win No. 15? Will Phil, five times a U.S. Open runner-up, finally win one, at age 41? Will Bubba, who has made only two starts since his Masters breakthrough, be sharp enough to handle Olympic’s demanding test?
• THE (OTHER) BIG THREE . . . is another rare (though increasingly familiar) treat for fans, as the top three players in the world ranking (Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood) are paired together as well. Such a star-studded group typically would cause mass hysteria among the dimplehead community, but the trio of Euro stars likely will be overshadowed by the aforementioned Big Three, or the Mega-Watt Trio of Americans. Obviously, there’s much to like about this afternoon pairing: McIlroy, the defending champion, missed three consecutive cuts before moving into contention last week in Memphis, while Donald and Westwood, two players seemingly tailor-made for the rigors of the Open, hope to shed the label of Best Player Without a Major. Delicious stuff.
• IT’S HARD NOT TO . . . root for a guy like Casey Martin, the disabled golfer who returns to Olympic Club, with his cart, 14 years after he tied for 23rd in what would turn out to be his only other major appearance. Now the head men’s coach at Oregon, Martin played only sparingly this spring, yet still won his 36-hole qualifier. The best pre-tournament story of the Open? No. It might be the best story of the year.
• MANY STORIES ALREADY . . . have been filed about Andy Zhang, the 14-year-old who is believed to be the youngest U.S. Open participant in history. But he’s one of five teens in the 156-player field, including Jordan Spieth, 18, who earlier this month helped Texas win the NCAA title. Don’t forget, a year ago then-19-year-old Patrick Cantlay tied for 21st at Congressional. Such a result would be surprising here - Olympic figures to pose more of a challenge - but don’t rule out the possibility of a teen, maybe even two, making the cut.
• HISTORY TELLS US . . . that no player has ever won the event preceding the U.S. Open and our national championship in consecutive weeks. But you have to like Dustin Johnson’s chances. The long-hitter, who has played only twice since March as he recovers from a back injury, held on to win the FedEx St. Jude Classic last Sunday. If he can keep the ball in the fairway at Olympic - a tall task, considering its bowling-lane landing areas - he should be a contender on the weekend.
• FOR SOME REASON . . . upsets have become commonplace at Olympic. Lee Janzen coming from five behind to clip Payne Stewart in the ’98 Open. Billy Casper over Arnold Palmer in ’66 Open. Jack Fleck topping Ben Hogan in the ’55 Open. This year’s surprise winner will be . . . who, exactly? In a year of parity on the PGA Tour - only three players, Woods, Jason Dufner and Hunter Mahan, have won twice - it would only be fitting for someone other than the big names, someone, say, outside the top 15 in the world, to earn the new Nicklaus Medal. Will Zach Johnson continue his hot streak and win a second major? Could Jim Furyk become a two-time U.S. Open winner? Heck, can we even consider those guys upset picks?
Tomorrow, we’ll draw closer to an answer.