U.S. Open: Tiger headlines staff predictions

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods

— The U.S. Open will test the mettle of the world's best golfers, and this week's stage at Merion Golf Club promises to provide spectacular memories.

Our staff of experts will be on the ground all week and took a few moments to study the field and make a few predictions.

We broke it down into the favorite, an underdog to watch outside the Official World Golf Ranking's top 25, the low amateur and then whether the winner will be under par.

Take a look at our predictions and leave yours in the comment section below the story:

• • •

Jeff Babineau, Golfweek editor

Winner: Graeme McDowell. Love his temperament and his toughness for this championship. Won the Open in '10 and had a great chance last summer at Olympic. With his current form, there's no reason why he shouldn't be a factor at Merion. Biggest question: Can a guy drink Guinness from a wicker basket?

Underdog: Zach Johnson. Wedge play and putting will be huge this week, and this guy can wedge it and roll it with the very best.

Low amateur: Max Homa. Coming off an outstanding spring at Cal, the winner of the NCAA individual championship will continue his good run and play on the weekend.

Winning score: Under par. Mother Nature gets a huge assist.

• • •

Jeff Rude, Golfweek senior writer

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Winner: Phil Mickelson. Mickelson loves the Merion setup because hard holes are hard and easy holes will yield birdies. His great short game will allow him to save pars on hard holes, and he should tear up the easy holes because he leads the Tour in birdie average.

Underdog: Angel Cabrera. No. 90 in the Golfweek/Sagarin, Cabrera reached a playoff at the Masters for a runner-up finish. Cabrera comes out of left field to contend and win majors, and has a long, straight driver when he's on.

Low amateur: Michael Kim. The Golfweek/Sagarin college player of the year out of Cal also is the Nicklaus Award winner picked by coaches.

Winning score: Under par. Perhaps way under par, because of softer conditions. If the course remains soft all week, Rory McIlroy's records of 268 and 16 under will be in jeopardy – maybe even the major low of 63.

• • •

Jim McCabe, Golfweek senior writer

Winner: Graeme McDowell. Not everyone embraces the U.S. Open philosophy, but the man from Northern Ireland isn't one of them. He clearly gets it. Has never missed a cut in seven starts and has quietly established himself as a formidable force in this fairways-and-greens test: He won in 2010 and is T-14 and T-2 in his last two tries. McDowell has seen Merion and the good news is, he loves it.

Underdog: Jim Furyk. Qualifies as an "underdog" because he ranks outside the top 25 in world order, but his record in this championship makes him a legitimate threat. Six times he's finished in the top five, including a year ago (T-4) when he quite honestly should have won.

Low amateur: Chris Williams. Top-ranked amateur . . . at least for one more week. He'll turn pro at the Travelers, so why not go out with a little bit of honor.

Winning score: Under par. Not enough time, not enough premium weather to dry out the venerable layout. It won't be a repeat of Congressional in 2011, but red numbers will dominate. Hey, these guys are good!

• • •

Bradley S. Klein, Golfweek senior writer

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Winner: Tiger Woods. His poor weekend at Memorial behind him, he's still the smartest, most inventive shot-maker on Tour, and not having to hit his driver more than a few times at Merion will benefit him more than most other players.

Underdog: Freddie Jacobson. No. 51 in the OWGR, he's playing better this year with more regularity than he has previously. At No. 43 on the PGA Tour money list for the year, Jacobson has three top-10 finishes in 11 events.

Low amateur: Michael Weaver. A 5-foot putt away from last year's U.S. Amateur title, he missed the putt on the 36th hole but comes to Merion mature rather than embittered – and ready to prove that he can still excel on the national stage.

Winning score: Under par. There will still be enough moisture in the ground to keep the course playable (barely) for the best shot-makers that week who can control their golf ball – which will be a precious few players.

• • •

David Dusek, Golfweek senior writer

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Winner: Tiger Woods. He is going to win the U.S. Open because he's the best player on the planet and won't have to hit the one club that could get him into trouble at Merion, his driver. At the Players, Woods told us that he was hitting his 3-wood more than 300 yards and his 5-wood in the neighborhood of 275. The ball probably won't carry as well in Pennsylvania as it did in Ponte Vedra Beach last month, but that doesn't matter. Woods' iron game is sharp and he has won four times already in 2013. Everyone is going to miss some greens at Merion, but Woods is more than capable of hitting wonderful recovery shots. He's also No. 5 in strokes gained-putting. It's been five years since Woods won at Torrey Pines, but on Father's Day the assault on Jack Nicklaus' record begins again.

Underdog: Jim Furyk. It's tempting to say Phil Mickelson could be an underdog winner because he has been a runner-up at the U.S. Open five times and he hasn't shown much that would lead us to think his game is clicking (which is usually when he explodes for a resounding victory), but he's ranked too high for these criteria. I'll take Jim Furyk. The 2003 champion from West Chester, Pa., could have won when the last U.S. Open was played in Pennsylvania (Oakmont in '07); he was in the mix at Winged Foot in 2006 and last year too. I worry that he can't make meaningful putts anymore, and that quick-left miss with a hybrid on the 16th at Olympic Club in 2012 cost him a second major. But the crowds will be solidly behind Furyk, and he won't be awed by the spotlight Sunday. He wouldn't be considered a Hall of Famer before the start of this tournament, but a win would get him enshrined for sure.

Low amateur: None. Seriously? It might be the 100th anniversary of Francis Ouimet's win at The Country Club, but no amateur is going to make the cut at Merion.

Winning score: Under par. The winner of this U.S. Open is going to shoot under par, much to the disappointment of the blue-blazered traditionalists from Far Hills, N.J. There are too many short holes at Merion, too many short irons and wedges into par 4s, too many 3-irons off the tee for some players not to make birdies. Sure, some players will shoot the moon because they'll get into the rough and other players won't be able to handle the green speeds and firmness. But at some point, someone is going to break double digits under par. He might not stay there, but joyously, wonderfully, mercifully, players are going to make birdies at Merion.

• • •

Adam Schupak, Golfweek senior writer

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Winner: Steve Stricker. I have backed Stricker at enough majors now that we're in the "Shame on me" phase, but I'm going to give him one last chance. Merion sets up for his game, and he's been free-wheeling it during his "early retirement" this season. Bottom line: He needs to putt like Steve Stricker in a major for once.

Underdog: Tim Clark. How do you say "awkward" in Afrikaans? That would describe the circumstance if USGA executive director Mike Davis were to hand the champion's trophy to Clark, the most vocal opponent of the anchoring ban. Don't laugh. This scenario could happen. Clark, the 2011 Players Championship winner, is healthy again and his form of late suggests he's close to returning to the winner's circle.

Low amateur: Chris Williams. Who better to be low am at Merion than the reigning Ben Hogan Award winner? Williams is scheduled to turn pro the next week at the Travelers Championship. He will wrap up a sterling amateur career with a statement that puts his name on the radar of golf fans who don't follow the amateur and college games.

Winning score: Under par. The weather forecast in suburban Philadelphia calls for more rain. What a shame. Merion under fast and firm conditions is beginning to sound like something only in Mike Davis' dreams. If spotty weather makes the greens soft and spongy, double digits as we had at Congressional in 2011 is not out of the question.

• • •

Nick Masuda, director, digital content, innovation

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Winner: Tiger Woods. Did you see his performance at TPC Sawgrass? Didn't even need driver to beat the field. He won't need it again this week, not when he can hit 3-wood more than 300 yards (OK, others can too, but driver is his kryptonite, and he doesn't need it here). His putter looked a bit shaky at Memorial, but four victories in the first five months tell me that his flatstick will be just fine. The winless streak in majors ends now.

Underdog: Ryan Palmer. Playing with a heavy heart after losing a longtime childhood friend right before the Players, Palmer finished fifth at the Players, T-14 at the Crowne Plaza and then fourth at the St. Jude Classic. Has only two previous appearances in the U.S. Open, including a T-21 in 2011. He has something to play for, which makes him dangerous.

Low amateur: Max Homa. The 2013 NCAA individual champ was absolutely nails at the Capital City Club for No. 1 Cal, showing off his senior leadership. He suffered heartbreak in a 20-hole loss to Thomas Pieters that allowed Illinois to knock off the Golden Bears in the semifinals. Instead of crawling into a hole, Homa returned to the course at the sectional qualifier in California and won a spot in the U.S. Open via a playoff. Now that shows guts and incredible resolve – just the type of game he'll need at Merion.

Winning score: Under par. I was prepared to write a dissertation on why the score was going to be over par, but Mother Nature had to go and get in the way. Now, with the course – especially the greens – wet and receptive, the best players in the world should be able to take advantage of the course's short nature. Don't get me wrong: Most will still finish over par, but there will be a fair contingent that can push double figures under par. A shootout at Merion? Sounds like fun.

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