In less than 18 hours, the first tee shots of this year's U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland will be in the air. Everyone will be even par, if only very briefly.
This is one of the only weeks in competitive golf where if you were to ask every player if they wouldn't mind standing pat and skipping forward 72 holes in order preserve that capital E next to their names on card, board, and television screen, every single one--all 156--would shake your hand and take the deal. Most other weeks, even par wouldn't make the cut, much less the winner's circle.
The U.S. Open is, by design, golf's great war of attrition. The United States Golf Association's flagship event, it is a 72-hole death march where the winner is usually merely the luckiest of the losers. Long, unrelenting tracks baring shin-deep rough bordering bowling alley fairways, pool table-slick greens, and yawning, deep bunkers batter the minds, bodies, and egos of every entrant. And at the end of it all, there's one weary player left standing, with barely enough strength to lift the trophy.
Who will it be this year? Allow me to throw a few names out there. First, three of the usuals:
1. Luke Donald—Rather obvious, I'll admit, but his game is built for withstanding the type of struggle that a U.S. Open presents. He's used to scrambling because of his lack of length off the tee, so the things that U.S. Opens require--patience and short putting prowess on the greens, the ability to recover--are in his arsenal.
2. Phil Mickelson—Yeah, I know that everyone thinks he's going to win every year since his collapse at Winged Foot, but I think he's in great shape to finally do it this year. Congressional will suit his aggressive tee-to-green game and provide enough of a variety of shots on and around the greens to engage him and let him use his superlative pair of hands to his advantage.
3. Retief Goosen—He has been playing well lately, and the greens at Congo are already getting crusty. His calmness is always a good thing at a US Open.
Now, four less obvious choices who could surprise:
1. Angel Cabrera—He decides to show up at the majors. He won his US Open in 2007 and his Masters in 2009. I have to believe he'll contend this week.
2. Ryan Moore—He's made the cut in all 10 tournaments he's started this year. Very solid all-around player.
3. Matteo Manassero—He's young enough (at 18) and talented enough (two European Tour victories, already) to win a major, or at least contend. I think he may well have a better career than Rory McIlroy, actually.
4. Sergio Garcia—You would have never thought Sergio would be relegated to dark-horse status, but he has been. And that might be best for him to have a legitimate shot at a major. He’s a great ball-striker, which should take pressure off his sometimes-suspect short game. It will come down to Garcia’s desire and attitude; talent has never been an issue.
As always, the USGA has put together some compelling pairings for the first two rounds of the U.S. Open. Let’s have a look at a few of them (all times for Thursday).
First tee, 8:06 a.m.: Henrik Stenson, Johan Edfors, Fredrik Jacobson—The all-Sweden grouping features a former elite, currently struggling player in Stenson, one of the longest hitters in professional golf in Edfors, and one of the best putters on the planet in Jacobson.
First tee, 1:24 p.m.: Miguel Angel Jimenez, Sergio Garcia, Alvaro Quiros—The all-Spain group features the three Spanish players in the field. It should be a comfortable pairing for The Mechanic, El Niño, and El Bomba.
Tenth tee, 7:22 a.m.: Thomas Levet, Brian Gay, Gregory Havret—The USGA needed to put a third with the two Frenchmen in the field, so why not an American whose surname rhymes? Havret is the Forgotten Man from last year’s U.S. Open, where he finished runner-up to champion Graeme McDowell by a single shot.
Tenth tee, 7:55 a.m.: Ryo Ishikawa, Anthony Kim, Y.E. Yang—Though there are enough other players in the field from South Korea (Yang’s home) and Japan (Ishikawa’s) for individual national groupings, the USGA chose to pair Yang, the 2009 PGA Champion, with young guns Kim (the group’s American) and Ishikawa, who seem destined to acquire their own major championships eventually.
Tenth tee, 8:06 a.m.: Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer—This is the heavy-hitter group for the first two rounds, containing the top three players in the current Official World Golf Ranking. All three are Europeans, but only one (Kaymer) has won a major. Will that still be the case come Sunday night?
Tenth tee, 8:39 a.m.: Sam Saunders, Tim Petrovic, Scott Piercy—This group is of primary interest to Connecticut golf fans as it contains Petro, the only player in the field who hails from and attended college in the Nutmeg State (J.J. Henry, in the 8:28 a.m. tee time off the first tee with Jason Day and Justin Rose). Meanwhile, Petrovic is the veteran in the group at the age of 44 (Piercy is 32 and Saunders is 23).
Coverage of the 2011 U.S. Open begins at 10 a.m. Thursday on ESPN.