June 10, 2009

Long Course, Short List

Only a fraction of the 156 players in the U.S. Open field will actually have a chance of winning. They might not be all the players you expect

Since vaulting to the No. 3 spot in the world ranking, Paul Casey has emerged as one of the U.S. Open favorites.

Since vaulting to the No. 3 spot in the world ranking, Paul Casey has emerged as one of the U.S. Open favorites.

Oakmont has the terrifying greens, Winged Foot the tough-to-hit targets, but when it comes to U.S. Open venues, Bethpage-Black is probably the toughest from head to toe. Built on spectacular golf terrain 30 miles east of Manhattan, its emphasis on length and dramatic elevation changes, particularly on approach shots, make it difficult to imagine someone who doesn't drive the ball 300 yards winning next week.

Hawk's Eye

Firm and fast conditions obviously would bring more guys into the mix, but Bethpage's relatively wide fairways and talk of less punishing rough will work against the best interests of control players who once had a distinct advantage at this tournament. The last three U.S. Open champions have been long hitters. Power ruled when Bethpage hosted the national championship for the first time in 2002, although weather had a lot to do with the nature of that competition.

USGA setup man Mike Davis has been praised for his fairness and practicality at the three U.S. Opens he previously managed, but things at Bethpage aren't going to change that much from '02. You can't shoot even par on this beast over four days if you're hitting hybrid clubs and 3-woods into the par 4s. Distance off the tee is paramount to creating enough scoring changes to contend, which is why these 10 players stand clear above the rest when it comes to factoring prominently next week.

Tiger Woods: He turned his year around with the big performance at the Memorial, not just with the usual clutch play Sunday, but because he drove the ball wonderfully throughout the week and hit all 14 fairways in the final round. Tiger would have been the pronounced favorite at Bethpage if he hadn't won at Muirfield Village. Now his chances seem as good, if not better, than at any other major. My guess is they'll still play the tournament.

Paul Casey: His rise to third in the World Ranking comes despite just one victory in the United States, which occurred in Houston two months ago, but this is a guy who appears to be redefining himself as a major player. Casey's win against a premium European Tour field at the BMW PGA Championship last month could not have come at a better time, and he should find Bethpage to his liking. Has all the tools. The question is, does he truly know that?

Henrik Stenson: Euros don't win U.S. Opens, at least they haven't since Tony Jacklin in 1970, but Stenson's ferocious finishing kick at the Players produced the latest victory in a stretch of non-American domination. This guy wins big tournaments, he's done it twice over here, and he routinely hits his 3-wood 300 yards when the conditions allow it. At Bethpage, that's a pretty nice quality to have.

Jim Furyk: The lone short hitter to make this list, his steadiness, competitive grit and recent form make him the one control guy likely to overcome his limitations. Furyk took Woods to the wire at the Memorial and has been trending in the right direction since the Masters. He missed the cut at Bethpage in '02, won the following year at Olympia Fields, then missed a playoff by one stroke in '06 and '07. Four days of dry climate will make him a serious challenger.

Ernie Els: His best days are probably behind him, but Els still has his flashback moments, and on a brutally tough golf course, his ability to make pars can place him squarely in the weekend hunt without notice. Poor starts have killed his chances at big tournaments in recent years, and though nearly five years have passed since his last real opportunity to win a fourth major, you've got to think the big fella has one left in him. This might be the week.

Kenny Perry: When you drive the ball as well as he does, you don't have to make a ton of putts to hang around on a leader board where 70 is a good score. Perry's painful Masters loss should only make him hungrier. He seems to have a much better understanding of what it takes to win a major, and at age 48, a greater appreciation for what it would mean to his career. That alone doesn't mean he'll be there on Sunday, but a 315-yard draw on command won't hurt his cause.

Phil Mickelson: It all comes down to his emotional state during this two-week stretch of competition while his wife, Amy, awaits surgery for breast cancer. Mickelson didn't sound ultra-sure of himself during his pre-tournament news conference Wedneday in Memphis, but making the cut this week would help him shake off the rust. A high finish would send him to Bethpage inspired and confident, at which point his vast talent and long-lost quest to win this event become all the more valuable.

Geoff Ogilvy: He hasn't played four decent rounds at a major since winning the '06 U.S. Open, so his mental stamina is a bigger question than his physical ability. Twice a winner already in 2009, Ogilvy has reached the expectations chained to him as a young and somewhat raw tour pro, but mistakes can still get the best of him, and there will be no shortage of those at Bethpage. He can hit the ball a mile in the air and get up and down from anywhere. Not the longest hitter of the bunch, but he's plenty long enough.

Rory McIlroy: Go ahead and laugh, but at age 19, the Irish phenom has so much skill that one senses he could shoot even par with his eyes closed on any given day. McIlroy started strong at the Masters, then unraveled late Friday and needed a favorable ruling on an incident in the bunker right of the 18th green to make the cut. Is he ready for the biggest stage in golf? Probably not, but players with McIlroy's ability do remarkable things. Anything close to a victory next week would qualify.

Angel Cabrera: The odds of him winning back-to-back majors (and three in two years) seem ridiculous. Then you consider Cabrera's enormous power, his streaky putter, his penchant for landing on the right side of things down the stretch and a demeanor that seems wholly unaffected by pressure. He beat Woods and Furyk at Oakmont, then defeated Perry and Chad Campbell in a Masters playoff without really breaking a sweat. Some guys have all the luck. Some of those guys hit it a mile and make all the putts they need to make. Cabrera is beginning to look like one of them.