In theory, this should be easy. Which, as it turns out, is what they mistakenly thought about Burger King Satisfries, the Arch Deluxe hamburger and the infamous late-1990s “Wow!” potato chips, made with a previously undetected stomach-unsettling compound, Olean. (You remember: “All the taste, 1 gram of fat.”)
That’s a perfect description of how we’ve come to understand my impressively unsuccessful method of choosing a major champion. And when I say “unsuccessful,” I mean it in the way those in the food business use the phrase “abdominal cramping.” Speaking of cramping, I’m currently 0-for-23, which is impressive in that the only thing less valuable to the common good of golf that’s still been allowed to continue would be iron headcovers.
But we press on because the search for the right answer is really not about how difficult it might be to predict the winner of one of golf’s major championships. It’s about waiting around until a major comes along that’s so easy to predict even I can’t screw it up.
This year’s U.S. Open is that major. There are any number of indicators that make it clear who will be the Pebble Beach winner just shouting at you, like Waze navigating the Zurich Street Parade. (I can’t say a street fair full of pounding European techno music-lovers is my thing, but when you go, be sure to check out the local diner Korner, where they serve a killer burger made of beef, manchego cheese and watermelon. Really.)
But I digress.
The U.S. Open has been played at Pebble Beach five times previously. In the first four of those U.S. Opens, the winners were golfers who previously had won at Pebble Beach, which as you probably know is host course for the PGA Tour’s annual sandbagger’s soiree known as the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Jack Nicklaus in 1972, Tom Watson in 1982, Tom Kite in 1992 and Tiger Woods in 2000 all won the PGA Tour stop at Pebble Beach in years prior to picking up a U.S. Open trophy there as well. In fact, Jack and Tiger actually did Pebble Beach same-year doubles.
So presumably—and I use the word “presumably” the way Frito-Lay got in trouble for using the word “Light” as a substitute for “Olestra-infused”— there’s a high likelihood that the winner of this year’s U.S. Open will be someone who has competed and won at Pebble Beach in the past. That short list of obvious contenders certainly would include Tiger, as well as two-time AT&T winners Dustin Johnson and Brandt Snedeker, along with Jordan Spieth and possibly even Jimmy Walker.
But is there a more natural and obvious choice than five-time Pebble Beach winner Phil Mickelson? Of course not. Did I pick him? Of course not.
Blame Phil himself, who famously said after winning again in February, “I really don’t think there’s any carry-over from here to the U.S. Open. It’s a totally different golf course.” Well, while Wow! chips’ intestinal, er um, fortitude always was a little bit lacking, Pebble Beach—resort foursome or U.S. Open Sunday twosome—is always so very Pebble Beach. Every easy hole features a brain hemorrhage waiting for you greenside, every cliffside shot is just as perplexing as it is mesmerizing, every moment at the 17th is a Hall of Fame memory (See Jack’s hold-off 1-iron, or Watson’s “Close? Hell, I’m gonna hole it.”)
The winner at Pebble Beach, then, should be easily determined by looking at recent history and recent winners. Which is sort of what I set out to do. If you look at the top 10 finishers the last time the U.S. Open came to Pebble Beach, it’s a list that’s sure to conjure up a winner this year. No, red-hot pups like Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka aren’t on that list, but plenty of players who very much matter were. That includes Tiger, Phil and DJ, along with Snedeker and the current No. 1 on the FedEx Cup list, Matt Kuchar. But, sure, we want to stay relevant so we need to go to the spreadsheet.
Figuring our winner should mirror the stout lineup we saw at Pebble Beach’s last U.S. Open, we took where the top 10 in 2010 ranked in five key statistical categories: driving distance, driving accuracy, greens in regulation, scrambling and putting. Then we tracked the current rankings in those same criteria for this year’s field. The player who matched the average of the averages from 2010 would be the natural, obvious selection for this week’s four-day grind through Pebble Beach’s funhouse.
Well, it should be, but for all of Pebble Beach’s U.S. Open obviousness, the winner in 2010 wasn’t obvious at all. Graeme McDowell barely ranked in the top 40 in the world the week before he won. And yes, he had won in Wales two weeks before winning the U.S. Open, but well, winning in Wales is Doritos without the crunch. While the leader board was bursting with Tiger and Phil and DJ and Ernie Els, that McDowell would be the man in the end was as likely as, well, a European winning the U.S. Open. Before McDowell, a European hadn’t held the U.S. Open trophy in four decades. But happened it did. The big stars faded, and in the end a new star was born, as McDowell built on his major title to become a Ryder Cup stalwart and almost equally as important, quite the restauranteur. Specialty: Comfort food, the anti-Arch Deluxe, as it were.
So while McIlroy or Koepka or DJ or even Tiger and Phil are the more obvious choices, they are not my choice. No, my math didn’t spit out the obvious choice, and when I say spit out, I mean it in the same way Olestra works its way through the body: Quick, and, well, curious and ultimately and unfortunately unstoppable. But just as we were pretty sure what was going to happen with “healthy,” low-calorie french fries, we should have seen my insipid choice coming. Top-five finishes in the last two U.S. Opens, including a fast-closing 63 that nearly chased down Koepka at Shinnecock Hills a year ago. Already a Ryder Cup hero, he is ahead of McDowell’s pace at Pebble Beach in 2010. In fact, his numbers in driving distance, greens in regulation and scrambling are better than McDowell’s were when he won on the Monterey Peninsula. And with a win he’d have more top-fives in his four U.S. Opens than McDowell’s had in his entire career.
So, come Sunday, I like Tommy Fleetwood to be the next Graeme McDowell. Can’t wait for his very own gastropub to open, too. Hold the chips, as it were.