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Ranking a U.S. Open field that's missing Tiger

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PINEHURST, N.C. – It should come as a surprise that this week’s prediction for the upcoming U.S. Open starts off with one player who isn’t here as opposed to the 156 who are only if you haven’t been paying attention for the last 17 years – or the last three months.

Tiger Woods isn’t competing because of an injury to his back or shoulder or knee – hell, who can keep track anymore? – which will leave the rest of us shaking our heads in unison until the first tee ball is in the air, muttering over and over again, “There’s just no BUZZ this week.” Hey, I’ll be the first guy to puff out my chest and stick up my nose and proclaim that the game is bigger than Woods, that they’ve been playing since Scottish shepherds first started swinging sticks around empty fields and they’ll keep playing long after he’s gone. But I count myself among the masses jumping on the No Buzz Bandwagon barreling straight for Pinehurst No. 2.

Nothing new to see here. There was admittedly no buzz before this year’s Masters Tournament and Players Championship, so there’s no reason to believe the latest in this succession of big-time events should be any different. Oh, sure, there’s the major storyline of Phil Mickelson trying to avenge those six runner-up finishes and those zero top-10s this year and those irritating FBI investigators. That’s buzzworthy, I’ll give you that. Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott and their secret-but-not-too-secret love lives? Sorry, unless Caroline Wozniacki shows up to the first tee in that witch’s costume, it’s not enough to get me too worked up.

All of which brings us back to Tiger.

Even though he rarely allows himself to say anything of substance, he’s still a major story at every major. He’s the straw that stirs the drink; he doesn’t move the needle, he is the needle – all of those cutesy phrases we’ve heard for years that simply confirm what we already knew: The dude gets us excited. When Tiger is prepping to play a big-time event, there’s more of a crackle in the air. More sizzle. More tension. More expectations of greatness. This isn’t some flimsy personal opinion. It’s the damn truth. Ask anyone who’s seen the before and after pictures.

As we prepare to contest a sixth major in the last 24 without him, a singular moment sticks out in my mind. This was from almost exactly six months ago, one of those rare moments where Tiger actually did allow himself to say something of substance. It was at his own World Challenge event back in December and he was asked about the impending four majors for the 2014 season.

“Well,” he said, “I've won at every one except for Pinehurst, and I'm trending in the right way. I've finished third, second. You get the picture, right?”

In case you don’t, let me paint by numbers for you: Woods finished behind only Payne Stewart and Mickelson back in 1999; he was bested by just Michael Campbell in 2005. You didn’t even need to hear those words, though. His confident smile told everything. Even six months ago, he was licking his chops at the possibility of adding another major title to his long stalled odometer this week.

And now? There won’t be an asterisk affixed to the guy who wins a Woods-less tournament. There won’t be more talk on Sunday evening about the guy who isn’t here than the guy who won. But it will still feel a little … empty. Like a Fourth of July without the fireworks. It’s still nice, you wouldn’t trade it for another day in the office, but it’s missing the one thing you waited for the entire day.

That’s Tiger. He’s the fireworks.

Which I suppose makes all of the other guys hot dogs and sparklers.

Well, one of them is going to win this tournament in a few days. Let’s rank ‘em – and as always, I’ll be happy to take the full blame if you lose your office pool and none of the credit if you win.

Honorable mention: Hunter Mahan, Brandt Snedeker, Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson, Steve Stricker, Billy Horschel, Graeme McDowell, Hideki Matsuyama, Charl Schwartzel, Bill Haas, Bo Van Pelt, Francesco Molinari, Retief Goosen, Justin Thomas (they can’t all be big names), Matthew Fitzpatrick (another underdog), John Senden, Jonas Blixt.

Here's one problem with doing a top-20 ranking of a field that includes 156 players: You're always going to leave 136 of 'em out.

Here's another: Stare at any of the names above for long enough, think about them smiling while holding a gleaming trophy Sunday evening, and you can totally picture it.

Really. Close your eyes for 10 seconds and visualize Mahan with that trophy.

(I'll wait ...)

You can totally see it, right?

OK, now do the same thing with Snedeker. (Waiting again …) And now Westwood. (Waiting some more …) They all work. There isn't a world-class player who is totally incapable of winning this tournament, which makes any prediction process – as I readily admit every time I attempt this kind of thing – an exercise in futility.

There was a time when we could scan the list of U.S. Open competitors and whittle the potential contenders down to about 30 or 40 names. That number has nearly tripled, though. Parity rules.


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20. Harris English

For the first two rounds, English will be grouped with Luke Donald and Paul Casey. English and the English. That's cute, USGA.

It's also tradition. Unlike other organizations – cough, PGA Tour, cough – the USGA doesn't pretend to produce tee times based on random computer generated matches.

There are plenty of others this week, too.

The Masters Group: Bubba Watson, Adam Scott and Charl Schwartzel.

The U.S. Open Group: Webb Simpson, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell.

The Other U.S. Open Group: Retief Goosen, Geoff Ogilvy and Lucas Glover.

The Open Championship Group: Ernie Els, Darren Clarke and Louis Oosthuizen.

The PGA Championship Group: Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner and Martin Kaymer.

The Young Guy Group: Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama and Rickie Fowler.

The Old Guy Group: Kenny Perry, Jeff Maggert and Kevin Sutherland.

The BPTHNWAM Group: Sergio Garcia, Jason Day and Brandt Snedeker.

The Other BPTHNWAM Group: Henrik Stenson, Matt Kuchar and Lee Westwood.

The Bomber Group: J.B Holmes, Gary Woodland and Graeme DeLaet.

The Nice Guy Group: Joe Ogilvie, Mark Wilson and Ken Duke.

The Other Nice Guy Group: Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker and Bill Haas.

All sounds good, right? No problems with any of those? Me neither. They’re fun, they get people talking about the groupings and they don’t hurt the competitive balance.

All of these well-thought-out trios look fine … until we get to the 1:14 p.m. group off the 10th tee on Thursday.

The Big Guy Group: Brendon de Jonge, Kevin Stadler and Shane Lowry.

Really, USGA? Trolling your own competitors? Next thing you know, they’ll be posting mean tweets and stirring up arguments in the comments section. Let’s class it up, folks.


19. Alex Cejka

I’ve got a Cejka column that I’ve been waiting to write for a decade. No lie. It’s been literally 10 years and while it’s probably not worth having waited that long for, it’s still a great story.

All I’m willing to divulge right now is that it involves a pair of brothers who call themselves Team Cejka and often send me emails with the subject line: “CEJKKKKKKKKAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Oh, and there might be a cameo from Tim Herron, too. Never a bad thing.

Anyway, Cejka has been playing well this year – trust me, I’ve been reading the emails – so if he can find his way onto the leaderboard here, maybe I’ll finally be able to write this column.


18. Jason Day

The old Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s had a motto after winning four Super Bowl rings: “One For the Thumb.”

I don’t know if it’s ever been trademarked like Pat Riley’s “Threepeat,” but it should be. I mean, at some point, someone, somewhere, is going to win a fifth title and, well, I’m just saying that it could be a little profitable.

The closest we’ve come in golf recently is probably Tiger Woods aiming for a fifth Masters win, though proclaiming it “one for the thumb” only conjures images of a tiny green jacket wrapped around his thumb, which – although hilarious – sort of loses the meaning.

For Day, it would be a more literal translation. The world’s seventh-ranked player has made just two starts since injuring his thumb while winning the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship back in February. If he can overcome that injury and win this week, his first career major title would be one for the thumb – or maybe more correctly, one in spite of the thumb.


17. Rickie Fowler

I don't know if Tiger started this trend or just popularized it, but ask almost any struggling golfer how he's playing and he'll inevitably insist, "I'm close." Seriously, this happens like 98 percent of the time. I blame – or maybe credit – the legions of mental gurus whispering in these players' ears. If they ever admit their game isn't in good shape, these gurus tell them, then it won't be.

Success in golf is about confidence and just audibly admitting that it's not happening for 'em at this given time is akin to withdrawing. Jack Nicklaus used to say he could eliminate half the field just by listening to them before the tournament started. Which is probably one reason why so many of today's pros are scared to say anything negative.

It's also one reason why I really like Fowler. I'm not talking specifically about his chances this week; I mean, as an actual person. He isn't one of the 98 percent. When he's not playing well, he says it – mental gurus be damned.

And there have been plenty of times he hasn’t played well this year, including missing two weekend cuts and a secondary cut in his last four starts. Still, he’s told me a few times those two words that so many of his peers use so loosely: “I’m close.”

Based on past history, I tend to believe him more than that other 98 percent.


16. Dustin Johnson

In the past year, Johnson has made both a serious life decision and a serious career decision that probably left fellow players cringing. He got engaged to Instagram model (just because I don’t know how else to describe her) Paulina Gretzky and sacked his longtime caddie, replacing him on the bag with his inexperienced brother, Austin.

These are the types of decisions usually followed by poor performances that can easily be explained. And yet, Johnson has made these apparent head-scratchers and actually added stability to his life. This year alone, he owns five top-10s, including two runner-up finishes.

Does it make sense? I don’t think so, but then again, when you’re as talented as DJ, nothing has to make sense. Just swing hard, go find it and swing hard again. That formula could work this week.


15. Justin Rose

The last player to win back-to-back U.S. Open titles was Curtis Strange in 1988 and ’89. For that reason – and also because he serves as an analyst for this week’s early-round telecasts – he was brought into the interview room on Monday here at the course.

And, no surprise, one of the first questions was in regard to why no player since has accomplished this feat. An expert on both today’s players and winning two in a row, it took him almost no time at all to articulate the perfect response.

“Gosh, I don’t know.”

I’m not being facetious here. That really was perfect, because let’s face it: Neither he nor anyone else can explain exactly why no champion has backed up his victory with another one the next year.

Can Rose become the first player in a quarter-century to pull it off? To steal a line from Strange: Gosh, I don’t know.

What I do know – because Strange said it himself – is that he’ll be hoping he does it.

“I’m not a Miami Dolphins type person. I’m not rooting against him. I’m not drinking champagne Sunday night.”


14. Graham DeLaet

This guy is a superstar in the making -- and it only partially has to do with his ball-striking skills.

There's a reason why Mike Weir likely never has to pay for dinner in Saskatchewan or a beer in Manitoba. The past Masters champion is hailed as a hero in his native Canada. They take pride in his accomplishments, they follow him with a fervor otherwise only reserved for the NHL.

Before every major – this week included – I’ll do a bunch of interviews with sports radio stations throughout the Great White North. Whereas others will ask first about Tiger or Phil, these interviews turn into DeLaet Central, with him as a large part of the focus. The country is pining for a new star, backing the guy with everything they’ve got.

All this and he hasn’t even won anything … yet. It’s coming, though. Like I always say in those interviews, he’s too good not to start winning soon. When he does, they might come in bunches, too. Maybe not Tiger 2000-like bunches, but he could definitely be a two- or three-win-a-year type of player.


13. Webb Simpson

Ah, the year was 2012. The country reelected its president, the Summer Games were held in London and Simpson was winning the U.S. Open.

OK, so it’s not exactly Hot Tub Time Machine (that was, unfortunately, produced in 2010, killing a nice little theme I had going here), but if Bubba Watson can follow his Masters win from that year with another this year, then maybe his buddy Simpson can pull off a similar feat.

Here’s reason for optimism: After failing to claim a top-10 finish in a stroke-play event for four months, he was T-3 in Memphis this past week. Somebody had better put Jungle Bird on standby.


12. Bubba Watson

11. Sergio Garcia

I tweeted the following fact on Monday morning:

“U.S. Open is about patience, perseverance and pars. Boring golf wins. So here's a surprise: Top two in bogey avoidance are Sergio and Bubba.”

It prompted one follower to respond thusly: “Did you just reference @TheSergioGarcia AND @usopengolf in the same sentence? Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha (inhale)Hahahaha...”

Trust me: When I went in search of finding the players who have made the fewest bogeys this season, I didn’t expect to find two of the biggest risk-takers right at the top of the list. After all, this tourney is about patience and, well, if you were building a fantasy team of impatient players, these guys might be the first ones drafted.

Cue the old line: “There are three types of lies – lies, damn lies and statistics.”

I don’t know whether to think I’ve unearthed some sort of secret to discovering why and how Watson and Garcia will improbably contend at an event that demands patience or whether this is just another type of lie. I can tell you it’s very interesting, though. Very interesting, indeed.


10. Jordan Spieth

Sorry, I just broke a cardinal rule of golf writing. I meant to say: 20-year-old Jordan Spieth. My apologies.

We get it. He's young. I've been as guilty as anyone for constantly pointing out that he can't even buy a post-round beer in the clubhouse and yet he nearly won the Masters. Unlike him, though, the narrative is growing old.

On New Year’s Day, I walked around Kapalua’s Plantation Course with Spieth and we spoke about his goals for the year.

“I need to get into contention at a major and see how it feels,” he said that day. “Not many people win the first time they contend at a major. Ultimately there will be bigger goals, but I’m just trying to set some tangible ones this year that are baby steps.”

Mission accomplished.

But on the heels of his runner-up finish at the Masters, I asked him on Monday whether those goals have now been altered.

“Now if I can get into that position, the goal isn’t just to feel the feelings and try to get the comfort level,” he explained. “Now I do have a little experience, so that’s only going to help me. I feel like I will be able to close this one out if I get an opportunity.”


9. Adam Scott

He’s played in enough majors since his first one 14 years ago that the following is more trend than coincidence.

Masters Top-10s: 4

U.S. Open Top-10s: 0

Open Championship Top-10s: 3

PGA Championship Top-10s: 4

What does it all mean? Maybe the world’s No. 1 player shouldn’t be enlisted as one of the favorites for this event. In 12 previous starts, he’s made the cut just six times, with a best finish of T-15 two years ago. Just climbing into the top-10 for the first time would be a victory this week. Anything else is gravy.


8. Ryan Moore

I’ve had a long-standing theory for which there is really no proof: Some players are just USGA types of guys. Whether they enjoy the grind of piling up pars or feel a special kinship to the game’s ruling body in the U.S., there are certain players who play well at USGA events as juniors, then amateurs, then professionals.

And yet, research won’t really back me up on this one. Since 1975, only one U.S. Amateur champion has later claimed a U.S. Open title. Who was it? I’ll give you two hints. First name: Tiger. Last name: Woods.

Moore, who won the Am title a decade ago, hasn’t done much to help my theory, either. He made the cut here at Pinehurst as an amateur in ’05, finishing T-57, but since then has made the cut in just two of five starts as a pro.

Even so, I’m sticking with him for one more year to see if this theory will finally carry some weight.


7. Rory McIlroy

You try figuring this guy out. It’s tougher than it looks.

There are times when it seems like he’s got everything going for him – smiling, playing well, competing on a course he likes – and nothing comes of it. And then there are times, like the recent BMW PGA Championship, when he’s just broken off a marriage engagement and looks like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world but on a course he already hates – and all he does is go out and win the thing.

This isn’t a new idea, but the two-time major champion who had people making comparisons to Tiger early in his career is way more like Phil instead. He’s streaky. Unpredictable. Maybe even a bit fickle. He’s just as likely to win a tournament by five as he is to miss the cut.

That said, it’s difficult to think a guy who hasn’t finished worse than 27th in nine months won’t be a major factor this week.

Even better news? It’s supposed to rain during the week. If nothing else, McIlroy has proven himself the game’s preeminent mudder.


6. Zach Johnson

Hey, boring golf works at the U.S. Open …

5. Jason Dufner

No, more boring than that …

4. Luke Donald

Keep going …

3. Jim Furyk

Bingo.

You’ll likely hear this analysis over and over again during the next few days: Anyone in the field will take his chances on Sunday with 72 pars on the scorecard.

Notice the analysis never says, “… with 36 birdies and 36 bogeys on the scorecard.”

This is not a tournament for the roller coaster riders. It’s not one which will yield birdies in bunches, not one where a player can make up a lot of ground by posting a Johnny Miller. (That’s a 63, in case you’ve never watched television.) It takes four days of grinding out pars to win this championship – and that’s what Johnson, Dufner, Donald and Furyk do well.

Don’t mistake “boring golf” as some crass cheap shot at these guys, either. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Entering this tournament, it’s a compliment of the highest magnitude, signifying they have what it takes to contend.

But this isn’t just about physical performance. Think about each of these four players. What ties them together is that their highs are never too high and their lows are never too low. You’ll rarely see much emotion out of this foursome, which might not make them the most exciting players to watch, but does make them serious candidates to win.


2. Phil Mickelson

Uh, not so boring.

OK, so there’s always got to be an outlier in the bunch and Mickelson is the ultimate example for this tournament.

He’s been criticized for setting the all-time record for runner-up finishes in this tournament – last year was his sixth – but what often gets overlooked is the fact that he’s seriously contended so many times at a tournament that really doesn’t suit his style of play.

Think about it: There have been six separate occasions during which Mickelson played a U.S. Open against 155 other competitors and only one beat him. That’s amazing. I mean, think about his legacy if even a few bounces go his way and he wins half of those close calls. Right now, Lefty is probably a top-12 player on the all-time list; you can argue he’s in the top-10 and I’d seriously listen. With three more majors to give him eight all-time? He’d be scratching on the door of top-five. In the Tiger Era, that’s pretty astounding.

Of course, that’s all revisionist history. Mickelson hasn’t won three U.S. Open titles and so this week he’ll play with that huge monkey perched on his back, those ghosts constantly reminding him about the missed opportunities. Throw in the fact that he doesn’t have a top-10 yet this year – although that’s another statistic that is close to being a damn lie; he has two 11th place finishes and one 12th – and he’s under investigation for insider trading, and there’s no telling how he’ll play this week.

While it might sound cruel to place him No. 2 on this list, my track record should ensure that he finishes anywhere but second. Call it a reverse jinx.


1.Matt Kuchar

Doesn’t he just seem like a U.S. Open champion? Can’t you see him grinding par after par on Sunday afternoon, then showing that ubiquitous smile while holding the trophy aloft? 

He fits the mold of Justin Rose and Webb Simpson, the last two champions -- good, solid ball-strikers; family men winning on Father’s Day, which really has nothing to do with the end result, but in some way, maybe it does.

It’s tough to look at past history when it comes to Kuchar. He missed the cut each of the last two times the tournament was contested here, but he’s a completely different player now. His U.S. Open performances have descended in the past four years – from sixth to 14th to 27th to 28th – but they’re hardly anything to write off.

Besides, there’s that parity again. The last 26 major championships have been won by 23 different players. Like a turnstile or a deli line, it feels like every elite player is simply waiting his turn, then claiming his trophy when his number is called.

It just feels like Kuchar’s number is ready to be called now. You can crunch the numbers, analyze swings, even examine biorhythms, but sometimes a hunch is still the best play.