Weekly 18: Center Stage


USGA executive director Mike Davis is in charge of course setup for this week’s U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club.

You may never serve in such a role, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play the home version in advance of the year’s second major championship.

A few suggestions:

– Don’t mow the lawn. As someone once crooned, “Let it grow, let it grow, let it grow.” How long is too long? When you’ve lost a child in the backyard, it may be time for a trim.

– Turn off the sprinklers. Watered greens? That’s for the Bob Hope Classic, not the U.S. Open. You’ll need things so fast and firm, going barefoot on the grass will sound like you’re wearing high heels on a marble floor.

– Repave the driveway. OK, so you’ve got some blacktop down already. Not good enough. It’s got to be so slick that when you drop your car keys, they’ll slide into the middle of the street.

Once you’ve completed all of those household tasks, you’ll be ready for the tourney.

Just in case you still had questions, though, you’re in luck. This edition of the Weekly 18 is all U.S. Open, all the time.

1. Story Time

There are a million stories in the naked city.

The good folks of Bethesda, Md., will be clothed this week, though, meaning far fewer potential headlines at the site of the U.S. Open. Here are five that could find a website or newspaper near you come Sunday evening.


Phil Mickelson owns five career runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open – and zero victories. Considering he’s always been golf’s answer to the consummate politician, it would be poetic justice if everybody’s favorite left-handed golfer was to finally earn this elusive title in the shadow of our country’s elected officials.



Speaking of Mickelson, that acronym hasn’t been tossed around much since his breakthrough 2004 Masters triumph. It stands, of course, for Best Player To Have Never Won A Major and right now there are a handful of players who can stake a claim to the honor. In fact, of the world’s top-10 players, only three actually have won majors, leaving Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Steve Stricker, Matt Kuchar, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey as eligible competitors to rid themselves of the dreaded label.



It’s been more than two decades since Curtis Strange was the last player to successfully defend his U.S. Open title. (And six decades since the last one before him, Ben Hogan in 1951.) Graeme McDowell could reverse that trend, but in doing so, he’d have to reverse another trend of recent poor performances, too, as documented below in the “Three Down” section.


“STEVIE WINS A MAJOR! (So Does Adam Scott)”

As you’ve heard by now, Tiger Woods is not only skipping the U.S. Open due to injury, but he’s loaned caddie Steve Williams to Adam Scott for the week. There are some who believe a successful week for the Aussie could leave Williams with a decision to make. Me? I just wonder if it could be the first time in the history of golf that a caddie earns more credit for a victory than the actual player.



In normal, everyday, non-golf jargon, being “above par” is a good thing. Never quite understood that, though. It’s clearly a term ripped from golf, where being above par is almost never a good thing – unless it’s U.S. Open week. In the last half-dozen editions of the event, twice winners have been above par – not the good kind – and twice they’ve been level par. Such difficult scoring conditions could once again plague this week’s tournament.


Three Up

2. Harrison Frazar

Based on the unprecedented number of early congratulatory tweets from his PGA Tour brethren, Frazar may set a record for most high-fives and back-slaps from his fellow playing competitors prior to this week’s U.S. Open.

You likely already know about the 355 career starts over 14 seasons that the pro needed before winning his first career title in Memphis on Sunday. But it wasn’t until afterward that he revealed he was thinking of quitting the game as recently as last week.    

“It’s been tough on me physically and emotionally,” he revealed. “I wasn’t sure this was ever going to happen, but I’m very proud.”

And now Frazar gets to compete in the U.S. Open, but not because of anything he did at the tournament. He previously qualified on Monday, getting the week off to a nice start by advancing through a playoff in Dallas.

Frazar has made the cut in three of his four starts in the event, but never finished better than T-54.

3. U.S. Open qualifiers

They are the dreamers, many of them real-life versions of Roy McAvoy.


Of this week’s original 156-man field, 28 of the competitors not only aren’t PGA Tour regulars, but had to qualify through both local and sectional qualifying.

Most of these players had to use their hard-earned money to pay for the opportunity. Many had to play hooky from work or school, then drive or fly hundreds of miles just for a chance to get into the field.

I spoke with 10 of ‘em over the past week – Michael Barbosa, Chris Deforest, Matt Edwards, Elliot Gealy, Beau Hossler, Brian Locke, Ryan Nelson, Brett Patterson, Michael Smith and Michael Tobiason – for a feature that will be posted on GolfChannel.com Tuesday.

Chances are, none will contend for the U.S. Open title. But the romantic notion that these guys can qualify for the tournament and start with just as much of a chance as anyone else is the very definition of what the Open is all about.

4. Robert Rock

If I had Rock's head of hair, I wouldn't wear a hat, either. He should just be able to get his hair sponsored instead.

When Rock finishes tournaments, he simply tips his hair to the gallery.

Can you smell what The Rock is cooking? (Hint: It smells like Italian.)

Robert Rock, you just won your first European Tour title in 209 career starts at the Italian Open; what are you going to do next? Well, Congressional has never been confused with Disney World, but the hatless wonder is indeed in this week’s U.S. Open field.

It will mark his first career PGA Tour-sanctioned appearance in this country. That’s what we like to call “good timing.”

Based on a few brilliant par saves down the stretch – including an all-timer from the trees on the penultimate hole – Rock may not be a bad choice to ascend the leaderboard. Or as is more the custom at the U.S. Open, tread water and watch his fellow contenders descend down the leaderboard. 

Three Down

 Graeme McDowell

5. Graeme McDowell

After switching from Callaway equipment to Srixon, this year started much like last year left off for the reigning U.S. Open champion.

McDowell closed out 2010 by defeating Tiger Woods in a playoff at the Chevron World Challenge, then opened 2011 with a final-round 62 to finish one shot out of a playoff at Kapalua.

He followed with top-10s at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and Honda Classic, but since mid-March hasn’t finished better than T-30 in eight stroke-play events around the world, though he did finish fifth at the smaller-field Volvo World Match Play Championship.

“I'm not disturbed about my game in any shape or form,” McDowell maintained after last week’s Wales Open. “Game is in good shape. It's firing on all cylinders.”

If that’s the case, he may need a little more horsepower if he is to be the first player since Curtis Strange in 1989 to successfully defend his title.

6. Tim Clark

Maybe Clark’s season should be examined on one of those medical mystery reality TV shows.

You probably know the story. After nearly winning the Sony Open in January, he woke up with elbow pain prior to the Bob Hope Classic and was forced to withdraw. It never subsided and Clark has remained sidelined for much of the season, competing in only The Masters (missed cut) and Players Championship (WD after one round).

Clark recently told me via text message that he’s still dealing with the tendonitis that his plagued him throughout the season.

“It’s improving,” he wrote, “but there’s no real time frame.”

While he was at least able to give it a try in the year’s two biggest previous events, that won’t be the case this week. Clark has already withdrawn from the U.S. Open in what’s becoming an increasingly frustrating season.

7. Anders Hansen

For a guy who often gets mixed up with similarly surnamed fellow professionals Soren and Peter, this latest example of overshadowing probably isn’t such a big deal.

In case you missed it, Hansen has withdrawn from the U.S. Open. And yes, there’s a good chance you missed it.

That’s because Hansen pulled out right around the same time on Tuesday as Tiger Woods.

Unlike Woods, however, the Dane isn’t injured. He’s simply resting so he can focus on the second half of the European Tour schedule.

Let’s repeat that one more time: Even though he qualified, Hansen has decided to skip the U.S. Open in order to get some rest for the regular season Euro events.

If that sounds strange, well, it is. Very strange.

Three Wishes

 Tiger Woods

8. I wish more people understood my most recent Tiger Woods column.

Judging by your emails, tweets and comments, many of you failed to comprehend the main theme of this piece.

That's either my fault for not writing better or yours for not reading better. I'm willing to share the blame if you are.

The most common complaint was that I shouldn’t see Woods as a “failure” if he doesn’t break Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record. Well, I don’t. My contention in the column was that I believe public perception of Woods will – in that scenario – cement his legacy as a player known more for what he failed to accomplish than the many things that he actually did.

If anything, it was actually a pro-Woods viewpoint, essentially addressing the pressure that Woods has endured and will endure until the day, if ever, he reaches and passes Nicklaus.

Don’t buy the concept? Well, that’s OK, but let’s try one little experiment before you completely rule it out. I’m going to name a professional golfer and you think about the one thing that first springs to mind.

Greg Norman.

This should almost be like one of those magazine quizzes to determine if you’re a positive or negative type of person.

If you thought about his two Open Championship victories or his 90 career worldwide wins or his 331 weeks atop the World Ranking, congratulations. You’re an optimist.

If you thought about the 1996 Masters and his other numerous heartbreakers, don’t worry. You’re likely in the majority.

And that’s exactly the point I was making about Tiger’s quest to pass Jack.

Yes, we’ll always know the numbers and what he accomplished during his career, but if he doesn’t break the record, that may be his lasting legacy yet.

9. I wish the USGA didn’t grant competitive advantages for the first two rounds.

Don’t let those stuffy blue blazers fool you. The USGA likes to let its collective hair down and have a little fun every once in a while.

OK, so maybe your idea of fun and their idea of fun aren’t exactly the same thing, but that doesn’t mean officials don’t like to let loose once a year.

I’ve always pictured ‘em having a raucous party to produce first- and second-round U.S. Open groupings, but the reality is, it’s probably a lot more benign than that. In the past, the USGA has brought together mean players, nice players, fast players, slow players, major winners and major losers.

There’s some of that this time around, too, but it feels like the organization was more lazy than creative (You can read my breakdown of the groups here). Included on the pairings sheet are complete trios of Swedes, Spaniards and Italians, each comprised of competitors who are very good friends.

The contingent from Italy, for example, pits Edoardo and Francesco Molinari together with young mentee Matteo Manassero. They’re all frequent practice round partners already. Why would the USGA allow them the comfort of competing together, too?

If I was a potential contender in this week’s field, such groupings would have me annoyed, as they tend to lend a competitive advantage to those playing with friends and relatives.

I’m all for a little creativity within the tee times. But when it upsets the competitive balance throughout the field, the USGA needs to keep things more conservative.

10. I wish more golf fans could experience the cool drama of a sectional qualifying tournament.

If you accidentally walked onto a sectional qualifying site last Monday, you could have mistaken it for the club’s annual flighted championship - until you actually heard what was at stake and started recognizing some calligraphied names on the scoreboard outside the clubhouse.

Using either caddies or carrying their own bags – as former Open Championship winner Todd Hamilton did at the Dallas venue – players walk 36 holes with one goal in mind: Finish high enough to qualify for the U.S. Open.

It’s a strange mix of what can only be described as “casual pressure.” Unlike a PGA Tour event, there’s no money at stake. Unlike Q-School, there are no livelihoods at stake. And yet, every single player desperately wants to play well enough to advance to the major – even if most of ‘em don’t show that determination for much of the day, giving more of the impression of just three guys playing a lot of golf together.

I covered the Columbus, Ohio, sectional last week, where six players advanced to a playoff for three spots. It was dramatic, entertaining, compelling and featured a dude in cargo shorts.

What more could you ask for?

With no ropes and terrific access to watch the world’s best non-qualified players compete for a spot in the event, it’s a unique situation for spectators who enjoy getting close to the action with plenty on the line.

11. Video Clip of the Week:

11. “Being Graeme McDowell” debuted this week on Golf Channel and provides an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look into the life of the defending champion. Here is an excerpt from that program.

12. Tweet of the Week:

@skovy14 This will be the view for someone on Sunday afternoon staring down a US Open trophy http://t.co/ij6jN8Y

Cool tweet from Rickie Fowler’s caddie, Joe Skovron, during their practice round on Sunday, showing the treacherous final hole at Congressional.

13. Stat of the Week:

Winners of the last six editions of the U.S. Open have had a combined scoring average of 70.54.

That would be four rounds apiece for Michael Campbell, Geoff Ogilvy, Angel Cabrera, Tiger Woods, Lucas Glover and Graeme McDowell during each of their triumphs.

Perhaps no single number better explains how difficult scoring conditions at this tournament really are.

Just for comparison, a scoring average of 70.54 would place a player in 27th position on the PGA Tour this season. 

14. On the Hot Seat:

Brad Faxon 

Brad Faxon

If anyone is qualified to break down the upcoming U.S. Open, it’s Brad Faxon.

He played in 20 career editions of the event and served as an on-air analysts last year at Pebble Beach.

The co-host – along with fellow Rhode Island native Billy Andrade – for the upcoming CVS Caremark Charity Classic (June 20-21), Faxon sat down on the Hot Seat to discuss the year’s second major championship.

Q: You played in the Open in 1997 at Congressional. What do you expect this time around?

A: I’ve played at Congressional a bunch of times, for the old Kemper Open and then the Open in ’97. It’s not a memorable course. I always judge a course by, would I bring buddies and go play there? But it’s tough, demanding - one of those courses that’s going get to you, physically and mentally. It’s a marathon. The course is tough and the weather conditions can be brutal. If it’s hot like it can be, you’ve got to really be in pretty good shape to get around there. It’s not a course that I come away from saying, ‘That was great,” but you’d better be on your game there.

Q: Is there a player whose game fits this course?

A: Great question, because I read all the stuff and everyone’s guesses. Would you have picked Ernie Els as the winner in ‘97? It’s the guy who’s playing well that’s going to have a chance. You look at Luke Donald, he’s been playing steady - that’s a guy you’re going to pick. I’d be surprised not to see Lee Westwood play well; Steve Stricker has a chance. Plodders do well at U.S. Opens, just hit the ball consistently down the middle. But you also have guys who can hammer the ball down the middle, like Dustin Johnson. There isn’t any one style that fits this course.

Q: Isn’t that the sign of a good course, one that allows all types of players to contend?

A: Absolutely – and I guarantee you’ll see that. You’ll have a guy who can slap it down the middle consistently, a guy that you wouldn’t normally expect. But how can you not think that a guy like Dustin Johnson or Bubba Watson doesn’t have a chance, either?

Q: Bubba says he doesn’t want to be the face of golf. So who are the new faces of golf?

A: There’s a big group of young players who look like they can play well. I love how some of these guys are doing – Matteo Manassero, Ryo Ishikawa. I think Rickie Fowler is going to be a great player with this unique look that he has. We’ve got guys like Keegan Bradley and Gary Woodland who are young, strong, future-of-golf kind of guys. I really like how Woodland plays the game; I like his demeanor, which to me is more important than if his shaft is on plane or not. The power game the last 10 years has really changed the way younger players have developed. It’s rare to see Luke Donald or Jim Furyk types dominate. Length has always been an advantage. Everybody wants to see who’s the next Tiger Woods. We asked who the next Jack Nicklaus was for a while. There was nobody, then Tiger came along. It’s hard to win the Masters at 21, you know. But I do see guys who are going to have good long careers, even if they don’t win right away.

Q: Since you brought him up, I might as well ask: What are your thoughts on Tiger going forward?

A: When he first hurt his knee, everyone called me because I had two reconstructions and a microfracture and everyone thought I would have the answers. I don’t know that my injury has anything to do with his. He’s too young and too fit not to get through the physical parts of this. A lot of people have doubted that anybody could reach where Jack was and now those people who had to shut their mouths for 10 years are back to saying, ‘Yeah, he can’t do it.’ Tiger has an amazing ability to figure things out. I don’t know that Sean Foley is the answer, but a lot of things get in the way. I went through a divorce; I know what it’s like. It’s not easy, you can’t prepare for the things that happen. When Tiger gets that part of his life calmed down, he’ll be able to catapult back to the top. It’ll be one tourney. The light will come back on and he’ll jump right back to the top.

Q: So you think it’s more mental and emotional than physical and technical?

A: I do, yeah. There’s technical stuff there and Tiger has been the best in the world with Hank [Haney] using a radically different style. What he’s doing with Sean is radically different. I’m not so sure I’d have the courage as an instructor to change him. We spent a lot of time practicing short game together when he was first on tour. If I’m a teacher, I want him to get back to owning his swing like he did back then.

15. Fact or Fiction

There is no prototypical major champion anymore.

It’s widely believed that “anyone” can win a major these days; it doesn’t matter what kind of player they are. I asked some former major winners if this was the case and each concurred.

“There isn’t one,” said 2008 Masters champion Trevor Immelman.

“Anybody can win,” maintained 1997 PGA Championship winner Davis Love III.

“I can tell you what it’s not,” 2003 PGA Championship winner Shaun Micheel said. “It’s not a seasoned, veteran player anymore.”

With all due respect, they’re wrong.

Based on the four reigning major champions, there is a quintessential winner. It’s someone of relatively medium build, in his mid-to-late twenties, ranked in the upper echelon of the world though not in the top-10 and with a handful of international victories, but none on the PGA Tour.

I’ll let you read here for the complete breakdown of this prototype, but despite common sentiment, I consider the above statement to be FICTION – and can even prove it wrong.

16. Quote of the Week

“You hear so many guys say this golf course doesn’t suit them. And it’s not supposed to. The whole idea of moving to different places is so that you can adjust your golf game to suit the venue. That’s the whole secret to the game. I had a lot of golf courses that I struggled with, but that was my fault, not the golf course’s fault. … You just have to learn to adjust and figure out how to play it and how to best take your game and adjust to what the conditions are and what the golf course is. That’s what the whole thing is all about.” – Jack Nicklaus, on playing major championships.

Click here for GolfChannel.com's Quotes of the Week.

17. From the Inbox

As always, you can reach me on Twitter at @JasonSobelGC with your golf-related questions…

@MichaelSmyth Will the 18th (17th last time Open was there) be the toughest finisher in U.S. Open history?

The par-4 closing hole will play to 523 yards on the scorecard - and yes, it will be an absolute beast. As far as toughest, though, well, that has more to do with the green surface than length. Take the 18th at Southern Hills a decade ago, for example. With a severe back-to-front slope, it became next to impossible for players to keep their approach shots on the green for much of the week. The closer at Congressional features a strong right-to-left angled peninsula green, bisected by a ridge, which according to the U.S. Open official website, makes “two putts a challenge when playing from the wrong quadrant.” Toughest ever? We’ll see. Could very well be the toughest on the course this week.


@markdbaldwin What fun is it watching tour pros struggle to shoot around par on an overgrown/burned out golf course?

I had a feeling this question was coming. Allow me to go on record as saying I enjoy it – one week out of the year. It would be disappointing if all four majors – or even most PGA Tour events during the year – toughened up conditions to the point where players needed to shoot even par to win. But such scoring conditions are a trademark of the U.S. Open. We’ve come to expect them just like we expect poor weather conditions at the Open Championship. I don’t have a problem with watching the pros “struggle” one week out of the year, as long as other tourneys don’t try to emulate that, too.


@theJGriffin Is Steve Stricker the best hope for Americans to capture the US Open?

Coming off his recent victory at the Memorial Tournament, Stricker is now the highest-ranked U.S. player at No. 4 and an increasingly popular pick to be holding the trophy come Sunday afternoon. Is he the best hope, though? I don’t see it. Stricks has played in 15 editions of the event and while he’s made the cut in all but two, he only owns three top-10s and none since 2006. Give me Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson over Stricker this week. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a chance, only that I like some of his brethren a little bit more.

18. The List 

This is what’s referred to in the business as a “tease.” 

I recently posted my prediction for the top-25 at the upcoming U.S. Open. Listed below are Nos. 21-25. If you want to see more, you’ve got to click the link.

Sneaky, huh?

Happy clicking. And just for reference, I had McDowell at No. 4 on my list a year ago. The statute of limitations for gloating is almost up, so I wanted to offer one final reminder.

25.Fred Funk

No, he’s no longer competitive on the PGA Tour, but the Maryland native may find some magic this week.

24.Jim Furyk

Has yet to win this year, but remember: His U.S. Open victory in 2003 was first of that season, too.

23.K.J. Choi

Once won the AT&T at Congo, but No Player has ever won Players and U.S. Open in same year.

22.Robert Rock

One of the few players on a major tour without a hat deal, he looks like a throwback without one.

21.Jonathan Byrd

Longtime pro is enjoying a breakthrough season with one win and a few other title contentions.

For the rest of the top-25, click here.

Picture of the Week

 Bradley Dredge

Walking on water is one thing. But teeing it up and bombing driver from the stuff makes for a true golfing god.

Click here for GolfChannel.com's Top Photos of the Week.