Nine for the Open


When my next-door neighbor sensed an advantage in a Masters rotisserie pool several years back, I was more than happy to assist Tom with his picks. So imagine his delight when my so-called knowledge carried him to last-place money. This probably happened in 2003, when Mike Weir beat Len Mattiace in a playoff: two singles hitters chasing a green jacket in the ultimate power player's ballpark.

My inability to predict the future is not limited to the season's first major. I can mess up U.S. Opens, too, which is probably why Tom stops by mainly to remind me about that pile of mulch in his driveway – the one we agreed to go halves on back in January.
Zach Johnson
Zach Johnson's best U.S. Open finish came in 2007 (T-45). (Getty Images)
I’m not the only guy with some shoveling to do. As Tiger Woods continues trying to dig his way out of a post-marriage malaise, pro golf's competitive landscape hasn't been this flat, or so it seems, since Christopher Columbus. It's a lot easier to envision Tiger losing by 15 next week in Pebble than to see him winning by five, let alone 15. The historic rout of 2000, perhaps the finest single-week performance ever, was 51 Tour victories, 11 major titles and a couple thousand headaches ago.

Never mind hoisting a trophy – Woods hasn't felt the heat of final-nine contention since last November. Anybody can hit a golf ball. Those who repeatedly do it well while in pressure's grasp are called champions, but winning a tournament is not like riding a bike. You can forget how to do it, and The Dude in the Red Shirt, great memory and all, has accrued a bit of Sunday rust.

So he's not my favorite next week, not even close. I'm sure Tiger is heartbroken over this, but seriously, he shouldn't be. Just ask Tom.

(Note to reader: odds accompanying each player are meant for argumentative purposes, not as an attempt to induce wagering).

Zach Johnson (13-to-1)
Go ahead, call me crazy. Just don't call me (or send an e-mail) after this guy wins another major. Johnson hits it nowhere but in every fairway, and for the fourth consecutive year, he ranks among the PGA Tour's top 10 in driving accuracy. He has jumped almost 50 spots in distance (181st to 133rd) in 2010 and continues to own one of the game's more reliable putters. But it's the way Zach closes fast and takes control of a tournament without anybody noticing that I find so impressive. Winning a Masters was a big surprise. Winning a U.S. Open certainly would not be.

Phil Mickelson (15-1)
His wife's health issues have brought a refreshed sense of purpose to Lefty's loveable life. Forget the missed cut at Colonial – that's like skipping the appetizer. Mickelson will arrive at Pebble rested, ready and rolling off the mojo from his stirring Masters triumph. Here's the only stat you need: Four major titles after a decade of failure, and there's more where those four came from. Big man. Big heart. Big game.

Rory McIlroy (18-1)
It's only a matter of time, folks. This kid can light up any golf course on earth and do it against any field, which makes his commitment to a heavier U.S. schedule all the wiser. McIlroy should feel right at home on Pebble's coastal linksland. No Irishman is afraid of a little three-club breeze, and those small greens will do a nice job separating the men from the boys. This boy is a man, and in 25 years, McIlroy will have evolved into the most important European golfer since Severiano Ballesteros.

Steve Stricker (20-1)
It cost him a fair part of the spring, but Stricker appears to have shaken the shoulder issues that have limited him to four starts since mid-March. He hasn’t shot over par in eight rounds since the Masters, and you know the birdie putts will start falling in soon enough. The win in Los Angeles three months ago was a biggie: west coast, quality field, fabulous venue, more mental ammunition. We're talking about a guy who ranked 178th in driving accuracy two years ago – Stricker is 26th now. Man, I wish my shoulder hurt like that.

Lee Westwood (20-1)
At this point, it’s fair to wonder if Westwood is a major prince in waiting or just another guy with a lousy sense of timing. He has top-3 finishes at all four slammies since the 2008 U.S. Open, and though he coughed up none of them, a man only gets so many trips to Wonderland. Like Stricker, he's a remarkable story with a sexy career trajectory: Good to awful to very good since the mid-1990s. Next week would be a really good time to continue heading north.

Tiger Woods (22-1)
He finished 111th in total ball-striking at the Memorial, so the self-analysis-through-video plan apparently is a work in progress. I watched parts of the 2000 Pebble romp a week or so ago. Woods' swing was art in motion, an exquisite blend of power and control, as close to perfect as the physical act gets. A friend of Tiger's recently told me the guy is really down, really mad at himself for wrecking his marriage and as close to embarrassed as Eldrick Almighty could possibly be. I don’t know if we can blame his poor golf on the mess he made of his personal life, but it’s fair to say Woods appears to be heavily distracted.

Dustin Johnson (30-1)
I’m not sold on this guy nearly as much as some others are. Johnson still goes lengthy stretches without factoring, and though he has won back-to-back Tour events at Pebble, the USGA sees this fabulous piece of property as a chance to merge pretty and punitive. Johnson won’t have much of a shot next week if he’s hitting fewer than 55 percent of his fairways, which has been the case in 2010.

John Hawkins appears on Golf Central every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET and on the Grey Goose 19th Hole every Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET.

Ernie Els (30-1)
How nice to see the Big Easy playing a weak-field event like the Valero Texas Open, where he finished T-3, but missed cuts at The Players and Memorial are hard to ignore. Els probably needs a bit of weather to win this tourney for a third time next week. His confidence hasn't been this high in a decade, and he did manage to earn a share of second at Pebble in '00 – just two touchdowns and a foul shot behind You Know Who.

Jim Furyk (35-1)
Wins at Innisbrook and Harbour Town revived his top-5 status, but a triumph at Pebble would make this a career year. Forever one of the game's straightest drivers (sixth in 2010) and most dependable putters, Furyk's tenacious competitive mindset is ideal for this championship. Other U.S. Open venues are better suited for his grinding style, but nobody had Angel Cabrera winning at Oakmont, either.