When I asked my editor who he liked at this week’s U.S. Open, he quickly replied that he could feel a first-time winner looming on the not-so-distant horizon. As much as I like to disagree with those who get to put their hands on my copy, I had a hard time finding fault with his reasoning.
One veteran PGA Tour player told me years ago that The Olympic Club rewards mediocrity. Loosely translated, that makes it a hard golf course to score on – some monster venues chew up the average players but reserve a few 66s for those who earn them. With showers in the forecast for the first two rounds and clear skies/relatively light breezes on the weekend, we could see a kinder, gentler Olympic, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
However much this U.S. Open seems geared toward crowning an unlikely champion, my list of a dozen pre-tournament favorites has no room for a Steve Jones-type mystery guest. Until further notice, I’m counting on greatness rising. Then again, what goes up must come down. It’s all a matter of when. And how far.
Luke Donald – A terrific hard-course player and the world’s best putter, it’s something of a mystery as to why Donald hasn’t performed to his usual standards at the majors. Preparation? Nerves? At some point, the guy will figure it out. This tournament has a right-place, right-time kind of feel to it. Odds: 12-1.
Tiger Woods – The Memorial victory reminded us who wears the pants in this household, but Tiger’s return to premium form has been stunted by a lack of consistency. There’s no substitute for big-game savvy. That said, nobody will win at Olympic from the right rough. Odds: 15-1.
Hunter Mahan – He still flies under most radars, but with a pair of wins in 2012 and some awesome ball-striking stats – 12th in driving accuracy, fifth in greens in regulation – I find it very hard to look past the guy. As always, Mahan’s short game will determine his level of success. Odds: 18-1.
Matt Kuchar – He hits fairways, hits greens and avoids bogeys, which won him The Players and could make him a serious factor here. Kuchar has the perfect temperament for this championship: even keel with an accent on smiling. Don’t think that doesn’t matter in this grindfest. Odds: 18-1.
Phil Mickelson – A career full of U.S. Open heartbreak isn’t likely to get a kind bounce from Olympic, which has killed the popular storyline at each of its four previous turns hosting this event. History does have a way of surprising us, however, and Mickelson obviously has all the tools. Again, he can’t play from the high stuff. Odds: 20-1.
Dustin Johnson – Heaven forbid you should win the week before the U.S. Open, but the St. Jude triumph certainly doesn’t hurt Johnson’s chances this week. Is he trending north in a hurry or did he merely conquer a mediocre field in Memphis? My guess is, a little of both. Odds: 25-1.
Lee Westwood – They play golf on grass, not a computer screen, but it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which Westwood finally picks up his first major title. His much-maligned short game will become too big a detriment at Olympic, where hitting two-thirds of the greens may prove too much a task for anyone. Odds: 25-1.
Rory McIlroy – A strong showing in Memphis (T-7) bodes well, but the Irish Lad still doesn’t look quite right to me. According to my untrained eye, McIlroy is swinging harder than before, costing him the rhythm and fluidity that made him so good. Just can’t see him defending his title. Odds: 28-1.
Justin Rose – The British version of Kuchar, a player who avoids mistakes and grabs opportunity when it arrives. What bothers me about Rose is his putting – 123rd on the PGA Tour this year. If the lead stays around even par and he doesn’t have to hole 20-footers to stay alive, this guy could factor deep into Sunday. Odds: 30-1.
Bubba Watson – The tree-removal project that occurred shortly after Olympic hosted the ’98 U.S. Open could help Watson, figuring that more breeze will increase the value of length off the tee. Distance didn’t matter at all 14 years ago – David Duval was the only long hitter in the picture. Gotta make those 8-footers, Bubba. Odds: 40-1.
Jason Dufner – His recent binge of superb play earns him a spot on this list, but for all the high finishes, which include a pair of victories, Dufner still ranks 95th in putting. Maybe we’re splitting hairs, but when a round of even par can move you 10 spots up a leaderboard, you’ll have to save par, sometimes outside your comfort zone. Odds: 40-1.
Sergio Garcia – Go ahead and laugh, but Sergio is quietly having a decent year and comes off a T-3 in Europe. His U.S. Open history is pretty strong, albeit a winless one, and through thick and thin, he has continued to drive the ball exceptionally well. Of course, if he’s standing over a 5-footer to win his first major, I might have to look the other way. Perhaps this one time, fate won’t. Odds: 45-1.