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Expert picks: 2012 U.S. Open

Lee Westwood
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This week the best players in the world head to the Lake Course at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, site of this year's second major. Rory McIlroy is back to defend the title he won in a romp last year at Congressional, but an elite field will challenge for the title. Each week a panel of experts will offer up their picks from four groups of players based on Golf Channel's new fantasy game, Fantasy Challenge. We will also keep track of their scores and standings. The panel consists of: senior writers Rex Hoggard, Randall Mell and Jason Sobel; contributors John Hawkins and Win McMurry; editorial director Jay Coffin;'s Rob Bolton; 'Morning Drive' host Gary Williams; and Golf Talk Central contributor Ryan Ballengee.

Ryan Ballengee

Group 1: Tiger Woods: He won at Memorial, has a pair of wins this season and is a three-time U.S. Open champion. Good enough for me.

Group 2: Jim Furyk: Furyk is second on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy, which will be critical for success at Olympic. He won the U.S. Open in 2003.

Group 3: Colt Knost: The second alternate out of Columbus won the 2007 U.S. Amateur at this venue. He's ninth on Tour in driving accuracy.

Group 4: Roberto Castro: The Georgia Tech product is 18th in greens in regulation percentage and 49th in driving accuracy. It's a good combination in the group of mostly dreamers.

Gary Williams

Group 1: Lee Westwood: Westwood enters the week seeking his first major, but is playing very well. The third-ranked player in the world has won twice in 2012, including last week, and also finished T-3 at the Masters. On top of all that, he finished T-7 in the 1998 U.S. Open at Olympic. I think Westwood wins his first major this week.

Group 2: Zach Johnson: If the conditions are tough, Zach Johnson is a name I always think of. The 2007 Masters champion won earlier this year at Colonial and has runner-up finishes at TPC Sawgrass and Harbour Town. I think he'll be able to maneuver his way around Olympic very well and at the very least record his best U.S. Open finish this week.

Group 3: Branden Grace: Grace is arguable the most underrated performer of 20212 so far as he has won three times on the European Tour, with two wins in South Africa and one in China. He earned his place in the field on Monday by being ranked in the top 60 in the world and is making his first major start in the U.S. An upset win this week would make Grace the story of the year.

Group 4: Brian Harman: Harman played in the 2004 U.S. Junior Amateur at Olympic and made it to the quarterfinals before losing to the eventual champion. That year, he shot 67-66 in stroke play to win medalist honors by eight shots. Considering he shot 64 at Pebble Beach and 61 at PGA National earlier this year, he could surprise many people this week.week.

Rex Hoggard

Group 1: Tiger Woods: The question remains, which guy will show up this week? The guy who missed the cut at Quail Hollow or won Bay Hill by a five spot? The guy who finished T-40 at the Masters and Players or rolled to victory at the Memorial? My gut says the latter.

Group 2: Zach Johnson: The U.S. Open has never been kind to Johnson; his best finish in eight starts is a T-30 last year, but in his last five overall starts he has two second-place finishes and a win. Olympic may be the best fit of all the Open venues for this fairways-and-greens specialist.

Group 3: Davis Love III: This seems like a sentimental pick, but the U.S. Ryder Cup captain is fresh off his best finish of the year (a T-3 in Memphis) and with 22 starts at the national championship, no one has more experience in this week's field.

Group 4: Joe Durant: Always one of the Tour's best ball-strikers, the Olympic Club will fit his game better than most Open venues that reward power over shot-making. He also has some experience on the Lake Course, having finished T-32 at the 1998 U.S. Open.

Win McMurry

Group 1: Tiger Woods: He's back.

Group 2: Jim Furyk: Seven top-25 finishes in his last eight starts; he's in form and certainly has a shot at adding another U.S. Open title to the one he picked up in 2003.

Group 3: Branden Grace: Three wins this year on the European Tour have me not worried a bit that he can contend in his first U.S. Open.

Group 4: Michael Allen: He's gained a lot of confidence with age and performance on the Champions Tour, where he's picked up two wins in 2012.

Jason Sobel

Group 1: Luke Donald: Keys to contending at any major: keep the ball in play, eliminate mistakes and be deadly from 100 yards and in. That's pretty much an analysis of Donald's game.

Group 2: Jonathan Byrd: Looking for a hot hand? Byrd has finished 12th or better in each of his last four events. Ironically, this Ben Hogan fan could be this week's Jack Fleck.

Group 3: Davis Love III: Don't scoff. The current United States Ryder Cup captain is peaking at the right time, reaching the field through sectionals before a T-3 finish in Memphis.

Group 4: Mikko Ilonen: Little-known Euro Tour player is fresh off a T-3 in Sweden at last week's Nordea Masters.

Randall Mell

Group 1: Tiger Woods: Woods seems to really like the creative test Olympic offers, and more importantly, he has the variety of shots again to win here.

Group 2: Sergio Garcia: Olympic Club rewards pure ball strikers, and it will reward Garcia if his putter is working.

Group 3: Steve Marino: Going with Frank Nobilo's feeling that there is some Jack Fleck in Marino.

Group 4: Patrick Cantlay: This is called rooting for the story. It would be historic with an amateur winning the U.S. Open.

Rob Bolton

Group 1: Luke Donald: In a field loaded with talent, I'll take the most consistent performer of the elite. His time is now.

Group 2: Jim Furyk: Not only is his record impressive in the U.S. Open, but his splits across the board and recent results support this endorsement.

Group 3: Davis Love III: I rode him last week in Memphis, so I'm taking another spin on the bandwagon. What matters more isn't that he's playing extremely well again, but that he's healthy and perhaps fresher than most of his opposition as a result of his rest (e.g. Dustin Johnson at the St. Jude).

Group 4: Alex Cejka: In a lot full of fliers, he's one of the safest options. Shared eighth place at the U.S. Open down the road at Pebble Beach two years ago. Also cashed in his last four starts entering this week.

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