Recent history in majors has been all about the meltdowns and it really got its start a year ago this week when Dustin Johnson handed away what seemed like a massive three-shot lead on the first tee that vanished quickly on his way to a brutal 82. It remains to be seen if this year's U.S. Open venue, Congressional, will offer the risk-reward and downright difficult-yet-memorable holes seen at last year's Pebble Beach.
Length is the defining characteristic of Congressional, made longer by reportedly soft fairways this week. Will that swing the advantage to the big hitters? Or does it play into the hands of a guy who hits it down the middle? With greens heading beyond 14 on the Stimpmeter (if you choose to believe the USGA), will an all-time great putter emerge?
There's no Tiger Woods, no dominant number one player in the world, and certainly no clear-cut favorite this year. In fact, Las Vegas oddsmakers have installed "The Field" as an 8-1 "favorite," with a batch of golfers (Luke Donald, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood) hovering around 12-1.
Our staff offer their predictions:
Who will win the 2011 U.S. Open? Score?
Ron Varrial: Phil Mickelson, -7. The heat wave and lack of rain means the rough might be a bit tamer than past Opens, and ideal weather conditions this week will translate to modestly lower scores, especially for a bomber who can keep it in play. At this distance (7,574 yards), short hitters are at a massive disadvantage, no matter how straight they hit it or how well they putt it. Everyone talks about the USGA wanting the winner at par, but of the past 15 U.S. Opens, only five were at even par or worse. Mickelson's length and creativity around these greens will give him an edge over other contending bombers, such as Dustin Johnson. I realize I pick him every time, but in this case, I think it's his week to break through and hoist a U.S. Open trophy.
Alan Olson: Even par is the game so I don't expect the USGA to roll over and allow a birdie fest to erupt on their watch. With that, I'll go with a score of even par (280). As for the winner, I'll go with Hunter Mahan (which now means he won't make the cut).
Jamieson Weiss: Matt Kuchar, -4. I took him at the Masters and though he looked good after Thursday, he settled for a disappointing T27. I think he pulls this one out for his first major though. He's been one of the most consistent players of the last few years, and I think that will pay off at the U.S. Open.
Danny Ottmann: Lets go with Steve Stricker and -1. My heart wants to go with Phil but I just don't think he can get it done. Stricker is coming off a great tournament at Jack's place and he has the game for a U.S. Open victory.
George Promenschenkel: Luke Donald, 275. If he controls his driver, his irons and putting should put him right at the top of the leaderboard. I was very close to choosing Stricker over Donald, but I think winning in the next start after his Memorial victory is a lot to ask. The course and greens should be fairly receptive, so the setup should favor scoring, at least for the first few days.
Erik J. Barzeski: I'm terrible at predicting these types of things. Ben Crane, -6. I didn't even check, but I'm fairly certain he's in the field.
How will Tiger Woods' absence affect this year's U.S. Open?
Ron Varrial: If the golf was on TV during a Sunday Father's Day BBQ, the most-asked question from non-golf nuts would be, "How's Tiger doing?" For big fans, it will be no different than if he were out of contention on a Sunday. But for the masses, it's a big blow. Competitively, the days of Tiger shaking up a leaderboard by simply making a move have become a thing of the past, so as far as the impact on the outcome? Very little.
Alan Olson: Every tournament Tiger is in brings a buzz (although lessened a bit this year) so it will have an affect on the tourney. This will lessen if Phil is in the hunt or one of the "young guns" steps up.
Jamieson Weiss: If Tiger wasn't injured and his last few months played out as his stunning Sunday Masters play seemed to indicate, I was going to take Tiger, hands down. Without him, I do fear a little that it could be boring. The Players had one of the best fields of the year and it was a snoozer for about 69 of the 72 holes of regulation until Toms hit it into the water on 16.
Danny Ottmann: Well let's see, Some guy named Michael Whitehead is now in the tournament and Adam Scott now has a pompous Kiwi for a caddy. Anything else? Oh yeah and the media tent might be a little less crowded.
George Promenschenkel: Ratings down, but the focus will be more on the golf. That's bad, and good.
Erik J. Barzeski: Well, for one thing, I can't pick him to win. Beyond that, not a whole lot. Tiger's played well at Congressional, and played well at the Masters, but I still don't know if he's "there" yet anyway. The casual golf fan will miss him. The hard-core will not (much).
Are you looking forward to a Tiger-free major, or will you miss him and the buzz he brings?
Ron Varrial: Love him or hate him, there's no denying that an event is all the more entertaining when he's in the mix.
Alan Olson: Regardless of ranking, he's the best player in the world so I will miss him being in the field. Regardless of what you think of him, I want to see greatness on the course and he brings it.
Jamieson Weiss: As my last answer might have indicated, I'll personally miss his game. Whether or not you like him as a golfer, he's one of the most exciting players in the sport (CBS and NBC can tell you that, as their viewership shrinks substantially when he's out of the field) , andhaving a player of his caliber always takes something away. Forinstance, I'm personally not a Phil fan, but a U.S. Open just wouldn'tbe the same without him. The "will he or won't he" game of the last few years has been fun.
Danny Ottmann: Tiger is fine, It might have been exciting to see him close to the lead on Sunday but I won't miss all the stupidity that follows him around. I love watching golf and his absence will have little affect on me.
George Promenschenkel: The circus has left town. Without Tiger, the PGA Tour lacks a focal point. There are a lot of good stories out there, but somehow none of them seem to be "great." There's not as much buzz and very little interest from the non-golfing public. On the bright side, at the Memorial, the Fowler galleries created a following wake of fans along the course. They weren't quite to the level that Tiger's were a few years ago, but if they continue to grow the sales of god-awful, straight brimmed orange hats should be going through the roof.
Erik J. Barzeski: I'm as big a fan of Tiger's golf as many people out there, but I think having two questions about a guy who isn't playing is excessive. Does that answer the question?
Who will be one golfer outside the Top 50 to finish Top Five? Who will be one Top 10 player who will miss the cut?
Ron Varrial: This was a really tough one, because most of the guys I wanted to pick were in the 40-50 range (specifically Gary Woodland). But it's hard to imagine Angel Cabrera, with two majors, is 83rd in the world. He's at his best on this stage, and if I'm putting my money on a guy outside the top 50 (check the list, it's bleak), it's one with two majors. As for a guy to leave early, I'll say it's No. 1 Luke Donald. He doesn't hit it long, or particularly straight (60th on PGA Tour in "Total Driving). He's never posted a Top 10 in the U.S. Open, and I'll say this isn't the week he changes our mind about him as a flimsy world's top ranked player.
Alan Olson: Camilio Villegas makes the top 5 while the defending champion, Graeme McDowell goes home early.
Jamieson Weiss: For player outside the top 50 to make the top five, I'm taking Ricky Barnes. I have no idea why, but he lives for big tournaments. Seriously, someone needs to tell him that the PGA Tour holds tons of golf tournaments throughout the year. I actually don't see anyone inside the top 10 missing the cut, but If I have to take one, I will go with the defending champ, GraemeMcDowell. GMac's game is so up and down, I think he has a chance to repeat if it's good, but when it's bad, it's really bad and he might miss the cut.
Danny Ottmann: How about Sergio Garcia, he has shown some glints of his former self and he even went through qualifying to get to this year's Open. I would like to see him do well and put four rounds together. And, Martin Kaymer. He missed the cut at the Masters and will do so again at the U.S. Open. After catching fire at the PGA Championship last year he has cooled off a bit.
George Promenschenkel: Top 5! How about Brandt Jobe from outside the top 100 (#117)? He's playing well, and his is a great story. He'd be the feel good contender. I'm a sucker for a good story. As for missing the cut, I don't think Martin Kaymer's swing changes have jelled. Watch for him to gouge his way around the course Thursday and Friday on the way to an early trunk slamming.
Erik J. Barzeski: Graeme McDowell misses the cut. Matt Kuchar top fives it.
Head to head, who wins? Phil Mickelson vs. Steve Stricker; Lee Westwood vs. Rory McIlroy; Matt Kuchar vs. Bubba Watson.
Ron Varrial: Mickelson by quite a bit. Westwood, who factors down stretch Sunday until greens running near 15 get best of him. Watson, although I can see both of these guys in the mix late.
Alan Olson: Phil, Rory, and Bubba wins out on the head to head competitions.
Jamieson Weiss: At the U.S. Open, on a super-long course, Phil Mickelson beats Stricker easily. Phil's game has been up and down as well, but I think he will rise to the occasion for the U.S. Open. Lee Westwood and Rory both have had their fair share of struggles down the stretch of majors, but I'll take Lee for his experience. It almost feels like he's due, especially after GMac's win last year. Given my opening sentence I want to take Bubba, but I picked Kuchar to win it all so I have to stick with him. I have trouble believing Bubba could close out a major, but it's pretty conceivable that he could find himself in that position.
Danny Ottmann: Well since I picked Stricker to win the tournament I would have to say Stricker. Lefty just doesn't seem to have it right now and Stricker certainly does. McIlroy will want some redemption after his final round collapse at the Masters. Westwood will go quietly away like he does in all the other majors. I like Bubba, he has to be one of my favorite players on Tour. That being said, he will have a hard time staying with Kuchar at the U.S. Open. It will be close though lets say Kucher beats him by a stroke.
George Promenschenkel: Stricker. McIlroy. Kuchar.
Erik J. Barzeski: The guy with the lower score, in each of the cases? As they say, "on any given Sunday…"
I say Congressional CC. What's the first thought that comes to mind?
Ron Varrial: Should I be excited? Each Open course has it's "thing." Pebble has the scenery. Bethpage is a muni. Shinnecock is epic. Oakmont's impossibly hard. Sorry, Congressional just don't trigger any of those images for me. If anything, I think of Venturi, near death, emerging victorious.
Alan Olson: Old, rich dudes.
Jamieson Weiss: What an 18th hole. If it comes down to the last hole on Sunday, that course will do everything it possibly can to provide an exciting finish. The famous exclusivity of the course also comes to mind.
Danny Ottmann: Is this where members of Congress play golf? Just kidding…I think long history of major championships and PGA Tour stops. A Good solid golf course and also par three 18th Hole (although that's now been redesigned).
George Promenschenkel: The clubhouse standing on the hill high above the old 18th (the par three). Second… the green of the new 18th (old 17th) and the sphincter-tightening approach it will require on Sunday.
Erik J. Barzeski: Tom Lehman rinsing it.
What's your favorite thing about the U.S. Open? What's the one thing you'd change?
Ron Varrial: I love the wall-to-wall TV coverage, and being able to really get to know the course and its nuances over four days. As for a change, a few years ago I'd have said it went from fun-hard to boring-hard. But I think graduated rough and adding risk-reward holes has added excitement. I'd like to see a tad more of that risk-reward in the mix on the back nine Sunday. Let them really grind, but find some ways to inject MORE drama in both directions. More eagles and more triples, especially down the stretch.
Alan Olson: Favorite thing is the inclusion of the amateurs. Always fun to see a few near the top of the leaderboard on the first few days. As for the one thing I would change, while I appreciate the USGA's defense of par, I would make the course setup a bit easier to allow for more birdie and eagle opportunities. Seeing par after par gets old after awhile.
Jamieson Weiss: My favorite thing about the U.S. Open is that it forces players to play for par on nearly every single hole. I love the occasional birdie fest, because it can be fun to see just how much better these guys are than us, but to watch the best players struggle to just squeak out even is fun to me. To be honest, I can't really criticize the U.S. Open for a whole lot. They set the course up like I enjoy watching, and lately they've experimented with ideas like public courses and prime-time TV viewing. If anything, I wish they'd continue on that path of innovation and offer extensive viewing online. I can dream, can't I?
Danny Ottmann: This may seem strange but I like that it is such a demanding test of skills, but I hate when they set up the course so difficult that the players just trudge through it in a par fest. What I guess I mean is make the course demanding and tough, but leave some birdies out there and allow the winners to shoot scores under par. I just think its boring to watch a battle of attrition and see someone win with a score of +4.
George Promenschenkel: I'm not sure I'd change anything about the U.S. Open as its being set up recently. The addition of a drivable par 4 (on at least one day) and reachable par 5s have made the US Open more exciting. The graduated rough is also a plus. You can only watch so many hacks out to the fairway. It is much more entertaining when the players feel they have a chance to reach the green, but the rough still affects the shot. The decision to go or not to go, and the consequences of that decision, are what makes for good viewing. And the fast, hard greens don't hurt either.
Erik J. Barzeski: I like the new direction it's taken - a little more playable, a little flexibility in the length of the holes. Some drivable par fours, etc. It's less of a "grind" and more fair lately. Grinds are okay, but boring. The recent changes produce better events and better winners.