With the conclusion of sectional qualifying last Monday (and Tuesday in some places), the field for this week's U.S. Open is set. While 156 of the world's best and/or luckiest players in the world will converge at Pebble Beach, you can be sure that most of the world's media will be focused on just one of them.
Still the world's number one player, plagued this year by turmoil on and off the golf course, and a decade removed from arguably the most dominant tournament performance in golf history (at this very tournament and venue),Tiger Woods will be the big story throughout the championship. There is a very good chance that Tiger's presence will overshadow everything else about the Open. Before things get that bad here at the Sand Trap, here are five of the big questions that should be on any golf fan's mind heading into Pebble Beach.
Number Five: Will the Course Setup Give Everyone a Chance to Contend?
Maxing out at 7,040 yards, Pebble Beach will be the shortest U.S. Open venue since Shinnecock Hills in 2004. Since then, all host courses have been well above 7,200 yards in length, a development that has generally favored long hitters. An event once infamous for its demands on driving accuracy had been stretched to the point where shorter hitters couldn't compete with bombers; at Oakmont in 2007, Bubba Watson spent all four days in contention before the tournament was won by Angel Cabrera.
Given Pebble's length, tiny greens, and suspected tamer rough, it's not yet clear whether this year's Open will favor any particular type if player. Only time (or a few days' worth of playing time) will tell.
Number Four: Will a European Player Break Tony Jacklin's Curse?
The 2010 Open marks a few milestones in the game: 10 years since Tiger's dominance here at Pebble, 60 years since Ben Hogan's 1-iron at Merion; 80 years since Bobby Jones' grand slam. But it is also 40 years since Tony Jacklin won at Hazeltine, the last time any European has won the U.S. Open. This is the major that eluded Seve and company in the 80s and early 90s, and the one where Colin Montgomerie came so close so many times.
But European golf right now is stronger than it has been since the days of Faldo, Langer, and Lyle. World number three (and latest PGA Tour winner) Lee Westwood leads a European contingent that includes five of the top ten and 17 of the top 50 golfers in the world rankings. Even factoring the 40-year slump at the U.S. Open, few people should be surprised if one of Europe's best emerges as the winner on Sunday.
Number Thre: Will Someone Go Low?
In the 115-year history of the U.S. Open, only four players have reached double digits under par at any point of the tournament. Two of those occasions have come at Pebble Beach. After the seventh hole on Saturday in 1992, Dr. Gil Morgan was 12-under for the championship; in the winds that swept Carmel Bay during the last day and a half of that tournament, Morgan dropped 17 shots to par to finish outside of the top ten. Tiger, of course, reached 12-under during his final round in 2000 and finished at that number to break the U.S. Open scoring record.
Can another player reach the double-digit plateau this year? The answer will likely be in the wind conditions. Morgan set a blistering pace in calm weather, only to fall apart under the force of the coastal gusts. Woods caught a break in avoiding the wind and fog players in the opposite Thursday-Friday session faced, and managed an even-par 71 as the winds kicked up again during the third round. Provided some placid conditions over parts of the four days, there may certainly be low scores posted at this year's Open.
Number Two: Will the Winner be One We Expect?
Until a few years ago, the U.S. Open could be expected to produce a winner already considered elite by most of the golf world. When the biggest surprise champion of the last quarter-century prior to 2005 (Steve Jones in 1996) ultimately bagged eight career PGA Tour wins, that says a lot about the caliber of the names on the trophy.
Then modestly-successful Kiwi Michael Campbell won in 2005, unproven Aussie Geoff Ogilvy took the 2006 title, Argentine journeyman Angel Cabrera waddled his way to victory in 2007, and unassuming South Carolinian Lucas Glover triumphed in 2009. Excepting Tiger's victory in 2008 (which nearly went to Rocco Mediate), four of the last five Open winners have come from outside the class of established major contenders at the time of the event. Will this trend continue at Pebble Beach, or will 2010 mark the return of the usual suspects winning what is often considered the toughest major of them all?
Number One: Will the Course Become the Story?
The U.S. Open is probably the only golf tournament in the world where course setup becomes a controversial, headline-worthy topic of discussion. Rough heights and stimpmeter readings are scrutinized more during this week than the rest of the year combined, and a questionable groundskeeping decision (like the hole location at Olympic's 18th green during the second round in 1998) can cast a pall over an entire championship.
Phil Mickelson warned during his press conference earlier in the week that the USGA risks creating "14 potential seventh holes at Shinnecock" (referring to the par-three hole left so dry during the 2004 Open that the green became nearly unputtable) if they don't mind the expected dry conditions over the weekend. The USGA is not the kind of organizing body known to make the same mistake twice, but they are known to stretch a course to the brink of playability. Only time will tell how well the greens at Pebble hold up.