The 2012 U.S. Open begins right about now, and though I have no say in the makeup of the USGA's official pairings, there are some I'd like to see coming down the stretch on Sunday. Whether it's the old guard of Tiger and Phil, the young guns Rory and Rickie, the veteran Brits Donald and Westwood, the streaking Americans Dufner and Mahan, or the early-season big-tournament winners Watson and Kuchar, this year's Open is full of solid match-ups.
Every player currently in the top 13 in the world has won since last November, many in convincing fashion. Tiger, Dufner, and Mahan have all won twice, while Bubba Watson (The Masters) and Matt Kuchar (The Players) have won the year's two biggest tournaments to date.
The USGA likes to mess with the pairings, and come up with a few each year that are outside the box. Though these aren't as creative as the "guys with hyphens in their names" group or the "group of guys with initials for a first name," the way I see it, there are about ten players from the early season that stand out, and they make up five pretty great pairings.
Number Five: Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar
Though I stand by what I wrote a few months ago when I said that I don't think Bubba Watson will win another major championship, it's hard to ignore the defending Masters champ, a player who won two events last year. Bubba's length gives him a huge advantage on a course that will measure 7,170 yards, and aside from his missed cut at the Memorial, Bubba hasn't finished outside the top 18 in any event all season.
That said, Bubba is bound to be rusty after his mini-sabbatical, which certainly won't make U.S. Open golf any easier. His U.S. Open record also hasn't been great, though it's not that lengthy. He did have one top 10 finish, a T5 in 2007, but his only other made cuts are a T18 in 2009 and a T63 last year.
Excluding his Players win, Matt Kuchar has had a very quiet, albeit successful, season. He has yet to miss a cut, and Kuchar has only two finishes outside the top 30. In arguably the four most prestigious events in America so far this year (the WGC-Accenture Match Play, the WGC-Cadillac, The Masters, and The Players), Kuchar has finishes of T5, T8, T3, and first, respectively.
I'm picking Bubba for a finish in the top 40 and Kuchar for the top 20.
Number Four: Jason Dufner and Hunter Mahan
As I wrote about in my ProFiles article about Jason Dufner a few weeks ago, he's been on fire so far this year. After playing well early on at The Masters Dufner has won twice since, at the Zurich Classic and the Byron Nelson Championship. He comes into the U.S. Open blazing hot, with a second-place finish following up his previous two wins. Since he has played in only five previous U.S. Opens (missing the cut twice, including last year), Dufner doesn't have much of a history.
With two PGA Tour wins before The Masters, Hunter Mahan is 2012's first player to multiple wins (2011's was Mark Wilson). He started off hot with a T6 at Torrey Pines, played well straight on through his victory at the WGC Match Play, and kept that up through his Shell Houston win and a solid T12 finish at The Masters. His only blemish is a missed cut at The Players, but Mahan comes into the U.S. Open playing about as well as anyone.
Mahan played well in the U.S. Open earlier in his career, with a T13, a T18, and a T6 from 2007 through 2009, but he has missed the cut in each of his last two Opens. That said, Mahan's quintessential American parklands-style golf game would seem to fit the tournament well.
At Olympic I think we will hear Dufner's name a few times over the first two days, but I think he will squeak in just under the cut line. I think Mahan, on the other hand, has a real chance at contending, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a top-10 out of Hunter.
Number Three: Luke Donald and Lee Westwood
Donald and Westwood make up a fairly logical group and they are, in fact, paired together (along with Rory McIlroy) for the first two rounds. After the torrid pace Donald set last year it's easy to feel a bit letdown by his play this year, but he's had probably the quietest two-win half-season in recent memory. With the reemergence of Tiger, Luke has been unjustly swept under the rug just a bit. He did start off somewhat slow with three poor showings early on, but his tie for sixth at the WGC-Cadillac got him going. Donald won just a week later at the Transitions Championship, beating Sang-moon Bae, Jim Furyk, and Robert Garrigus in a playoff with a birdie on the first extra hole.
After a disappointing finish at The Masters, Donald has come on strong with a win at the BMW PGA Championship, the Euro Tour's most prestigious event, just a few weeks ago. Though Donald's season has not been as consistent as last year's he is currently seventh in the Race to Dubai and 13th in FedExCup point, not to shabby.
Lee Westwood has had a similarly quiet start to his season. Winless on the year until just last week (after having one win on the Euro Tour last year, the Ballantine's Championship), Westwood has amassed a pretty solid record of top-10 performances. He followed up a second-place finish in Dubai with fourths at the Match Play and The Honda Classic. He gave his annual too-little-too-late Sunday charge at The Masters, and also contended at the Wells Fargo. Even with his win at the Nordea Masters Lee's game hasn't looked perfect, but he's still the third-ranked player in the world, and always a threat at the U.S. Open (where he has two third-place finishes in the last four years).
Though Lee has played well in U.S. Opens, Donald has only finished better than T45 twice, and he has never recorded a top 10 finish. I'm taking Lee for a backdoor top-10 and Donald for a finish in the top 30.
Number Two: Rory McIlroy and Ricky Fowler
Rory McIlroy heads to Olympic as the defending champ at a major for the first time in his career after a win last year at Congressional. McIlroy's short record in U.S. Opens is pretty good, albeit inconsistent: T10, cut, win. McIlroy's 2012 has been equally as up-and-down. After strong play early on in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, McIlroy continued that, sandwiching solid finishes at the WGC events around his win at The Honda Classic. He tied for 40th at The Masters, but came back strong at the Wells Fargo, losing late to Rickie Fowler.
Since then McIlroy had missed three straights cuts (including one on the Euro Tour) prior to his T7 at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, and his game has looked flat. He's obviously capable of winning any time he walks onto the course, but he's seemed visibly off as of late, and with all of the good play this year on Tour he might be hard pressed to repeat (an already tough proposition).
Rickie Fowler, on the other hand, comes in having played well in all but one round over his last five tournaments. Since being cut from the RBC Heritage, Fowler recorded a T10 at the Zurich Classic, he won the Wells Fargo, tied for second at The Players, tied for fifth at Colonial, and was in third place through three rounds at the Memorial before a Sunday meltdown knocked him back. Fowler has played in the U.S. Open three times, with a T60 and two missed cuts.
In the U.S. Open I like Rory in the top 20 and Fowler in the top 10.
Number One: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson
Tiger Woods comes into the U.S. Open the same way he went into The Masters: after a win. Before The Masters he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, and this time he goes in after winning the Memorial Tournament, but the way he got there was different. Tiger limped to Bay Hill, having only started hitting golf balls a week prior after an ankle injury forced him to withdraw at Doral.
After Jason Dufner jumped out to a lead on Thursday at Bay Hill, he fell back as Tiger and Charlie Wi grabbed the 36-hole lead. Tiger took the lead away on Saturday, and cruised to a five-stroke victory. To say he was unchallenged would be inaccurate, but it was a relatively comfortable cushion that Tiger was able to use as an excuse to play conservatively.
That wasn't the case at Murfield though. He was close after the first three rounds, but he needed to make up strokes early on Sunday. Playing with a fast-fading (but still extremely orange) Rickie Fowler, Tiger made five birdies on the front nine. After two bogeys near the turn, Woods' birdies on three of the last four holes gave him the win over Spencer Levin (who would have been exempt into the U.S. Open with a third-place finish), Andres Romero, and Rory Sabbatini. While we've seen Tiger falter on Sundays of late, he was having none of that at Murfield, and that bodes well for the U.S. Open. Tiger's U.S. Open record, including his three wins, speaks for itself.
Phil, on the other hand, comes into the U.S. Open on a bit of a low note. After very strong early-season play (win at Pebble Beach, second at the Northern Trust Open, T4 at the Shell Houston, ad T3 at The Masters), Phil has cooled off some of late. Not a lot, mind you, he did still tie for seventh at the Byron Nelson, but his game hasn't looked as crisp as it did early on. Add into that a first-round 79 and a W/D from the Memorial, and Phil might not be on the top of his game at Olympic. That said, his U.S. Open is incredible for someone who has never won one, and you have to think that the fact that this one is in California has to add a small bit of extra incentive.
Like Donald and Westwood, Phil and Tiger have actually been grouped together by the USGA (along with Bubba). For the pairing, I'll take Tiger as my winner (at -3, as I picked in our Staff Predictions), and Phil with an unspectacular finish in the top 15 (just like in 1998, when his finished at T11).
Closing and Your Thoughts?
To reiterate, my picks are as follows: Tiger Woods as the winner, Fowler, Mahan, and Westwood in the top 10, Phil in the top 15, Rory and Kuchar in the top 20, Donald in the top 30, Bubba in the top 40, and Dufner in just under the cut line.
Who are your picks to contend?