PGA Tour Confidential: Our U.S. Open predictions
Every Sunday night, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group conducts an e-mail roundtable. This week we are joined by Shane O'Donoghue, host of CNN's "Living Golf." O'Donoghue will also be a contributor to Golf.com's U.S. Open coverage this week. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.
1. What are you most looking forward to this week at Merion?
Shane O'Donoghue, Host, CNN's "Living Golf": First and foremost, I am looking forward to having a front row seat! What privilege that is and I don't take it lightly. I've been intrigued by the U.S. Open since 1982. My parents attended that one and brought back a program, which intrigued an 11-year-old boy no end. Tales of the defending champion David Graham and his peerless performance on the final day at Merion. They teed up the battle between Nicklaus and Watson and identified a young Bobby Clampett, who would go on to lead the Open at Muirfield a few weeks later. Merion fascinates me, Hogan is my golfing hero and in our latest Living Golf show on CNN International, I visited the course a few weeks back, traced the history of the place, hit Hogan one-irons on 18 and interviewed both Graham and Trevino. Dreams can come true! My hope is that we get a worthy winner, one fit to stand alongside the great who have triumphed there.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It's going to be a fascinating test, a kind of retro-Open. The tension between this old course and the modern game should turn this is into the ultimate thinking-man's Open.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: The place is dripping with history so the course standing up to 21st century technology and players is the biggest focus, not including all things Tiger. Is virtual par going to be 68 or is Merion going to remain a classic Open test? The world waits to see. Also, I can't wait to see the gallery try to follow Tiger, Rory and Adam Scott around the narrow spectator walkways at Merion. Furthermore, I can't wait to see if the Philly golf fans are more sophisticated than the Philly baseball fans who booed Mike Schmidt all the way into the Hall of Fame. "Now on the tee..." Boo-ooooooo!
Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Interested to see how the course holds up. That and a few good cheesesteaks.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Seeing how the golf course gets played. Every hole offers so many options. It's such a thinking-man's course.
Eamon Lynch, managing editor, Golf.com I'm most interested in seeing how one of America's greatest courses stacks up against the modern professional game. Even if the pros devour it, that's no rap on the venue. Merion was a great course when the Open was last there in 1981, and it will be a great course when this Open passes. It is some of the finest golf course architecture this side of St. Andrews, and a welcome oasis in the architectural desert we trudge through most weeks following the game.
Jeff Ritter, senior producer, Golf.com: Can't wait to walk the course. I've heard about it. I've read about it. I'm excited to finally see it.
Joe Passov, senior editor, travel, Golf Magazine: I'm most excited about seeing how the ol' girl will hold up, and to watching how Tiger, Rory and Phil will fare amid the powerful ghosts and lore radiating from Jones, Hogan, Trevino and Nicklaus.
2. Recent rains and threat of more rain appear to make Merion more vulnerable to low scoring. Does that help -- or hurt -- the favorites coming in?
Bamberger: If the course plays soft -- and I don't think it's going to play THAT soft -- it brings in many more players. The faster it is, the more skill it takes.
Van Sickle: The rain softening the course was the difference in 1971 for Lee Trevino, a low-trajectory guy, against Jack Nicklaus, a high-trajectory guy. The high-ball hitters, generally the power players, just lost whatever edge they had in stopping the ball on firm greens. This is going to be a short-iron and putting contest now. It probably was, anyway.
Lynch: Many majors venues play longer and harder when wet -- Augusta National, for example. But wet conditions won't stiffen Merion's defenses. Quite the opposite. Soft fairways mean the ball won't run through into the thick rough as often, and it's not as though these guys are going to be hitting many drivers off the tee to begin with. Soft conditions widen the pool of contenders but I don't think it hurts the pre-tournament favorites. The favorites are the favorites because of more than just scoring potential. It's their patience and nerve under pressure that makes counts, and those demands haven't changed.
Gorant: I think the favorites have generally been the ball-control guys and soft conditions shouldn't hurt them. Long hitters may benefit from getting less roll out, anyone off target is gonna struggle in what will be wet, heavy rough.
Shipnuck: Hurts in a big way. If Merion is really crispy only a handful of guys have the will, patience, course management and talent-shots to tame it. But soft conditions allow for a more mindless kind of golf and brings tons of guys into the picture.
Ritter: Doubt the rain has much of an effect on the favorites. This Open was already wide open because the course isn't long enough to eliminate part of the field, as so often happens at other majors. The player with the best combination of ball-striking and putting is going to win this week.
Passov: I keep hearing that soft conditions bring more players into possible contention, but typical (pre-Mike Davis) U.S. Open setups, wet or dry, always seemed to yield a bunch of unexpected contenders. Merion resembles an old-fashioned setup, with no graduated rough, brutal primary rough and small, hard-to-hit greens. I think the favorites will be fine -- even helped. It will aid the nerves to know that a poor shot won't be penalized quite so badly as when it's firm -- and allow favorites to recover more aggressively when the time comes.
O'Donoghue: Luckily, the rain came ahead of the U.S. Open and the weather looks set to be perfect for the championship. I expect it to be a classic Open test, with rough about 4 inches long and undulating greens stimping at 13. There will be carnage out there, but the great players will be set for the challenge. It's a course for strategists. The best in the world are here. I can't wait to see them tested.
3. Will someone shoot 62 (or lower) this week?
O'Donoghue: I wouldn't be surprised, but don't expect it. The last five holes will sort out anyone on a birdie rampage. I bet Mike Davis can't wait to sort out the wheat from the chaff, which is as it should be. That's what the US Open is all about. Going out on a limb, I fully expect one of the amateurs to really surprise us this week. They are all in form, particularly the three Cal boys and watch out for Ireland's top amateur Kevin Phelan, who medalled at Bradenton last week.
Van Sickle: I think 62 is in play because of the soft conditions. The hard part is, there are only two par 5s and one of them isn't eagle material. So to get to 62, you're going to need eight birdies and no bogeys. Merion's greens are not flat. That's a lot of putts to make. But I think one player on a hot streak can do it.
Passov: No. I can see somebody making eight, or even 10 birdies when conditions are soft, but the impossible rough and dinner plate-shaped greens (thank you, Lee Trevino) will bring double bogey into play with every missed shot. Nine birdies, two bogies (maybe 9 and one double) will mean 63. Then again, somehow, somebody named Lee Mackey shot a 64 in 1950, when the winning score wound up being 287, 7-over-par, so I can't say that 62 is so far-fetched.
Shipnuck: No. The wet rough will be fearsome, the greens are tiny and the bunkers very penal. I can see 65s or maybe 64 or even a 63 early in the week but even a rain-softened Merion has enough defenses to fend off a 62.
Ritter: It's possible, but I'll guess that 65 is the low round of the week.
Bamberger: I think it will happen, Thursday or Friday. A 62. And that person will not win. If you are a betting person, please note: EVERY time I make a bold statement like that, it's wrong.
4. What will the winning score be at Merion?
a. Even par or higher
b. one under to five under par
c. six under to nine under par
d. 10 under or better
O'Donoghue: It will be under par, but not that much, therefore B is a reasonable shout. These guys are good!
Bamberger: I think 10 under will win by one or two. You shoot 10 under, you have really golfed your ball.
Ritter: I'll say six to nine under wins it. While many of the par 4s are short enough to be played with a long iron off the tee followed by a flip wedge, three of the par 3s are crazy long and most of the fairways have been pinched. Scores will be lower than a typical U.S. Open, but I don't expect this to turn into the John Deere Classic.
Shipnuck: A lot depends on the weather, obviously. If the forecast holds the course will get firmer and more fiery as the week goes on. I could see -8 or -9 leading going into the weekend but -5 or -6 winning it.
Gorant: More than 10 under, but not by much, because I think there enough birdie holes out there (especially if the greens are softish) to play it at two or three under a day.
Van Sickle: The winning score will be 10 under or better. Not much better. Twelve, maybe. More like 10. Of course, if it gets windy, Merion will be an absolute nightmare with that rough.
Passov: Six under to nine under par. Scores should be low in the softer opening rounds, but forecast looks dry with a bit of breeze for the weekend. That, and the usual U.S. Open pressure should inflate the scores on Saturday and Sunday. I like 8-under 272.
Lynch: I'm calling 12-under. Even the medium-length hitters will probably hit wedge into almost half the holes, and these guys can do a lot of damage with that club, no matter how tucked the pins are. But note the yardage of the four par 3s: 256, 236, 115, 246. This might be the first Open venue at which the USGA is defending par on the curious beachhead of par 3s.
5. Pick your winner and your dark horse.
O'Donoghue: It's Tiger's to lose, but I'm going for Mickelson, who, after five runner-up spots, knows better than anyone the agony of defeat. A Father's Day victory would be the perfect birthday present for "Philly" Mick. My dark horse is Thorbjorn Olesen. He's Europe's next big star and showed at last year's Open at Lytham and in his Masters debut that he is fearless when it comes to the Majors. 90/1 with Irish bookmakers, I'm having some of that!
Van Sickle: I like Webb Simpson to defend his Open title because he's got as much experience at Merion as anyone in the field--a U.S. Am and a Walker Cup. He also wields a belly putter, which fulfills my dream of 12 straight anchored putters winning majors before the ban goes into effect. Dark horse is Tim Clark, who usually leads the Tour in proximity to the pin because he's a torrid iron player. My super-dark horse is amateur Gavin Hall. My sources at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., have been telling me about this kid for a year now. He's the real deal and, let's face it, just about anywhere he goes from Oak HIll is going to be easier. Hall could be the Jim Simons of this Merion Open.
Shipnuck: Winner: Tiger Woods. Golf's ultimate tactician will win this chess match. It's time. Dark horse: Tim Clark. One of golf's straightest hitters and he'd love to give the USGA the ultimate F-you.
Lynch: Graeme McDowell. He ranks No. 1 in driving accuracy on Tour and sports solid numbers putting from 10-20 feet, which can often decide an Open. He also plays difficult courses well and plays the Open well (obviously) with his last three finishes being 1st-T14-T2. My dark horse is Nicolas Colsaerts for one reason alone: he ranks first on tour in approaches from over 200 yards (see: par 3s, long).
Passov: His Memorial hiccup notwithstanding, I'm going with Tiger Woods. Merion winners have been masters of precision, either that week or in general and these days, when Tiger gets to play "small ball," there's nobody better at managing and executing. Second -- how dark does the horse have to be? Kevin Chappell finally emerged from his 2013 doldrums with a runner-up at Memorial, and he's had two top 10s the past two U.S. Opens; however, I'll pick Francesco Molinari. He's not having much of a 2013 either, but when he's on, he's a fairways and greens machine, and he has good karma from his brother winning the 2005 U.S. Amateur at Merion.
Ritter: Tiger deserves to be the favorite and he's my very unoriginal pick to win. Have we reached a point where anyone other than Tiger, Rory or Phil is a dark horse? Sign me up for Steve Stricker, who has played well this season with his shortened schedule. Maybe this is the week he finally breaks through.
Gorant: Winner: Tiger Woods. Dark Horse: Justin Hicks.
Bamberger: Bubba to win. King Louis dark horse. He's only a dark horse because nobody talks about him. Even though he's the King. With the best swing in golf. And a British Open at St. Andrews. And a sleeve in a green coat. And a frankly-Hogan-I-don't-give-a-damn attitude that serves him well in times of stress.
6. Jack Nicklaus likely established the trend of skipping the event preceding a major, for work, rest and scouting. Tiger obviously agrees, Phil doesn't. It seemed that when Westchester was played the week before the U.S. Open, it was the perfect tune-up. However, Memphis is such a physical grind -- witness all the swamp-ass. Is it a mistake to play it the week before the grueling test of our national championship?
Van Sickle: With a course like Merion, the only mistake to be made was not spending a couple of days there checking it out at some point. If you were looking for your game, playing Memphis was a good idea, just not at the expense of not seeing Merion early.
Shipnuck: I think so -- it'll take these guys a couple of days to rehydrate and recover. Not to mention the dry cleaning bills on all their trousers…
Gorant: If it's not too much for Phil, who will turn 43 on Sunday and is slowed by arthritis, it's not too much. These guys almost all live in warm-weather states and they play tons of golf. Four rounds in Memphis, with a few days to recover, isn't gonna hurt them.
Passov: If it were 95 degrees and 100 percent humidity, as it usually is in Memphis, I would skip the event. Westchester at least offered the same weather, grasses, narrow fairways and small greens as most northeastern/Midwestern U.S. Open venues, which made it a logical tune-up. If the venue -- or weather -- is a likely beat-down, I can't see why you'd tee it up that week, knowing the grueling conditions that undoubtedly await the following week.
Ritter: Hard to say what's best for everyone, but Tiger has three U.S. Open titles while Phil has ... five runner-ups.
Lynch: Only if you play terribly. Playing right before a major is such an individual preference but sometimes what happens the week before materially affects what happens at the Open. Ray Floyd choked away Westchester in 1986 and on the drive to Shinnecock Hills for that year's Open he had a furious argument with his wife Maria, who demanded that he face up to what had gone wrong and how he would handle it differently next time. We know how that turned out.
O'Donoghue: It's horses for courses. Players prepare in different ways. Yes, a lot of them take a leaf out of Jack's book, who took a leaf out of Hogan's when it came to studied analysis of a major venue in the week preceding the championship. Most players play their way into a major.
Bamberger: You can't say. It's such an individual decision. In my fantasy life, if I had a spot in a U.S. Open field, I would hang out and play the course with nobody around the week before. Especially when the Open is at Merion (once every generation or so) or Pebble (more often than that).
7. Inbee Park won the LPGA Championship in a playoff over Catriona Matthew. Now that the LPGA has five majors should at least one have a scheduled 36-hole finale to make it a more distinctive test?
Shipnuck: Absolutely! The point of major championships is to separate the best from the rest. A 36-hole finale pushes players to the breaking point, physically and mentally.
O'Donoghue: Not a bad idea! 36 holes brings the cream to the top in a major. The grind gets to most and a class golfer who has experience and desire usually puts themselves into the mix, as was proven at Wegmans.
Gorant: They should go back to that funky, multi-cut, eight-man Sunday shootout they used to have for their Tour Championship. It was the only good thing to come out of the Carolyn Bivens era.
Lynch: The LPGA -- like the Champions Tour -- should ask fans to name all five majors, then drop the events that are unknown to a majority. Instead of 36 holes of what we see every week, why not opt for a pairs event? Not based on nationality but on buddies, as grand slam doubles is played in tennis.
Passov: No one watches -- except me -- when it's 18 holes, so I don't know why anyone would care any more if it were 36.
Van Sickle: I don't think the public identifies with a 36-hole finale anymore. That went out with Ken Venturi at the 1964 Open. Making one of the LPGA majors a 36-hole windup might get a little more attention but it probably still wouldn't get as much press as their 12-hole rounds in the Bahamas. The biggest attention the LPGA could get globally would be to move one of its U.S.-based majors to Japan or Korea, where women's golf is huge. That would be gigantic. Not here, but it would be gigantic.
Ritter: The LPGA should do whatever it can to add intrigue to its schedule, and a 36-hole final at a major is as good an idea as any. The LPGA was a nice finish on Sunday, and for its final hour it didn't have to compete with the St. Jude for viewers.
Bamberger: The LPGA does not have five majors. It has four: Dinah, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship. Four excellent events. You cannot push a fifth major down our throats.