With U.S. Open approaching, many top players are off their games

Tiger Woods
Scott Halleran / Getty Images
Tiger Woods has been dominant for most of the year, but he finished 65th at the Memorial.

Where have all the big names gone? Is it just me or does or have many of golf’s top stars gone MIA as Merion and the United States Open step into the on-deck circle?
 
Tiger Woods has opened a whopping lead in the World Ranking and its obscure points system. Winning four times will do that, apparently, especially when nobody else is doing Jack Squat. (With apologies to the rest of Mr. Squat’s family.) Let’s take a quick look at what the world’s top 10 players and a few other notables have been up to:
 
Tiger Woods (1) You’re allowed to have a blip every so often. Tiger and his third-round 79 in gusty wind at the Memorial was a blip. Wait a sec, the phone’s ringing. Hey, if that’s Met Life, tell them I said blip, not blimp. Anyway, Tiger’s recent run of finishes looks like this: 1st, 1st, 4th (Masters), 1st, 65th. Even with that garish 65th in there, I detect a trend. No reason to be worried about Tiger. He’s the best shotmaker (by a mile) heading to a course where shotmaking will be at a premium. Thumbs up.
 
Rory McIlroy (2) The Boy Wonder’s list of woes include a 79 at the Masters, a 78 at the Memorial, a 45th-place finish Houston and two other finishes outside the top 30. Yes, he squeezed a back-door second out in San Antonio with a closing 66, but at Wells Fargo, when he was in contention at a course where he’s won, he shot 73-73 on the weekend. He and Tiger didn’t rank among the top 70 in putting stats last week (out of 73 players). The former No. 1 is changing his management team again and hasn’t won anything of note since last August. Two thumbs down.
 
Adam Scott (3) There’s nothing bad to say about Scottie. He’s striking the ball well enough that he’s always hanging around the lead. He’s 50th in strokes gained putting but 180th in total driving on account of his fondness for the left rough. His only win since Firestone in 2011 was a good one, the Masters. So he’s made a mark. Two thumbs up.
 
Matt Kuchar (4) The Mr. Consistent tag may not stick if he plays the way he did at Memorial. It was an impressive win. Every part of his game is solid. He’s your new No. 2 Merion favorite behind you know who. Two thumbs up.
 
Justin Rose  (5) The lanky youngster who holed out on the 72nd hole at the British Open was a great putter and a shaky ballstriker. At 32, he’s turned that around. His ballstriking skills are among the best. He leads the tour in total driving (accuracy and length), and is eighth in greens hit. Ah, but his putting is streaky and I don’t mean that in a great way. He doesn’t look as confident as he once was and he ranks 156th in strokes gained putting. That’s why his last victory was 15 months ago. But with a runner-up, a fourth and a pair of eighths at least he’s consistent. One thumb up.
 
Brandt Snedeker (6) He was the hottest golfer on the planet earlier this year, with two seconds followed by a win. Then he hurt his ribs and now he’s trying to regain that form. Sneds is considered the game’s best putter but couldn’t buy a putt in his final-round 75 at the Masters (tied sixth). He coughed up an 80 and missed the cut at the Memorial. But he ranks sixth in proximity to the pin on approaches from 50-125 yards—a potentially common shot at Merion—and a good putter is dangerous anytime. But (again) he’s got to find the rest of his game. Two thumbs sideways.
 
Luke Donald (7) He’s been Cold Hand Luke for a while now, not counting that tie for third at Harbour Town and a tie for fourth at Innisbrook. If there was ever a major championship in his wheelhouse, Merion is it. His wedge-game savvy should help him greatly. The problem is, those two good finishes were all he has inside the top 15 this year. His reign at No. 1 seems like a long time ago, and so does his last win at Innisbrook in early 2012. He’s seventh in putting, as expected, but he’s 159th in greens hit. Luke is better than this. One thumb down.
 
Graeme McDowell (8) He’s got three top-five finishes, including a win at the Heritage, but he hasn’t played in the U.S. since missing the cut at The Players. He did get a win in Bulgaria, beating Thongchai Jaidee in a match-play final. What the hell, let’s count it and give him two wins and two thumbs up.
 
Louis Oosthuizen (9) He’s pretty quiet at No. 9 in the rankings. He withdrew from the Byron Nelson with a stiff neck, skipped Colonial and probably isn’t going to play at Merion because his wife is expecting a baby any day now. Two thumbs up for a new dad.
 
Phil Mickelson (10) Lefty is unpredictable except for the fact that he plays great in U.S. Opens. He blitzed the field in Phoenix, tied for third at Doral and kicked away a title at Wells Fargo, shooting 73-73 on the weekend to finish third. His last appearance was at TPC Sawgrass, where he missed the cut. Two surprising stats on Phil: He’s eighth in strokes gained putting—gee, doesn’t it seem like he’s missed a bunch of short ones?—and he’s a mere 66th in driving distance. That’s got to be due to backing off the driver a bit and hitting smarter clubs. One thumb up.
 
Lee Westwood (11) He withdrew from the Memorial with a bad back…nine. Sources tell me Westwood was seen conferring with Sean Foley, world famous instructor. Was it just chitchat or is he looking for something? He had finishes of eighth, fourth and eighth before the Memorial. One thumb up.
 
Steve Stricker (12) Even though he’s the best 46-year-old retiree in golf, he’s still a savage. Since his runner-up finish at Doral, Stricker has finished 38th, 20th and 37th. The Players still marks the last time he’s been seen outside a duck blind. Nobody is more well-rested than Stricker, and Merion should play to his strengths, his wedge and his putter. One thumb up.
 
Bubba Watson (17) Merion’s funkiness may just play into Bubba’s love of funkiness. The man can work the ball, so he should love the course, plus he’ll have several opportunities to drive a few par-4 greens if he so desires. Still, he doesn’t have a top-10 this year in a full-field, stroke-play event. His short game may need work—he ranks 158th in scrambling. One thumb down.
 
Webb Simpson (18) The defending U.S. Open champ is familiar with Merion, having played a U.S. Amateur there. That gives him a big edge. He hasn’t won since last year’s Open but was runner-up at Harbour Town. He’s in the midst of a good but not great year. Two thumbs sideways.
 
Meanwhile, this just in from the Van Cynical Mailbag:
 
Is “Golf’s Longest Day” becoming like Selection Sunday for NCAA basketball or am I just hopelessly addicted to Golf Channel?—PuttandPintClub via Twitter
The short answer is yes, you’re hopeless. Addicted, I mean. Seriously, GC has done a nice marketing job on the qualifiers, a day that largely went unnoticed. On the one hand it seems like ridiculous overkill. The winners don’t win anything, just a chance to play in the Open. On the other hand, the urgency of the day has a palpable buzz. If nothing else, GC’s all-day show gets everyone excited about the U.S. Open. After watching it, aren’t you fired up for Merion now? Pass the wicker, please. Let’s get this Open started. Kudos to GC.
 
How does the USGA level the playing field in sectional qualifiers? Why eight from one venue and only two from another?—John L. Kennedy via Twitter
The USGA factors in the number of players in the sectional and the strength of field. The qualifiers in Columbus, Memphis and Rockville are typically top-heavy with PGA Tour players in large numbers, so they get more spots. It’s an inexact science, for sure, if that’s what you’re getting at, Mr. President.
 
What top-10 player is most likely to miss the cut at Merion?—Howard Riefs via Twitter
I hope Rory McIlroy makes the cut. He’s fun to watch. But he’s got too many off-course distractions, and on the course his putting stroke is AWOL. He’s got to be feeling the pressure on the whole club-switch deal, too. I wouldn’t bet 10 cents on it but I’ll say Rory.
 
How impressive is Kuchar’s season considering he drives it so poorly?—IndyJerome via Twitter
It’s funny you mention that after Matt striped it around Muirfield Village all weekend and won impressively. But you’re right, he’s not in the top 100 in distance and he’s a disturbing 134th in accuracy. Yet he’s fifth in scoring average. I love guys like Kuchar who just know how to get the ball in the hole. He can flat-out putt with his unique grip. Also, he’s 20th in proximity to the hole after approach shots, including the ones in the rough. Would you want to play Kuchar in match play? I think not.
 
If a belly putter wins this week, how will the PGA Tour handle not having said anything yet on what they’ll do?—Jeffrey Bowles via Twitter
The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, J.B., especially when lawyers are involved. The Tour has to figure out what is in the best interests of its membership, and, is this going to cost us money? Also, who wins the Open won’t really affect the PGA Tour—it’ll affect the USGA, though, if he’s wielding a belly putter or a long putter. We can only hope.
 
Yo, yo, Van Cynical: Woods had a heck of a weekend in Jack's tournament ... if he played for the Columbus Clippers. Eleven singles, two doubles and three triples. Good gap-hitters, but lacking major power. Cough.—J.J. Meeker via email
As one spectator humorously pointed out while Tiger and Jim Furyk walked off one tee, “Hey, tomorrow you’ll wake up and you’ll still be Tiger Woods.” It made Furyk laugh out loud. Golf is a humbling game. No one escapes that fact. But I would like to see Tiger take some BP with the Clippers. Let’s see him hit a moving ball.

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