PGA Tour Confidential: Looking ahead to the 2011 U.S. Open

PGA Tour Confidential: Looking ahead to the 2011 U.S. Open

Like other Americans, Bubba Watson seems reluctant or or unable to seize the mantle.
Fred Vuich/SI

SI once again convened a panel of golf
experts — senior writers Michael Bamberger,
Damon Hack, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle
as well as special contributor John Garrity —
and a PGA Tour pro (who participated
on the condition of anonymity) to address
these and other questions


Van Sickle: We’ve been talking up the Europeans all year. How about the Americans for a change? Can a Team USA guy win the Open this year and break the string of four straight foreign-born major winners?

Bamberger: I’ve got the most likely American to win — Luke Donald of Chicago.

Van Sickle: He did go to Northwestern.

Garrity: The answer is yes, an American can win. Anybody can win. It’s the Open. It’s the event that has no regard for your form or reputation. Just look at the last few winners. It’s as random as being hit by lightning. You have Tiger and a guy we hardly know from New Zealand, players from Australia and Argentina and Northern Ireland, and Jim Furyk and Lucas Glover. None of those guys went in as the favorite.

Shipnuck: Phil Mickelson is the most likely American. He could’ve won six Opens by now. But he’s still on zero.

Bamberger: I’m more inclined to go with someone who drives the ball high and super straight. Who is today’s Lee Janzen-slash-Scott Simpson?

Van Sickle: That’d be Nick Watney.

Hack: The most telling thing for me was Bubba Watson saying recently that he had no interest in being the face of American golf, that he didn’t want the Tour banking on him as its poster child. There are questions about these young guys — Dustin Johnson not knowing the rules, Rickie Fowler trying to break through, and Anthony Kim, who is talented like crazy. Do any of them want it enough?

Van Sickle: It’s reminiscent of Fred Couples and Nick Price in the early ’90s. When they got to Number 1 they immediately wanted out of the spotlight.

Shipnuck: The truth is, American golf hasn’t been that great. Look at the Ryder Cup. We had Tiger and Phil and Furyk for about 15 years. They were American golf. You got past those three guys, who else was there? That got exposed in the Ryder Cup. The problem isn’t American golf, it’s that those three guys have pretty much run out of gas. Their time is almost up.

Bamberger: We’re lucky to live in an affluent country with a lot of great country clubs, but the country club system doesn’t produce world-beaters. It produced Curtis Strange and Jack Nicklaus, but it didn’t produce Ben Hogan or Sam Snead or Byron Nelson or Tiger Woods. It’s not how K.J. Choi or Luke Donald grew up.

Anonymous Pro: Right now the Americans who are playing well aren’t the type of guys who win U.S. Opens, other than maybe David Toms. Bubba doesn’t win Opens. I don’t know if he can drive it straight enough. Really, no American is playing well enough to be a clear favorite, not even Phil. It’ll be a surprise if any American wins this Open.

The Big O

Van Sickle: President Obama reportedly has played about 60 rounds of golf since taking office. Is it a good thing that our President has a golf jones?

Shipnuck: We should celebrate Obama getting a mental break on the links once in a while. I don’t know why golf has such a bad connotation, but I’m glad he gets to turn his brain off for a few hours.

Garrity: Obviously, the vapid partisans go into attack mode for any nonessential presidential activity. I blame George W. Bush for saying he wouldn’t play golf while American soldiers were in harm’s way, as if golf were some sort of unpatriotic activity. I guess he forgot that the Pentagon operates about 200 golf courses around the world.

Hack: If you’re left-leaning, you probably had a problem with Bush playing golf. If you’re right-leaning, you probably have a problem with Obama playing golf.

Anonymous Pro: Presidents are allowed to have lives, right? If playing golf is a president’s hobby, that’s his hobby. There are a lot worse hobbies for a president, if you know what I mean.

Garrity: It’s a positive if a president is not that good a player. That shows a certain humility that a lot of independent voters might find attractive in a guy who is willing to go out and potentially look bad.

Shipnuck: Obama is playing mostly at Air Force base courses. He’s in shorts and bad saddle shoes and really is the kind of player you see at your local muni. It makes him seem like a regular guy.

Van Sickle: I’m glad the President plays golf. He should suffer like the rest of us.


Van Sickle: What do you gentlemen remember about Congressional and the 1997 U.S. Open?

Garrity: I covered that Open and the three AT&T Nationals at Congressional hosted by Tiger — and I still don’t remember the holes.

Hack: It’s a tough spot on the Open calendar — in between Pebble Beach last year and Olympic Club in 2012. Congressional is kind of nondescript. I covered K.J. Choi’s win at the AT&T, and I remember the old 17th hole. That was the only hole that really stuck out.

Van Sickle: It’s like Pinehurst No. 2 in that all the holes blend together because it’s one long par-4 through the trees after another. The old 17th hole in ’97 is the new 18th, and Rees Jones told me a back tee has been added by the fence to make it a 520-yard downhill par-4 to a green dangerously ringed by water.

Shipnuck: That’s really a great hole. It decided the last Open. Tom Lehman went in the water, Colin Montgomerie bailed out, and Ernie hit a shot at the stick. It’ll be a fantastic finishing hole. The rest of the course will be the usual long, hard slog like any Open.

Anonymous Pro: The 18th at 520 will play more like 470 because it’s 50 feet downhill. It’s an awkward shot with a long iron because that green is small and quirky, with a couple of fingers on the left side. Let’s hope it plays firm and fast so we can hit six-irons in. Just because you made a hole longer, by the way, doesn’t mean you made it better.

Bamberger: It doesn’t matter. This is a ­classic U.S Open course with greens like table­tops, brutal rough, and usually hot and humid conditions. I’ve caddied there and walked it a bunch, and I can’t tell you a thing about it either. It’s a real challenge.

Van Sickle: I don’t hear anyone putting Congressional on their list of favorite courses like Oakmont or Pebble Beach or even Shinnecock Hills.

Shipnuck: Some courses have great romance and mystique. This is not one of them.

Anonymous Pro: It’s a good course. But it’s not one of our top Open venues. There are easily 10 better courses than Congressional to hold the U.S. Open.

Bamberger: It is very cool to have the U.S. Open near Washington, D.C.

Shipnuck: The clubhouse is massive, there are old trees. It does feel as if it’s been there a million years. There’s a grandeur about it.

Bamberger: It’s American affluence on display. Unlike Pittsburgh, where people made steel, or Philadelphia, where people made books and beer and cigars, in Washington it’s a bunch of lobbyists.

Paper Tiger

Van Sickle: Tiger Woods came to media day for his own tournament on crutches. What does this mean for the Open?

Shipnuck: He’ll be lucky to finish 18 holes.

Hack: Tiger is not going to walk off Congressional. He’ll go down swinging.

Shipnuck: We’ve been talking about it all year. We don’t know where his body, his swing or his putting stroke are. In hindsight, it’s remarkable that he contended at the Masters, and he probably should have won. The Open is more of a struggle. It’s impossible to imagine him playing well for four rounds. The x-factor is, he’s still Tiger.

Anonymous Pro: Nobody can forget what he did at Torrey Pines in 2008. I wonder about the Players though. If he had shot 38 on the front could he have popped a couple of Advil and finished the round? Or is it easier to say I’m hurt when you’re making a triple bogey and shooting 42? He sat out all that time after the Masters, hit balls for three days before the Players and then hurt himself on the very first tee ball? That’s a little suspect, but nobody questions that he is hurt.

Garrity: I don’t think he quit at the Players because he was hurt. We’ve seen him win majors with worse injuries. I think he quit because he was ashamed of his game.

Shipnuck: That’s strong.

Garrity: Tiger’s high opinion of himself and his contempt for mediocrity are no longer assets. It hits too close to home. If he can’t be what he was, he’d rather hide.

Hack: This looks more like the Winged Foot Open than the Torrey Pines Open — Tiger comes in rusty and misses the cut.

Bamberger: If he would take this injury as a lesson to make a less violent swing and go back to a swing he experimented with ­briefly — he called it his little old lady swing — he could take something off the clubhead speed and body torque and drive it in the fairway. He could play the Open. But he won’t do that. So I’ll be surprised if he plays 72 holes and shocked if he contends. I don’t see any sign that he has recovered mentally from what he’s been through.

Shipnuck: He could start a recovery by ­winning majors. Look at Michael Vick — he’s a big sports hero. By winning there is a path to recovery in the public’s eyes.

Hack: Alan is right; winning changes every­thing. Once he wins, it’ll be, He’s only three shy of Jack now! It’ll change overnight.

Bamberger: Except he was four short putts away from winning the Masters, and he didn’t make them. Those putts were virtually automatic for the old Tiger Woods.

Hack: I was as shocked by the 31 that he shot on the front nine at the Masters as I was by the missed putts. I don’t know that he’ll ever get that putting prowess back.

Anonymous Pro: It’s a Catch-22. Tiger says he has to heal so he can play, but when he plays he says he needs more reps. Being hurt excuses bad golf, but right now he’s a dog chasing his tail. I’m still not convinced he’ll play at Congressional.

Monday, Monday

Van Sickle: What do you prefer, an 18-hole playoff on Monday or sudden death on Sunday?

Garrity: I’m for Sunday-night finishes, the Woods-versus-Mediate­ playoff notwithstanding. Sudden death is like a coin toss, so I’m for a three- or four-hole playoff. There’s an ebb and flow, and you can still get done before dark.

Shipnuck: I’ve changed my mind on this topic. I kind of like the Monday 18-hole playoff. It’s so contrarian. It’s fun to make people wait. It’s not a 40-minute game, it’s four days. Once a year for the most important championship, it’s kind of cool.

Van Sickle: May I remind you of Retief Goosen versus Mark Brooks at Southern Hills?

Shipnuck: The actual playoffs aren’t always so much fun. It’s the idea that I like.

Anonymous Pro: I’d definitely rather see a three-holer. There’s nothing less exciting than an 18-hole Open playoff on Monday. I know there’s history and tradition and all those other USGA catchphrases, but almost every Monday finish is anticlimactic.

Shipnuck: Sudden death can feel like a letdown too. Think about that [2009] Masters playoff with Kenny Perry, Chad Campbell and Angel Cabrera. You’re not guaranteed great golf or great drama either way.

Anonymous Pro: Even though the Players has a one-hole playoff at the island-green 17th and it’s a playoff that can be decided by an unlucky gust of wind, it’s still more exciting than watching a full 18 on Monday.

Van Sickle: Right, it’s easy to think about a memorable playoff like Rocco versus Tiger or Hale Irwin versus Mike Donald and forget some of the clunkers.

Hack: It doesn’t matter what we think. The Tiger-Rocco playoff ensured another 100 years of 18-hole playoffs.

Dream a Little Dream

Van Sickle: What would make the best story at this Open?

Garrity: Mickelson, of course. He birdies the 72nd hole with an impossible shot that he wraps around the trees. Basically, he hits the shot he couldn’t hit — and probably shouldn’t have tried — at Winged Foot [in 2006] when it all blew up for him. And Phil wins by a stroke.

Anonymous Pro: I like that. Tiger completes 72 holes but Phil finally gets his Open, and to add insult to injury he plays with Westwood in the final group on Sunday. After criticizing how Poulter hits it, Westwood doesn’t make a single putt that matters on Sunday. And Phil hits the hero shot through the trees, like John suggested.

Garrity: It would take Phil’s name out of the conversation with Sam Snead as the best player never to win the Open. That would be a nice ending to Phil’s saga.

Shipnuck: It’s so obvious, it’s embarrassing. How about Phil and Tiger in a playoff. I wouldn’t even care who wins.

Van Sickle: Who’s a better story as the playoff winner? Phil?

Shipnuck: It has to be Tiger. Every time he wins, it’s big news, and this U.S. Open is in our ­nation’s capital. That’s as big as tournament golf gets.

Hack: I’m going to suggest this year’s Hall of Fame inductee. . . .

Shipnuck: Doug Ford?

Hack: No, Ernie Els. It would be cool to see Ernie, 14 years later, fighting his putter and leading the battle against autism, come full circle with a bookend win at Congressional.

Shipnuck: Ford would be better. Seriously, there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house if Ernie won and his son, Ben, ran out on the final green.

Van Sickle: I’m thinking of a sentimental guy in his late 40s, maybe a current Ryder Cup captain, who chips in to win on the 72nd hole, then turns and points out some guy in the crowd who had loudly bet his buddy that the pro couldn’t get this up and down. This old-school traditionalist finally gets his Open, and there are tears all around.

Bamberger: Don’t forget the rainbow. If Davis Love III wins another major there has to be a rainbow.

And the? Winner Is . . .

Shipnuck: It’s a weird time in golf. I can’t find 10 guys playing great right now, so I’ll take the default position and go with Luke Donald. He can get it up and down from anywhere. If he hits fairways, he’ll be formidable. My dark-horse pick is Y.E. Yang. He has played well in spots this year and already won a major.

Anonymous Pro: I like Donald, too, for the reasons I mentioned earlier. I’ve picked him before, and I’m sticking with him. I hope he straightens out his driving, which used to be one of his strengths. Nick Watney probably doesn’t qualify as a dark-horse pick, but I’ll take him. He can iron the daylights out of it, and maybe he won’t have a final-round meltdown like at Whistling Straits.

Hack: Lee Westwood hits the ball on a string. He’s over his heel injury, and he won in Asia. I think he’s finally going to get his major. My dark-horse is Anthony Kim. He hasn’t played well, but he can get hot. Plus he has good vibes at Congressional from his win at the AT&T in 2008.

Van Sickle: It’s funny how no one is talking about defending champ Graeme McDowell. I like his game, and he seems to have come out of his funk. Dustin Johnson may not be a legit dark horse, but now that he has a real pro on the bag, Joe LaCava, DJ may go on a serious tear.

Bamberger: I like K.J. Choi. He’s a classic Open player, he has great distance control with his irons and drives it in play. He’s not flashy, almost a modern-day Curtis Strange.

Garrity: Robert Karlsson is 41, and a lot of people think he has exceeded his shelf life. But he’s finished no worse than 27th in the last four majors. He’s still ranked 23rd in the world, and did you know that he leads the Tour in approach shots from 150 to 175 yards? That’s a telling stat if you want to win a major. So Karlsson is my pick again.? My dark horse is Tiger. You can’t rule him out of a major as long as he’s semi-ambulatory.

Anonymous Pro: What if Tiger withdraws and doesn’t play?

Garrity: Well, that would significantly decrease his chances, in my opinion.

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