PGA Tour Confidential: U.S. Open Preview

PGA Tour Confidential: U.S. Open Preview

GRAND PLAN: Mickelson has had plenty of success at Pebble Beach, and the venues for the British and the PGA this year set up nicely for him as well.
Robert Beck/SI

Every week of the 2010 PGA Tour season, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group conducts an e-mail roundtable. Check in on Mondays for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.


Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It’s almost showtime at Pebble Beach, and that apparently means it’s Phil’s time. Mickelson has to be the favorite to win the Open, don’t you think? After the Masters he’s coming to Pebble with some serious swagger.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Phil didn’t simply win the Masters; his was a dominating performance. Only three guys have ever shot lower scores in Masters history. That was tremendous stuff. Phil has a lot of good mojo at Pebble. He’s won there, and it’s close to home, so Amy and the kids will probably come up on the weekend, which will be a big boost for him. It’s one of the best venues for him to win an Open. St. Andrews is probably the best venue for him to win a British. And he finished sixth at Whistling Straits [in 2004], so Phil knows if he can pick this one off at Pebble, anything’s possible this year.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Phil is feeling it now. He’s not afraid of Tiger anymore, that’s for sure. It’s Phil’s world until Tiger says otherwise, and lately Tiger has been muted.

Van Sickle: What about all those painful near misses? Phil has a record five seconds in the Open. Is he carrying too much baggage to ever win this thing?

John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated: How many times have we said he’ll never recover from some final-round collapse only to have him bounce back with a winning performance? If we’ve learned anything about Lefty, it’s that he’s not burdened by past failures. Either that or he’s got a redcap handling his baggage. Of course Phil can win the Open. Unless he’s channeling Sam Snead. He has the short-game skills to deal with the Open’s baffling greens and ankle-deep rough. If you need to hit a wedge three feet in the air with a full swing, Phil’s your guy. I still think he’ll win at least one Open.

Shipnuck: I talked to Phil for 40 minutes for a story for next week’s issue. He’s not discouraged at all. He still feels that he’ll win an Open, and I think he’ll win more than one. He sees those runner-up finishes as proof that he’s going to do it, not as something negative.

Anonymous Pro: Yeah, one of Phil’s great gifts is that he has amnesia. Everybody has written him off numerous times, as John said. Phil’s a little like Tiger: When you challenge him and say he can’t do something, he’ll surprise you and do it. You can’t hide talent like his.

Shipnuck: The setup may favor Phil, too. Mike Davis of the USGA talked about a risk-reward setup. The USGA wants to tempt players into taking on the ocean and these small targets, so this will be some of the shortest rough at a U.S. Open. That puts it right in Phil’s wheelhouse.

Van Sickle: It’s funny how Phil has such a good Open record when his errant driving and the notorious rough make the Open seem like a tournament he shouldn’t do well in.

Anonymous Pro: He makes up for his wild driving with his iron game and his short game. Since the USGA went to graduated rough [in 2006], it’s helped guys like Phil who don’t hit it straight. If they play all the new back tees they’ve built at Pebble, driving accuracy will be more of a factor. That hurts Phil. At the same time there are plenty of short holes. Other than number 9 there are no buster-length par-4s. I think Phil will play well there.

Shipnuck: Davis also said these are the smallest greens in major championship golf. Factor in wind and firm greens, and it may really turn into a short-game contest, which totally favors Phil.

Hack: Look, Phil can get it up and down from anywhere. He’s strong enough to play out of U.S. Open rough, an under­appreciated fact. His masterly play around the greens can’t be overstated. He’s a guy who can hit fewer than half of the fairways and still contend. There’s only one other person on the planet who can do that.

Garrity: Don’t tell me — the other one is Paul Goydos, right?


Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Here’s the thing about Tiger: He’s been a total creature of habit since we’ve covered him as a teenager. The early-morning practice rounds, the early-morning workout routines, the sessions with his coach. Now his routines have been taken away, and he doesn’t have a coach. It would be very understandable if he’s really drifting. Now would be a good time for caddie Steve Williams to ask for a raise.

Shipnuck: Tiger is embarrassed by how he’s been playing. You know he’s been grinding his tail off as much as he can the last few weeks, given his sore neck. He’s still Tiger, and he has all that talent and know-how. He simply has to find it, but it’s a real X factor now.

Van Sickle: I don’t see Tiger getting back to being Tiger until his marital situation is resolved. His swing issues aren’t as significant as his life issues. But he is Tiger. You never say never with him.

Garrity: If Elin is really asking for $750 million, I’d say the negotiations are affecting his play. There’s no way Tiger is the near billionaire that he was speculated to be before the economy melted down. But I don’t really believe it’s that. I think it’s a combination of his inability to master Hank Haney’s flatter swing and the physical ailments he’s had or still has. Tiger never tells the truth about either of those subjects, so we can only guess.

Hack: It reminds me of when Superman goes to the Fortress of Solitude and loses all his powers, and the next thing you know Clark Kent has a bloody lip and can’t fight back. Tiger is bloodied and everybody, including his peers, knows he’s not the same dude.

Anonymous Pro: What’s going on with Tiger’s life will eat him up from the inside. You have to have a clear mind to play this game. He has the strongest mind in the game, but his will is going to be tested more than ever before. Way more.

Shipnuck: His game is at a crossroads. Everything is loose — his swing, his day-to-day existence. There’s also the karma of coming back to Pebble Beach, site of his greatest week ever, in 2000. That’s the measuring stick. It’s an impossible standard. Everything he does is going to be framed against 2000, and now it’s a reminder of how far he’s fallen.

Bamberger: That’s right, Alan. What we saw from Tiger at Augusta was unbelievable, given where he was hitting it. Augusta lets you get away with a lot more than a U.S. Open course will. Things have only gotten more chaotic for him since then.

Anonymous Pro: He’s not driving it in the same ballpark as he was in 2000. Maybe he can get by with three-wood off the tee, but if he pulls out driver, Stillwater Cove is going to get peppered.

Bamberger: The thing about Tiger at the 2000 Open was, he had new toys to play with. For Tiger it was the 135-yard eight-iron shot that goes about 100 feet in the air, bounces once and stops on a dime. That’s when he started using the word traj all the time, talking trajectory. He was ruthless with those short irons all week. He had that new sawed-off swing down pat. It must be different when he doesn’t have anything really exciting to work on. What’s he going to do, learn how to hit the draw shot? He could do that at 19, and do it beautifully.

Hack: Until Tiger shows us otherwise, he is damaged goods. He’s not finished, but he has to win again first.

Van Sickle: He has to start his comeback somewhere.

Hack: Sure he does, but the U.S. Open is just too big of an ask. I don’t think that Stillwater Cove is where he starts back up again.


Van Sickle: Johnny Miller said in the mid-’90s that all you really need for the U.S. Open are Pebble Beach, Oakmont and Shinnecock Hills. He might update that now with Torrey Pines or Bethpage, but his point is, Pebble Beach may be our finest Open venue.

Bamberger: Miller’s comment is genius. You have California, New York and the all-important Pittsburgh market.

Van Sickle: Are you jagging Pittsburgh, Mr. Philadelphia?

Hack: I like rotating those three courses, as long as you throw in Bethpage every so often. An Open will be coming back to Shinnecock in the near future, by the way. I hear Shinnecock and the USGA are talking. The bruises from 2004 have healed.

Anonymous Pro: The aura and history and views at Pebble make it great, but it has only nine good holes. The holes on the water make Pebble great. I hear people say that if they had one round of golf to play, they’d play Pebble Beach. It’s fantastic, sure, but it may not even be in my top 10.

Shipnuck: I have to disagree. Some holes get dismissed and overlooked because they’re not on the ocean, but they’re really cool holes. They’ve reshaped number 1 and added a bunker on the left side, so it’s a hard second shot now. The 2nd is usually an easy par-5, but it becomes a long, exacting par-4 for the Open. The 12th is the hardest par-3 on the course. There’s a new tee on 13, way back there, and it has probably the most challenging green on the course.

Garrity: There are only three American courses that any golf fan can identify at a glance: Augusta National, TPC Sawgrass and Pebble Beach. And Pebble is the only one that hosts Opens. So, yeah, it has to be my favorite.

Van Sickle: Is it a truly great course, or just a pretty good one with amazing scenery? I think Pebble may be the best Open site, yet I agree with the Pro — when I look at the individual holes, I see a lot of mediocre ones. Somehow, the sum is far greater than the parts at Pebble.

Bamberger: The sum is greater. A lot of modern architects don’t get that. At the end of the day, these courses can’t be viewed scientifically. Forget the ratings. Nobody who plays Pebble Beach doesn’t love it. You love it because you’re on the Pacific, Jack Lemmon never made a cut there, Watson chipped in there, Jack hit that one-iron at 17 and Gil Morgan couldn’t close the deal there. Everything about it is why we love it.


Van Sickle: Let’s take a look at the best and worst holes at Pebble Beach, along with your favorite spots. I vote for number 7 as the best hole. There isn’t a better 100-yard hole in golf.

Anonymous Pro: I wish the 7th could switch spots with number 17. The 7th would instantly become one of the most memorable holes in golf. The 7th is the shortest par-3 I’ve played in all my years on Tour, and it’s one of the best.

Hack: I love the 7th. You feel as if you can almost dip your toes into the Pacific, and you’ll probably see a couple of sea lions on your right.

Garrity: I can’t pick just one, but I’ll take that cliffside run of 6 through 10 as one of the best stretches in golf. The approach shot over the chasm on number 8 is just about the most thrilling shot in golf.

Hack: If you’ve ever hit that second shot, you know why it’s the best hole at Pebble. The ball hangs in the air forever.

Anonymous Pro: My favorite hole is number 8. I agree — the second shot is so demanding. You can’t go long, right is dead, and left is no bargain. Into the wind, we don’t play a harder par-4 all year. You’re hitting from a hanging lie to a green the size of an ashtray with a pothole in front. It’s made for a seven- or eight-iron in, not a three-iron.

Bamberger: This is so unoriginal, but I don’t see how you couldn’t choose number 18. The drama at 18 builds up over the first three shots and determines whether you’re making a 4 or a 6, possibly even a 3. The tree in the fairway is another illustration of how the sum is greater than the parts. Who, today, has the nerve to plant a tree in the middle of the fairway? It’s iconic, it’s fun, it’s weird and it works.

Van Sickle: What about the worst hole? I nominate number 1.

Bamberger: To be announced on the 1st tee of the Open at Pebble and you see a guy out there with a 22-degree hybrid, that’s not exciting.

Hack: I hit five-iron off that tee — that’s all you need to know.

Anonymous Pro: I have about four nominees, but the 15th is probably the weakest hole. Guys will hit three-wood, pitching wedge. That’s not very interesting.

Garrity: Nobody agrees with me, but I don’t care much for the par-3 17th. The tee is low, and so is the green. Plus the sky and ocean make it so horribly backlit that you’re practically playing the hole blind.

Van Sickle: My favorite spot is standing by the 6th green. You’re on that massive headland, looking down over the bay in one direction, the 7th hole in another. You feel as if you’re on top of the world.

Shipnuck: Me, too. That walk up the hill to the 6th green is the most spectacular in golf. I love the 6th hole and the anticipation of number 7.

Garrity: You have to like number 10, running above the beach. Even though a seagull dragged my sandwich out of the cart the last time I played there.

Bamberger: I love the 11th tee on the far corner of the course. You tumble down that cliff and the dunes, and you’re in the village of Carmel. It reminds you of a feeling you get at St. Andrews of playing away from town on the way out, then back toward it on the way in. You’re so far away from the commotion of the Lodge and the 1st tee. It’s simply you and the ocean swells. You’re trying to hit a ball in the wind; you feel like an insignificant speck.


Van Sickle: The U.S. Open is the last stand for the 18-hole playoff. For or against?

Shipnuck: I had always been a detractor, but the Kenny Perry-Ángel Cabrera-Chad Campbell playoff at the [2009] Masters clinched it for me that 18 holes is the way to go. Perry got mud on his ball, so he says, on that last hole, and his approach shot flew way left. You play 72 holes to identify the best player, you get mud on the ball and make one mediocre swing and it’s all over.

Garrity: Billy Payne would like me to pass along that golf balls do not pick up mud at Augusta National, sir.

Bamberger: Alan is dead on. I would not want to see anything but an 18-hole playoff. I wouldn’t want to give back that Tiger versus Rocco Mediate playoff, would you?

Van Sickle: That was an anomaly. You’re not going to have the best player of all time versus the Cinderella figure of all time. Usually you get Mark Brooks and Retief Goosen.

Anonymous Pro: I think the USGA needs to get up with the times. Nothing is more anticlimactic than a Monday finish. Our society wants instant gratification. That’s why there’s sudden death in the Super Bowl and extra innings in baseball. A three- or four-hole playoff would be fantastic. At Pebble they could play 16, 17 and 18.

Garrity: I’ve always hated it, but that Tiger-Rocco playoff was something special. People watched it in airports and offices, anywhere that folks gathered. It was truly a shared experience for the whole nation, a little like the World Series was a million years ago when they played day games.


Van Sickle: What’s the best Open you’ve watched or been a part of?

Shipnuck: Tiger versus Rocco. There was the whole David-and-Goliath thing, plus the intrigue with Tiger’s mysterious leg injury.

Van Sickle: Tiger’s Saturday highlights were ridiculous.

Shipnuck: It was like a skins game. Then to have it come down to one putt on Sunday, make it or go home. I was standing by the 18th green when Payne Stewart made his winning putt at Pinehurst in ’99. That was awesome, and now because Payne wasn’t around for much longer, that finish carries more gravity. But I’d still have to go with Tiger in 2008.

Bamberger: I caddied for a qualifier in the ’85 Open, Larry Rentz. It made me realize that the U.S. Open is unlike anything else. It requires so much game — more game than probably all but maybe 50 players in the world have. I didn’t fully appreciate that until then.

Van Sickle: I’ll take any Open at Pebble. You had Jack Nicklaus outlasting Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino in ’72, Watson over Jack and Bill Rogers in ’82, and the wind crushing everyone but Tom Kite, Jeff Sluman and Colin Montgomerie in ’92. Then Tiger’s ultimate smackdown in 2000, winning by 15.

Anonymous Pro: Watson over Jack in ’82 and the chip-in. Does it get any better than Watson and Nicklaus?

Hack: I’ve got to say Goosen in 2004 at Shinnecock, on a course dying before our eyes. To see Goosen get up and down from everywhere on that back nine was amazing.

Garrity: I’ll take Winged Foot, which had Mickelson’s drive off the hospitality tent and Monty’s meltdown, both on the 72nd hole. Not to mention the guy who won, whoever it was.


Garrity: My dark-horse pick is Francesco Molinari because I wrote about the Molinari brothers for this issue and I watched him play in Spain, and he is an impressive ball striker — in the Jim Furyk mode, only longer. I’m tempted to jump off my traditional Robert Karlsson bandwagon, but you can’t ignore that course-record 62 he shot in the European PGA’s third round. I can, however, ignore his final-round 77. Karlsson is your champion.

Anonymous Pro: Luke Donald could be a sleeper pick. Does anybody hit it straighter or chip better than that guy? His putting is average, but man, he can chip, and he just won in Madrid. You know what? I also like Steve Stricker to cap off his career with a major win at Pebble. His iron play is fantastic, he’s a great putter, and I think he’s over that shoulder problem.

Hack: David Duval usually plays well at Pebble and in the Open. He’s my sleeper pick. Padraig Harrington is great in the wind, terrific around the greens and mentally tough. I’m going out on a limb and take Paddy, who’s been searching for his game. He finds it at Pebble.

Bamberger: Rory McIlroy is tailor-made for seaside golf. He plays hard courses well, as he showed at Wachovia. And like all of the greats, he has a showoff, peacock quality to his golf.

Van Sickle: Yeah, plus you’ll never forget the way he looked at you with his steely eyes and said, “You going to eat that pickle?” And then you swooned.

Bamberger: Not quite. My sleeper pick is someone else you may have heard of — Tom Watson. History shows that he knows this course better than anyone.

Garrity: But they’ve changed the course. His local knowledge is obsolete in places. I read that the exact spot where he chipped in from isn’t the same anymore.

Bamberger: The USGA gave him an exemption for a reason.

Garrity: He’s from Kansas City. That’s good enough for me.

Van Sickle: Phil Mickelson is the obvious choice, but maybe too obvious. The winner is going to be a great scrambler, a ­chipper-and-putter­ type who can handle the wind. Justin Leonard fits that profile. So does Mike Weir, who has a history of playing Pebble pretty well. But I’m going with the man poised to be the new leading candidate for player of the year after he wins the Open — Zach Johnson. The man can putt.

Shipnuck: Sometimes obvious is good. Phil is stronger mentally, and his game is better than ever. Phil was already emboldened when it came to Tiger, and he’s the only guy with the résumé, the game and the force of personality to stand up to him. Phil has grown into his place in the game. He’s taking it deep this year.