PGA Tour Confidential: U.S. Open preview

June 13, 2011

Every week of the 2011 PGA Tour season, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group will conduct 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.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Greetings, fellow dimple heads. We’re on the eve of golf’s ultimate holy week, the U.S. Open. The Masters has more charm and the British Open has more history, but for most of us our grueling national championship is the one that stirs the heart. Ken Venturi, winning in ’64 at Congressional: “My God, I’ve won the Open.” What could you possibly add to that? When my friend Mike Donald, who joins us tonight, was in a playoff against Hale Irwin at the ’90 U.S. Open at Medinah, millions of Americans were rooting for him. They could relate to him. Welcome, Mike. For you and everyone else: what American player do you feel most emotionally invested in, and who else will you be keeping an eye on this week?

Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, Hard not to be emotionally invested in two players who usually break down in tears after every win, Steve Stricker and Bubba Watson.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It’s gotta be Phil, after all the heartbreak.

Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: I’d like to see the humble Badger, Steve Stricker, pick up his first major at age 44 . The guy’s playing well and would seem to be a perfect fit for an Open.

Gorant: Hard not to root for Phil to finally bag the Open. Stricker’s a pretty good one too.

Jeff Ritter, senior producer, Phil has been so agonizingly close in this event. It’d be great to see him finally put those final-round train wrecks behind him and raise a trophy on Father’s Day.

Charlie Hanger, executive editor, Without a doubt Phil considering his painful Open history, but it would also be great to see one of the young Americans pull it off: Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson (also some painful memories to put behind him), Anthony Kim and the rest.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: I feel most emotionally invested in Phil, since he’s come so close to winning a U.S. Open and never actually gotten it done. It really is similar to the sentiment before he won the 2004 Masters. It’s all too relatable the way Phil wants it so bad and yet has found numerous ways to screw it up.

Stephanie Wei, contributor, SI Golf+: I’m going with Stricker. He’s golf’s ultimate Mr. Nice Guy and couldn’t be more genuine. He’s endured an up-and-down career but has managed to rise to marquee player status. He deserves a major. And I just love seeing him cry.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I’d go with Stricker, but you Cheesers already took him. Rickie Fowler would also be a sentimental choice. His longtime swing coach passed away a few weeks ago. His dad, Rod, told me he was sure the coach would be on Rickie’s bag Sunday at Muirfield Village. Didn’t happen, but I told Rod that maybe the ol’ coach was waiting for Father’s Day and the U.S. Open.

Reiterman: If Bubba won on Father’s Day, almost a year after losing his dad, there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house.

Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Emotionally I’m with Tiger Woods because we’re the same age, from Vietnam-vet fathers, and he’s another minority in a lily-white sport. He’s not playing this week, so my heart is with David Toms.

Mike Donald, profressonal golfer: I’m interested in Jonathan Byrd. He’s earned five career wins in a quiet manner, and a major would really move him up in my mind.

Bamberger: Interesting to see you nominate Byrd. It’s very possible he’s the best American player right now, or right up there, and yet he gets almost no attention. Even though he’s a super-nice guy, accommodating to fans and reporters and sponsors and playing partners, for some reason he’s hard to get excited about. And there’s a lot of that in this moment in American golf.

Shipnuck: Byrd may be the nicest person I’ve ever met in my life. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.

Gorant: Byrd’s won more than all those guys who keep getting mentioned — D.J., Kuchar, Mahan, Watney, Kim — and yet he’s consistently overlooked.

Van Sickle: Good point about Byrd. How was a guy winning a playoff with a hole-in-one in the dark not a bigger story? Oh. It was in Vegas. During football season. Still…

Morfit: Byrd is a terrific player. I wouldn’t be at all shocked to see him win this week. The other guy I’m keeping an eye on is Hunter Mahan. Seems like that guy’s finishing 20th or better every time I look up. He’s got to bust out at some point.

Van Sickle: I like Mahan, but can you win a major without having to chip? Doubt it.

Reiterman: Mahan has quietly posted seven top 10s this season, tied for second most on Tour behind Luke Donald and Matt Kuchar . Would be cool to see him win the big one after that painful end to the Ryder Cup.

Herre: Luke Donald seems to be a logical choice — consistent, great short game, veteran. If he can just keep the ball in the fairway …

Morfit: It won’t happen, but it’d be a hell of a story if a guy like Ty Tryon won.

David Dusek, deputy editor, Mickelson winning the Open after being a runner-up so many times would be wonderful, but since you asked for “emotional investment,” I have to say Paul Casey. I’d love to see him break through and prove he’s capable of being the player I think he can be.

Van Sickle: For what it’s worth, Joe LaCava, longtime caddie for Fred Couples and now looping for Dustin Johnson, told me his pick to win the Open (other than Dustin) is Hunter Mahan. Hunter is a very good iron player.

Morfit: We have some interesting new player-caddie combos out there: Johnson and LaCava; Adam Scott and Steve Williams. I like that these young-ish players have a seasoned guy on the bag.

Gorant: I think that’s a big gain for Johnson after the ways he struggled last year. Not so much for Scott, who’s had a top caddie for years. A guy I’m watching is Geoff Ogilvy. He’s faded a bit, but when you think of this course you ask, Who hits it long and straight and has a good short game? That’s the definition of Ogilvy. Could be a dark horse.

Dusek: Ogilvy has the tools and the brains, but he has been too dinged up this season. Shoulder injury, finger cut. His season has been too disjointed.

Wei: I’m biased because I grew up with him, but Andres Gonzales is another I’ll be rooting for. It’s his first major, so the chances of him contending might be slim, but he’s out there playing for his dad, who was his best friend. He died from a brain tumor a few years ago.

Van Sickle: Sorry, boys, but there would be no better way to kick off the Dustin Johnson Era than by having him bounce back not only from his Pebble Beach meltdown but also from his PGA Championship bunker-gate episode by capturing the Open at Congressional. He’s a serious talent, digs the long ball, and he’s a nice, down-home guy.

Wei: How about Lucas Glover? Now that he’s shown signs of life again, I would love to see him contend at another U.S. Open, and it would be his beard’s first major victory.

Morfit: I’d have said Lucas seems like a good pick, except he totally imploded at the Players Championship last month. You might as well pick Graeme McDowell. There’s been a lot of that going around.

Tell us what you think: Who are rooting for to win the U.S. Open?

Bamberger: Our guest tonight, Mike Donald, is reminded daily of the importance of the U.S. Open. If you were going to win one major championship in your life, which one would you want it to be? Where would the U.S. Open rank? If the respect of your peers is a big factor, my guess is that it’s the U.S. Open.

Gorant: I think I’d have to go Masters, then U.S. Open, but it’s close.

Morfit: I’d like to win the Masters. It’s a lifetime ticket to the party.

Van Sickle: The Masters is the most glamorous major to win, no question. But I’d opt for the British Open. It’s the world’s Open Championship. Plus, it would probably get me on any course in the U.K. free for life. I’d cash that ticket.

Hanger: Agree with Gary. It might be un-American to say so, but there’s something special about the British, and I’d rather win that than the U.S. Open.

Van Sickle: To be announced as “the champion golfer of the year” is a thrill few get to hear. Although the Masters champions dinner and par-3 contest and the big tree and the green jacket are pretty sweet too. Truth is, winning any major would be great.

Shipnuck: Look at the roll call of winners. The Masters consistently produces the most elite winners because it has the ultimate tournament venue, prepared to perfection. Plus, peach cobbler on the clubhouse balcony is one life’s greatest pleasures.

Donald: The U.S. Open is our tournament, and that would be my first choice. But going back to Augusta every year would great. Being a part of the champions’ dinner would make it special.

Dusek: Without a doubt the U.S. Open is the toughest to win and the most mentally vexing, but if I were a pro and could pick just one, it would be the Masters. It’s my favorite of the four and is played on the most special course.

Hanger: You’ve played them both and I haven’t played either, but is Augusta National really more special than St. Andrews?

Van Sickle: They’re special in different ways. For one, you can get a tee time at the Old Course. Not so much at Augusta.

Dusek: When you walk around St. Andrews, you can feel the game’s origins in the air. It’s amazing. When you walk around Augusta National, everywhere you look you see a place where a famous, or infamous, shot was played. Like Gary said, the average guy has a lot better shot of playing the Old Course than Augusta National, but being lucky enough to have played both, I liked playing Augusta more.

Wei: Hands down, British Open at St. Andrews.

Evans: The U.S. Open is the greatest, most egalitarian championship, but too many unremarkable players have won it: Andy North, Michael Campbell, Steve Jones, etc. The Masters, with its tiny field, is the easiest to win. I would love to have the British Open because it’s the oldest event with the most international field.

Tell us what you think: Which of the four majors would you most want to win?

Bamberger: Tiger’s not playing in the U.S. Open. He’s left IMG. His caddie, Steve Williams, is caddying in the Open for Adam Scott. His earning capacity is falling. His golf game is in rough shape. His body is riddled with injuries. If he were a stock, I’d be loading up on him. Will you miss him not being at the U.S. Open? I’ll miss his smoldering intensity. He’s the ultimate U.S. Open player in the game right now. I think it’s a lesser event without him.

Herre: Yes, the Tiger plot thickens. More changes, now on the business side to go along with health and swing issues. Woods has plenty of good golf ahead of him, but I don’t think he gets 19 majors.

Donald: I think we are all waiting for him to break out, but we’ll have to wait for the British Open to see. All of golf will miss Tiger this week.

Morfit: I will miss him, and I am afraid I will miss him from here on out, unless he can figure something out health-wise. His body is breaking down.

Shipnuck: This injury feels like the very end of an era. He’ll win some more tournaments, but I fear he’ll never dominate again.

Van Sickle: I’ll miss Tiger until Thursday morning. Then someone else will go about winning and losing the Open, and it will be exciting and messy and great and ugly and ultimately beautiful. Tiger? He’s the most famous man on Earth, but golf plays on.

Wei: There’s so much talent and parity in golf right now, and it’s an exciting time. If Tiger shot seven over on the front nine at Congressional and then withdrew, it would just distract from the other players. Personally, I’m pumped to watch Westwood, Donald, McIlroy, Kuchar, Stricker and D.J., but I understand the average fan is disappointed that Tiger’s not in the field. When I posted the news on my Facebook wall, one of my “friends” wrote: “Such sad news…just never the same without him. Feeling very ho-hum about the whole thing now. Esp for $140.”

Van Sickle: Last time Tiger was out in 2008, we had some pretty good majors. At least, Padraig Harrington thought they were pretty good. Tiger’s marquee drawing power will always be missed, obviously, until we find his replacement. Just like the NBA transitioned from Jordan to Kobe.

Dusek: Tiger’s WD sent ticket prices at places like Stub Hub plummeting. Fans will miss him, ESPN and NBC will miss him, and I’ll miss him, too.

Van Sickle: Most of the great players enjoyed eight to 10 years of playing their best. Tiger has already exceeded that. Jack, of course, was the exception who proved the rule. I hope Tiger gets his body and his golf game back into shape. You hate to see any athlete’s career cut short by injury.

Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: The U.S. Open was awesome before Woods, and it’ll be awesome without him this year. It’s cool to have him around, but no single player makes or breaks a golf tournament, for me anyway.

Evans: Any major in this era without its most defining player loses something big.

Donald: Why is he breaking down at the age of 35? Should young golfers in the future take it easy with the workouts?

Van Sickle: Rocco Mediate was here in the Pittsburgh area to christen a new range in his honor at Sewickley Heights GC . He talked about modern swing coaches, who teach rotation vs. the up-and-down-the-line style that he uses, which is taught by his pal, Jimmy Ballard. Rocco believes it’s the advent of rotation coaching that is leading to these injuries. A guy swinging a driver at 130 miles per hour and rotating his body with it generates a lot of force. An interesting theory, I thought.

Lipsey: It’s sad, the all-systems failure of Woods: body, family, game, public image, etc. If he can get it back, somehow, it might be more miraculous than Hogan coming back from getting hit by a bus.

Gorant: A few weeks ago I tried to get several golf fitness experts to write a My Shot essay based on the notion that all the years of working out so hard and all the miles of street running might now be coming back to haunt Tiger. None of them agreed with the premise strongly enough to put their name on it.

Reiterman: Guys will continue to hit the gym, but not the way Tiger did. Tiger bulked up and completely transformed his body. Guys like Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Martin Kaymer are extremely fit but not packing on the beef. More Roger Federer than Ray Lewis.

Tell us what you think: Are you less interested in the U.S. Open with Tiger not in the field? Do you think the TV ratings will be lower this year?

Bamberger: A question first for Mike Donald. I think we all imagine that playing in a U.S. Open is different from playing in any other tournament. Is it? How so?

Donald: It has a totally different feeling with the USGA running it. It’s so hard to make the field, and you dream of it your whole life. But you need a real game when it starts. No pretending.

Bamberger: I guess that’s why players get so much respect for winning a U.S. Open. The USGA, especially the old USGA, really had a notion for what it meant to be a complete golfer. What Mike said makes me think of Hogan. People of a certain age talk about Hogan with more awe than even Nicklaus and Woods. And the U.S. Open is the reason why.

Van Sickle: That 36-hole final used to be a real beast. It’s not practical for TV purposes, I suppose, but that’s part of what made the U.S. Open the least fun, by a mile, of any of the majors. It’s a true survival test in ways that the others aren’t.

Dusek: In a way I think it is still the ultimate survival test. If he could, would any player not take even par for the week? The courses are so demanding and thorough in their examination that winning on one commands respect.

Donald: You have to drive the ball well in the U.S. Open, and the wheels can come off at any time. My brother and I have a saying for the Open: Two strokes up with three to play is not enough.

Shipnuck: The Open is so great because it’s so stressful. There is no letup, ever. Guys start choking just driving up to the course.

Herre: There are so many examples of guys going downhill in a hurry at the Open. The courses are usually so exacting that there is little margin for error. Many people believe Hogan was the most precise player ever, perfect for the Open.

Mike Walker, senior editor, Golf Magazine: That John Wayne factor makes the U.S. Open my favorite major. ” Fill your hands…

Wei: It looks and sounds like a grind. As McIlroy said the other day, “the toughest examination we face all year.” Last year at Pebble, I was covering my first major ever and I was in the flash area behind 18 on Sunday for a few hours. I’ll never forget all the venting from the players. Many were just relieved they had survived.

Tell us what you think: Do you enjoy watching the “survival of the fittest” nature of the U.S. Open?

Bamberger: Golf Magazine is doing some fantasy bracketology, the Fab Foursome Bracket Challenge, in an attempt to determine the ultimate foursome of golfing celebrities. (Check it out at Let’s consider one first-round matchup that seems especially appropriate as we head to Washington this week. If you could play one round with either President Obama or House Speaker John Boehner, who would you choose? I’m choosing the president, even if some of our Ryder Cup stars from some years ago were hesitant to visit Bill Clinton in the White House.

Hanger: Regardless of your politics, seems like you’ve got to choose the president in this one. If you love him, you’d have a great time playing, and if you don’t love him, you could needle him about his policies all the way around.

Gorant: Obama, without hesitation. Regardless of any politics or achievements in office, he’s a historic figure.

Bamberger: It has to be President Obama or any other president. When you tell the story 20 years from now to the grandkids, who will remember the speaker of the House?

Dusek: Obama. If you have the opportunity to meet the president of the United States, you meet the president of the United States.

Walker: Obama, for the reasons everyone’s mentioned. But after seeing that spellbinding video on this week, I wish I could have played that round with JFK in Hyannisport in August of 1963.

Herre: Have to go with the president, although Boehner looks like a guy who would make a fun partner.

Shipnuck: Obama. He needs a few Golf Mag tips.

Wei: No question, Obama, because I know I can beat him, and come on, he’s the president! To spend four hours hanging out and chatting with the man is on my bucket list (even though it’ll probably never happen).

Tell us what you think: One round, take your pick: Would you play with Obama or Boehner?