Ten players who could win the U.S. Open

Ten players who could win the U.S. Open

Despite his recent struggles on the course, Tiger Woods is still one of the top contenders this week at Pebble Beach.
Eric Risberg/AP

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Here’s something I found the other day while researching medieval history. And by medieval history, I mean the 1992 United States Open at Pebble Beach. It wasn’t just 18 years ago, which covers most of Rickie Fowler’s lifetime, it was in the dark days of B.T. — Before Tiger.

The U.S. Open then was seen as somewhat predictable. Deep rough, fast greens, narrow fairways. The only players who were going to win it, supposedly, were the real ballstrikers, the guys who hit fairways and greens in the mode of Ben Hogan. You didn’t scramble your way around an Open course. It was too penal.

So I found this quote from Davis Love, presumably in the pre-tournament hype before the ’92 Open, and thought it was interesting:

“You can’t pick 10 guys in a tour event and expect one of them to win, but you can pick 10 guys in an Open and probably get the winner every time.”

When Love made the comment, the previous 10 Open champions included Payne Stewart, Hale Irwin, Curtis Strange, Raymond Floyd, Scott Simpson, Andy North, Fuzzy Zoeller and Larry Nelson. And before that, Tom Watson, David Graham, Jack Nicklaus — all 13 are guys who definitely fit the description of the usual suspects.

Since ’92, however, we’ve had some surprise winners who would have made very few top-10 lists, especially Steve Jones in ’96 and Michael Campbell in 2005. Lesser surprises included Ernie Els in ’94 (too young to be a favorite), Corey Pavin in ’95 (poor Open record) and Geoff Ogilvy in 2006 (career underachiever).

In general, though, Love’s theory holds up, so here’s my list of 10 players, including the one who is sure to win this week’s Open:

1. Phil Mickelson. Lefty is the favorite and the obvious choice. His game is peaking, and he spent part of last week working with putting whiz Dave Stockton. Mickelson has been an Open runner-up five times — he could easily own three Open titles by now, at least — and he’s won at Pebble Beach. Phil never does anything in obvious fashion, but you’d be crazy not to like his chances.

2. Lee Westwood. Another obvious choice, the former English boy wonder has resurrected his game with years of hard work and an attention to fitness. He was right there until the end at this year’s Masters, the ’09 British Open at Turnberry and the ’08 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. He’s probably carrying the title of Best Player Without a Major. He’s also on top of his game, it appears, based on his victory in Memphis last weekend. (Although his sloppy play down the stretch reinforced the perception that he’s not a good closer.)

3. Steve Stricker. Wisconsin’s favorite son is a challenger to Westwood for that no-major title. Over the last three years, he has played the best golf of his life. He appeared to be off to another banner year in 2010 when he won at Riviera, but a shoulder problem sidelined him in late spring. He returned at Colonial and began knocking off the rust. His sharp iron play and great putting make him an ideal candidate at Pebble Beach, where the small greens will put a premium on iron play. In his favor, Stricker has had three top-six finishes in Opens and three more in the top 16.

4. Jim Furyk. The man with the least-appreciated swing has gotten back on top of his game this year, winning twice. Note that one of his wins came at Harbour Town, which happens to have the smallest greens this side of, oh, Pebble Beach. Great ballstriker, great shotmaker and a great short game. He’s perfect for Pebble and he’s a former Open champion.

5. Padraig Harrington. The three-time major champ just had his knee scoped, but he put up some good numbers early in Memphis. He won a pair of British Opens on true links, Carnoustie and Royal Birkdale, and Pebble Beach (along with Shinnecock Hills) is probably the closest thing to an authentic links course in America. He’s got to be on the list.

6. Zach Johnson. The Iowan is quietly having a stellar career. Little-known fact: His recent victory at Colonial, where he out-putted the field during the final round, was the seventh of his career. That’s seven, as in more than Tom Lehman’s career, or as many as Geoff Ogilvy. The Zach Attack ranks ninth in fairway accuracy, a crucial stat at any Open. We know he can putt. He’s already won a Masters. This guy is sneaking his way into the golf Hall of Fame, step by step. Beware.

7. Dustin Johnson. The other Johnson is already a rising star in golf. You’ve got to include Dustin in this 10-pack because he’s won the last two AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Ams. (Don’t forget, that event includes rounds at Spyglass Hill and, this year, Monterey Peninsula.) He’s still got something to prove, though. That first AT&T win came after a rained-out final round and last year he struggled home with a 74 but still won. Dustin is as long as any hitter on Tour, and if the USGA utilizes some of the new back tees, which will make Pebble notably longer, it could play right into his hands. He’s a high-ball hitter, though, and could have problems if the wind kicks up as it did in the ’92 Open. He has played only six majors in his career, and finished 48th and 40th in his only two Open appearances.

8. Ernie Els. His comeback from knee injury has finally come full circle. Els look liked the Big Easy of old in winning the CA Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational earlier this year. He’s got two Open titles and is seeking the hat trick at age 40. Telling stats: He’s 12th in greens hit, seventh in birdie average and — attention, please — second in scoring average. Ernie has his scoring touch back? He can definitely win a third Open.

9. Stewart Cink. The reigning British Open champion has had a quiet season, but his game began to look sharper at the Memorial Tournament, where he finished eighth. Cink hits a lot of greens in regulation, perfect for Open golf, but has had trouble getting his usually reliable putter going this year. The Turnberry experience had to boost his confidence. Working against him: Course knowledge. The last time he played Pebble Beach was the 2000 Open. He doesn’t play the AT&T Pro-Am.

10. Tiger Woods. What, you thought I was leaving the greatest player of his generation off the list of players who could win the Open? Get serious. I listed him 10th just to let the drama build. The man has won 14 major championships, and he hasn’t forgotten how to play golf or how to win. His swing has been an issue, but he looked better at times on the weekend at Muirfield Village, where he finished 19th — which, hello, isn’t all that awful. Remember how badly he played at the Masters, where he placed fourth? He operates on a different scale. He’s had two weeks to get some positive swing thoughts and figure out a way to take one side of the course out of play. He won by 15 shots at the 2000 Open at Pebble. Will that be an albatross around his neck, a haunting memory that will only serve to remind him how far he’s fallen? Or will his past dominance be a safety net of confidence? Trust me, it won’t be the former. I think he can keep it in play and rely on his short game to get into contention. And if he’s still in the mix on the back nine on Sunday, just remember — he was on the list.

When you can list only 10, you have to leave off a lot of players you think might win the Open — in my case, that includes short-game wizards such as Ian Poulter, Heath Slocum, Mike Weir and, I’m not kidding, maybe 60-year-old Tom Watson or a Californian like Nick Watney.

That’s my list. As they say in commercial breaks, “What’s in your wallet?”