We convened a special Confidential roundtable of former U.S. Open champions to talk about this year's tournament, make predictions and reveal their selections for the best U.S. Opens of all time. Special thanks to these gracious champions for their time. We hope you enjoy it.
1. What type of game do you think fits Pinehurst, and who would you pick to be successful and win this year's Open?
Gary Player, 1965 U.S. Open Champion: I must say that there have been few courses that are as mentally challenging as Pinehurst No. 2. The course has always tested every aspect of my game, so I am sure that the same will hold true for the pros this week. Mental strength, much like any other major will be key, especially on a course that is as strategic as No. 2 is. I think we will see this course offers a different challenge than many other courses that these players have faced with no traditional rough and a great deal of sand. The fairways are plenty wide, but the real key is around the greens. Short games will be of the utmost importance and the greens will play fast and quick; Pinehurst’s greens with their convex, bowl-like shapes demand precise iron approach shots or the ball will roll down and off the greens. My picks for the Open are Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Jason Day, Martin Kaymer, Jordan Spieth, and I would love to see Phil Mickelson complete his Grand Slam with a victory.
Ernie Els, 1994 and 1997 U.S. Open Champion: Obviously it’s a very tough test, but it’s looking like a different kind of test to 1999 and 2005. I love what Crenshaw and Coore have done here with the restoration. You’ve got more options on this golf course now, especially around the greens where you’re going to have to use your imagination and play a real variety of shots — that’s more of a British Open type quality rather than a typical US Open and I like that. I think we’re in for a great championship, a wide-open championship. There will always be favorites, but you’d have to say probably half the field would have a realistic chance of winning this thing.
Scott Simpson, 1987 U.S. Open Champion: It's a U.S. Open, and I think they always test pretty much your whole game. Pinehurst with the balls that roll right off the sides of the greens is going to test your iron accuracy, your short game and especially how you deal with frustration and bad breaks. My pick would be Jim Furyk right now.
Lee Janzen, 1993 and 1998 U.S. Open Champion: The standard answer for U.S. Opens is good driver, good distance control, course manager and good putter. That will surely work at Pinehurst. What won't work is a player that is occasionally wild off the tee or below average in the short game. Getting in a little trouble off the tee only invites more trouble if a perfect shot isn't played next. The greens are very difficult and must be approached from the proper angle. Even the perfect game plan will still leave some delicate chips. It's the player who chips very well from tight lies who will contend. Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker come to mind. But any top player on his game will do well. The course seems to weed out any pretenders.
2. Who is a dark horse who could contend at Pinehurst this year?
Els: Like I said, it’s pretty wide open. Look what happened in 2005 with Michael Campbell. Only a few weeks previously, he’d had to hole a six-footer on the final green at a qualifier at Walton Heath just to get into the U.S. Open. If he misses that putt, he’s not even teeing it up at Pinehurst. But he makes it and goes on and wins his first major! Amazing story.
Janzen: Russell Henley is streaky, grew up on Bermuda grass and is a good all-around player.
Player: This year at Pinehurst should be a fantastic tournament and I think that anyone who plays with a strong mind and a hot putter will have a chance. We have seen so many of the older guys play well this year that I would not count any of them out. Seven players over 50 who made the cut at Augusta with Miguel Angel Jiménez and Bernhard Langer finishing in the top ten. They have had standout years, so I would love to see them play well. If you want to call them “dark horses,” I think Louis Oosthuizen and Lee Westwood will also contend at Pinehurst.
Simpson: A guy with three wins is hard to call a dark horse but my guess is Jimmy Walker won't get talked about much but has a complete game and could definitely get his first major there. My other one would be Steve Stricker.
3) How will your opinion of Phil Mickelson change if he can win a U.S. Open and attain the career grand slam?
Janzen: If Phil Mickelson wins my opinion won't be changed, but I would be very impressed and happy for Phil. After being so close six times, and the U.S. Open being all he needs for the career slam, he can't help but be consumed with the task at hand. He has handled pressure well many times and risen to the occasion often even when it seemed unlikely. Phil is one of the few that could accomplish such a task.
Player: If Phil is able to prevail at Pinehurst, his legacy will change completely because he will join a pretty exclusive club of Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and myself as Grand Slam champions. I already think he is a super golfer and, even more a fantastic person, so I would be so happy to see him capture the Grand Slam this week. Having finished second in 1999 the year Payne Stewart won, that shows he undoubtedly can play well and Pinehurst and the course suits his game. I will be watching closely and rooting him on.
Els: As everyone knows, Phil and I go way back. All the way back to the World Juniors in San Diego in 1984. I’ve always had a lot of respect for Phil’s game and what he’s achieved, but yeah, obviously winning the Grand Slam would put him on another level with Hogan, Sarazen, Nicklaus, Player and Tiger. That’s a pretty exclusive club right there.
Simpson: My opinion wouldn't change one bit. Like Watson and Palmer, he will go down as one of the all-time great golfers either way.
4) What do you think about the USGA’s decision to host both the men and women’s Open at Pinehurst?
Player: I think that it is fantastic to have back-to-back U.S. Opens at Pinehurst and it should be fun for spectators to see the top professionals on both the men’s and women’s tours take on the same course for a major. I am looking forward to see how it turns out. If the course does not have any problems late into the second week, I would love to see this happen at other Majors and it could be wonderful for the growth of the game.
Els: Running them back-to-back seems like a good idea to me, with a lot more upsides than downsides. Pinehurst is one of the world’s great golf courses and it’s in amazing shape. I’m sure the women are looking forward to teeing it up here just as much as us guys are.
Simpson: I love it. It will be great for the women, and I'm a really big fan of the LPGA. I think it will be fun to watch them play the same course and people can see what really good players they are.
Janzen: The idea has brought many questions. How will the women fare on the same course? Will the course hold up well for the following week? If rain delays the first week it will cause a nightmare. Less time for the women to prepare and the damage done from the foot traffic. Hopefully things work out perfectly. The women would take less divots and the course would hold up better, but the dates are also hard to move around.
5) It could be argued that the ’99 U.S. Open at Pinehurst is the greatest U.S. Open of all time. What would get your vote as the greatest U.S. Open ever?
Els: Probably one of the two that I won [laughs]! No seriously, there have been so many great U.S. Opens, but Tom Watson beating Jack at Pebble Beach in 1982 would have to be up there on anyone’s list, right? I was getting serious about my golf at that time and I remember seeing that chip-in on 17 and thinking that was really something. That kind of thing sticks in your mind and when you’re a kid it fuels your dreams of wanting to follow in the footsteps of the great champions.
Simpson: We'll, I'm kind of partial to 1987 myself! I miss Payne a lot, and he was such a great player and fun guy, but I'll still have to go with Francis Ouimet's win as the most improbable and significant among so many great U.S. Opens.
Player: There is no question that the 1999 U.S. Open with Payne Stewart was one of the best U.S. Open finishes. Payne was such a gentleman of the game and a truly wonderful, colorful person. His win in 1999 was an inspiring win and you could just see his love and enthusiasm for the game. With the U.S. Open returning to Pinehurst this year, you cannot help but think back to his win and fondly remember him. Another great U.S. Open was in 2008 when Tiger won at Torrey Pines while injured and withstood an incredible playoff with Rocco Mediate to win his 14th major. Certainly the most important U.S. Open in my career was the 1965 tournament at Bellerive Country Club, where I completed my Grand Slam at age 29.
Janzen: The 1999 US Open had the best players in the world trying to win. Payne contended regularly and was popular. Anything Tiger is involved in seems to add drama. Growing up I thought the 1986 US Open was amazing with seven players tied for the lead in the final round. Curtis Strange winning two in a row was quite dramatic. My favorite is Tom Watson winning at Pebble in 1982. The things he did the last round to win were amazing. Especially the chip in on 17 the last round.