Tour Confidential: Is Tiger’s game steady enough to win the U.S. Open?

June 4, 2018

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1. Tiger Woods, in his last start before the U.S. Open, put on his best ball-striking display of the season — leading the field in Strokes Gained tee to green — and finished T23 at the Memorial. While his putter let him down and he had trouble finishing out rounds, the outing was undoubtedly another step in the right direction. But is Tiger’s game steady enough to win at Shinnecock Hills?

Sean Zak, associate editor (@sean_zak): No. He’s demonstrated he’s very capable of making birdies, but can he walk along the edge of a cliff (as U.S. Opens tend to make you do) without falling over the edge? That driver will be used plenty at Shinnecock and it’s just not trustworthy enough. But, of course, anything can happen.

Dylan Dethier, associate editor (@dylan_dethier): I’m not as worried about the driver, but it’s hard not to be a little rattled by the putting. At the same time, Tiger’s irons looked ridiculous this week — the difficult greens at Shinny could be a great equalizer, tie going in favor of the best ball-striking. I think he can win.

Josh Sens, contributing writer (@JoshSens): Tiger’s been playing Whack-a-Mole in his last few events — knock down one problem, and another one rears its head. CAN he win? Sure. Will he? This is the year’s most thorough examination, as they say, and I don’t see all aspects of Tiger’s game standing up to that four-day test.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor (@Jeff_Ritter): He’s rounding into form and his ball-striking is astonishing, but like Sens said, Shinnecock will be set up to be the toughest test of the season. I think Tiger could very well win somewhere this year, but with a streaky driver and shaky putter, Shinny isn’t going to be the spot. I like him to finish somewhere in the 20s or 30s, similar to the Memorial or the Masters.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): After last year’s experiment at Erin Hills, where an astonishing 31 players finished under par, it sounds like we will return to a more traditional U.S. Open test this year at Shinnecock. If we are, then the test becomes much more about ball-striking, game management, patience and, above all else, toughness. Tiger has all these tools. I wouldn’t put anything past him. If he strikes it as good as he did this week, I don’t see how he wouldn’t contend. Putting comes and goes. There’s nothing wrong with his stroke or approach; it was just one of those weeks where putts didn’t go in.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: Tiger’s history suggests that you should put nothing by him. But you cannot possibly win a U.S. Open the way he was putting at Memorial, and it is hard to flip a switch and restore your gift for line and speed. I think he’ll play well, and take another step.


2. Ariya Jutanugarn, after blowing a big lead late, beat Hyo-Joo Kim on the fourth playoff hole to win the U.S. Women’s Open. The Women’s Open was an 18-hole playoff until 2007, when it moved to a three-hole aggregate, but this year was the first time it switched to a two-hole aggregate before sudden death, a change the USGA announced in February for its four biggest championships. What did you think of our first sample size of the two-hole variety?

Zak: It’s great. For one, single-hole playoffs are lame. We saw Kim take the lead through one, which incited a now-or-never type moment for Jutanugarn. Kim wasn’t allowed to just skate off with her one great hole, though. She needed to seal the deal, and she didn’t. Anyone who wants more than two holes is asking for a lot of these women after four days and 72 holes.

Dethier: I loved it. Win the first hole? You’d better validate that at the second. It adds a layer that doesn’t exist in simple sudden death without sacrificing any of the urgency of the do-or-die moment. Bring on more theater like this.

Sens: What they said. Just as one hole seems too short and potentially fluky a format for settling such a grueling event, the four-hole format of the British Open feels like overkill. Two is the Goldilocks solution. Just about right.

Ritter: Can’t believe Ariya coughed up a seven-shot lead in regulation but found a way to grind out two pars in the payoff to win it. Great theater. A Monday 18-hole playoff would have sapped the event of its momentum, and the Sunday night finish made the two-hole format pass its first test with flying colors.

Bamberger: Two holes is too few by 16 for the most important title in women’s golf.

3. Bryson DeChambeau, 24, picked up his second career Tour victory when he went par-birdie in a playoff to take down Kyle Stanley and Byeong Hun An. DeChambeau’s single-length clubs and analytical thinking get plenty of attention, but does his game get the credit it deserves?

Zak: When watching him, it almost feels like he’s treated like a circus animal, where he’s just existing in his own little world and we’re all on the outside looking in at him, wondering what he’s thinking. Of course, his analytical approach is his calling card, but victories constantly speak for themselves. People are beginning to recognize him for being a phenomenal ball-striker and a really good driver, and not just a guy measuring everything. It’s taken longer than it should have, though.

Dethier: He’s putting together one of the best seasons on Tour — he already had notched four top fives this year before the win this week. The “mad scientist” talk is fun but can get lazy and caricaturish. The real question to ask: who’s going to be his Ryder Cup partner?

Sens: The modern game can seem so uniform that anyone who breaks convention naturally draws attention as a curiosity. And with DeChambeau, it’s not just the clubs and the deep data dives — it’s also the swing itself. He’s a product of our high-tech times, but he’s also a throwback to an era when you could tell most swings apart from a distance on the range. That’s part of the appeal of watching him. It’s a reminder of how many ways there are to get it done.

Wood: It’s sure starting to. With a win here at the Memorial against a very strong field, he’s showing it’s not just a fun little experiment. He’s been playing great all year long and a bigger win like this has felt around the corner for a while now.

Ritter: The only thing about BDC — what do we think about calling him BDC? — that feels retro to me is his headwear. He’s a modern pro, a unique character and he’s here to stay. We can debate the swing technique, the clubs, the data-driven approach, but Tour wins speak for themselves. I’m excited to see more.

Zak: Until another Bryson comes along to play well on Tour, BDC won’t work for me. Let’s keep it first-name basis — just Bryson.

Ritter: I’m good with that, but just so the people know, there’s a collegiate Bryson on the rise. DeChambeau’s first-name-only status may expire soon.

Bamberger: I’m amazed at how much speed he has through the ball. In my mind, the swing is so mechanical and forced-looking, and I don’t give him near enough credit for athleticism. So, yes, from my own selfish view I’d say he is not given enough credit.

4. Rory McIlroy said the USGA tends to “overthink it” when it comes to course setup for the U.S. Open. “I think the USGA thinks that we’re better than we actually are, if that makes sense,” he said. “I don’t think it should be as much of an exact science to set up golf course as it is. I mean, get the fairways sort of firm, grow the rough, put the pins in some tough locations, but fair, and go let us play.” Is Rory right?

Zak: I completely agree. I don’t support the bastardization of course setups for sake of staying near par. I also don’t support degrading major tracks like Erin Hills just because one (!) golfer got to 16 under. I hope more players say something similar while on that USGA podium at Shinnecock Hills.

Dethier: Rory’s right! And let’s celebrate him for speaking the truth, just as he did when criticizing other players’ complaints at last year’s U.S. Open. Any time this man is given a microphone, I’m there.

Sens: The goal of protecting par for par’s sake has produced some goofy setups. That’s what Rory was saying, and he’s right. And I’m with you, Dylan. Rory gives great press conference. Arguably the best in the game.

Ritter: It reminded me of last year at Erin Hills, when the USGA shockingly hacked down large swaths of rough in response to player complaints during the practice rounds. A textbook example of overthinking. Of course Rory’s right, but even if they aren’t necessarily trying to protect par, the USGA wants to make the U.S. Open tough — and I think fans also want to see a course that pushes players to the limit. That takes a fair amount of planning. The USGA ran into problems recently at Chambers Bay and Erin Hills, two new venues, but I’m optimistic they’ll find the right balance at Shinnecock’s familiar confines.

Wood: I hadn’t heard this quote, but I absolutely love it. I couldn’t agree more. I think we had that at Oakmont a couple of years ago. I question the abundance of multiple tees that they seem to want to use for many of the 18 holes. At Chambers Bay it was difficult enough to find all the proposed tees we were going to play from, much less actually practice from. (A huge reason U.S. Open practice rounds have routinely become six-hour affairs.) I trust most Tour caddies and players who do this week in and week out to figure out a new tee (distance, angle, club choice) but it slows down play to a crawl sometimes when even some of the best are looking in their yardage books and at each other wondering, “What tee is this?”

Bamberger: Amen Rory, Sean, Dylan, Josh, Jeff and John. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Rory’s almost as smart as another U.S. Open winner, Geoff Ogilvy.

5. McIlroy also said last week that he’s not a fan of the Tour’s star-heavy featured groups for Thursday and Friday rounds, adding that he told PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan that the all-star groups at the Players “backfired” a little bit. “There’s just so much buzz and hype around the group on a Thursday or Friday when there doesn’t really need to be, and that could affect some players,” he said. (McIlroy played with Thomas and Spieth at the Players, while Tiger, Phil and Fowler were also grouped together; McIlroy, Phil and Fowler all missed the cut.) Legitimate beef?

Zak: It’s a sound thought, but it’s not viable. The Tour has a product to sell, and that product will ALWAYS be the 10-15 biggest players. It makes sense for them on various levels to put these guys together. I’m not saying I love the idea of supergroups, I’m just saying the Tour won’t be backing down from that ideology.

Dethier: I have made my views on this subject expressly clear in a column for They’re manipulative, anti-climactic, shortsighted, and I won’t stand for them any longer. END THEM!

Sens: “So much buzz and hype?” Wow. That sounds awful. Who would want there to be a lot of excitement swirling around an event? As Sean says, it’s entertainment. I have no problem with it. And the problem I have with ending these “super groups” is this: Who decides what qualifies as such? So Rory, Thomas and Spieth generate buzz. But what if it were Rory, Thomas and, I dunno, Ryan Moore? Is that un-buzzy enough? Where does the Tour draw the line? Sounds like Rory is doing his own version of “overthinking” here. (Or maybe I am?) But again, dig the forthrightness.

Ritter: Rory’s point that he’d rather see a super group on Sunday instead of Thursday is well taken. But as we all know, high-wattage Sunday showdowns don’t happen all that often. Tiger and Phil have now played together for 37 rounds, but do you know how many times they’ve gone head-to-head on Sunday at a major? (I’ll wait here if you want to look it up yourself.) Once, at the 2001 Masters, when Woods completed the Tiger Slam. Super groups may be contrived, but the Tour can’t bank on transcendent pairings on the weekends.

Wood: I agree, but for a different reason. Those two examples notwithstanding, I think it’s a bit of a competitive advantage to play in these groups. It’s more fun, there’s more energy, and when you play with the same people every week (there is quite a bit of overlap in the featured groups at each tournament) I think it becomes more of a routine. But they’re not going away anytime soon.

Bamberger: I like ’em.

6. The USGA granted two special exemptions for this year’s U.S. Open: to Jim Furyk and Ernie Els. If they gave you the green light to invite one more player, who gets the nod?

Zak: In my best John Wood impersonation, I’d select Dylan Dethier.

Dethier: Wow, Zak stole my answer. I lobbied the USGA rep at the Memorial this week for a special exemption to sectionals, but I think I was still about 50 alternate spots shy (and that was just from my site). Appreciate the support from my caddie, though.

Sens: With the exemption granted for the first time this year to the U.S. Junior champ, I think the USGA has it pretty well covered. With apologies to Dylan Dethier, what about Retief Goosen? Two-time U.S. Open champ, including the last time it was held at Shinnecock.

Ritter: Agree that it’s a little odd not to give Goosen a victory lap. A buzzier choice (other than Dylan) might’ve been Joaquin Niemann, the 19-year-old Chilean who just turned pro and made some noise at the Memorial. I’m telling you, he’s gonna win somewhere on Tour before he turns 21.

Wood: Stealing this one directly from my boss, Kooch. Retief Goosen. Unless it’s been 25 years in between visits to a specific U.S Open site, or it’s a new course like Chambers or Erin Hills, the defending U.S. Open champion from that course should get an invite. They’ve earned the chance, and it would always make for a good story.

Bamberger: Goosen, of course. Not even a debate.