US Open golf preview: More sticks than carrots face this year’s field of hopefuls

Major golf tournaments have their moments. Sometimes it’s the carrot, and sometimes it’s the stick.

While it may seem that other Majors’ layouts and courses reward great shots with corresponding low scores, the U.S. Open has the nasty habit of punishing mistakes — from Phil Mickelson’s 18th hole meltdown in 2006 at Winged Foot, to Retief Goosen’s collapse the year before at Pinehurst.

From Dustin Johnson’s final round 82 at Pebble Beach in 2010, to Arnold Palmer losing a seven-shot lead on the back nine at Olympic in 1966. Palmer finished second four times in six years at the U.S. Open, and he wasn’t the only elite player to be humbled on the national championship stage. Greats like Tom Watson and Gary Player also only won the U.S. Open just once. It’s the lone Major that Tiger Woods hasn’t repeated as champion at (not to disparage the PGA one month after calling it the “Ringo of Majors,” Tiger repeated twice in that tournament). While Arnold Palmer finished second four times, he did triumph in 1960 (besting a 20-year old amateur named Jack Nicklaus by two strokes).

You may hear this weekend that Phil Mickelson has come in second six times on this stage. You may also hear that Phil was born in San Diego near this year’s course, Torrey Pines. You may also have heard that he’s fresh off winning the PGA Championship, becoming the oldest man to win a Major at 50. All eyes will be on Phil as he may be enjoying his last best chance to complete the career grand slam. In 1999, Mickelson posted his first runner-up finish as his wife was near labor expecting their first child. Sunday is Father’s Day.

Favorites (odds courtesy CBS Sports)

Jon Rahm (10-1): The Spaniard was the Low Amateur in 2016 at Oakmont and tied for third in 2019. The 26-year old has yet to win a Major, but has seven top 10 finishes in the last four years. He also has won at Torrey Pines, carding a 13 under par in the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open (he took second last year). But Rahm is coming out of quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 while owning a six-shot lead at the Memorial Tournament. That has to be somewhat unsettling.

Justin Thomas (14-1): The two-time PGA Player of the Year won The Players Championship in March but has just one top 20 finish in the six tournaments entered since. He tied for 21st at the Masters and missed the cut at the PGA Championship. He’s currently second on the money list but only one of his five top 10 finishes has come since the start of February.

Dustin Johnson (14-1): The 2016 winner has been feast or famine in the years since, finishing third and tying for sixth while missing the cut and tying for 35th. His four wins over the last 12 months include last fall’s Masters.

Rory McIlroy (14-1): I can’t believe it was 10 years ago that Rory McIlroy burst on the scene with his 16-under triumph at Congressional Country Club. Since that weekend he’s posted three top 10 finishes in the event while missing the cut three times. His PGA Championship performance (tying for 49th) was better than his showing at the Masters (missed cut), but one thinks he still may be a ways off from returning to prime form.

Jordan Spieth (14-1): Rory’s seven-year Major drought may be longer, but Spieth after winning three from 2015 to 2017 has just four top 10 finishes over the last four years. He’s missed the cut twice and tied for 65th in his last three U.S. Opens. Spieth missed the cut at this year’s Farmers Insurance Open, but in the 11 tournaments since, has posted seven top 10.

Bryson DeChambeau (14-1): What does one make of the tour’s lightning rod? Should he wear a cape and have a twirlable mustache? (For the record, every sport needs if not a genuine villain one that has a twirlable mustache.) The defending champ has won once since triumphing at Winged Foot last September (Arnold Palmer Invitational) while tying for 46th at the Masters and 38th at the PGA Championship.

Brooks Koepka (14-1): One of the rare repeat champions (Curtis Strange in 1988-89 is the only other modern-era player to win consecutive Opens) who plays his best on the big stage (four of his eight Tour wins have been Majors). And he did finish second at the PGA Championship. But he also missed the cut at Torrey Pines in January for the Farmers Insurance Open, and that was before he had knee surgery in March. Since coming back, Koepka has missed three cuts in four tournaments.

Contenders

Collin Morikawa (18-1): The 24-year-old tied for eighth while defending his PGA Championship last month. He’s tied for 35th and missed the cut in his previous two U.S. Opens. Morikawa finished 21st the last time he played at Torrey Pines in 2020. His 18th place finish at the Masters was the start of the first of five straight top-20s entering this week.

Xander Schauffele (18-1): He’s ranked seventh on the money list and has finished in the top six every time he’s played in the U.S. Open. The 27-year-old missed the cut at the PGA after tying for third at the Masters. While he hasn’t won on the Tour this season, he does have three runner-up finishes, including the Farmers Insurance Open in January at Torrey Pines.

Patrick Cantlay (22-1): He tied for 21st to hold Low Amateur honors in 2011 at Congressional Country Club, and has yet to finish in the top 20 (in other years, he’s tied for 21st, 41st, 43rd, and 45th). The 29-year-old is third on the Money List and won the Memorial earlier this month in a playoff but has missed four cuts in his last six tournaments.

Viktor Hovland (25-1): Another former Low Amateur (in 2019 he tied for 12th) tied for 13th last year. He’s fifth on the Money List thanks to five top-five finishes since the new year, and his nine under par tied for second in January at Torrey Pines.

Hideki Matsuyama (28-1): Since winning the Masters, he finished 39th at the Byron Nelson, 23rd at the PGA Championship and 62nd at the Memorial Tournament earlier this month. His last visit to Torrey Pines was a less-than-ideal 53rd place showing.

Patrick Reed (33-1): He’s the most recent winner at Torrey Pines, carding a 14 under par to triumph at this year’s Farmers Insurance Open. Since then, he’s posted four top 10s while missing three cuts. The 2018 Masters champ had his best finish at this Major two months later that year at Shinnecock.

Tony Finau (33-1): After tying for second at this year’s Farmers Insurance Open, he posted a pair of top 10 finishes at the Masters and PGA Championship. The 31-year-old is still known as the guy who dislocated his ankle at the 2018 Masters Par-3 contest.

Other former Open winners in the field

Webb Simpson (33-1): The 2012 champ hasn’t played since tying for 30th at the PGA Championship, but Simpson finished 12th at this year’s Masters, 10th last November at Augusta National, and eighth at Winged Foot last September.

Justin Rose (40-1): The 2013 winner missed the cut last fall. He also has a win at Torrey Pines in his pocket, having prevailed in 2019 with a score of 21 under par. He’s put together top 10 finishes in the first two Majors of the year for the first time in his career since 2007 (seventh at the Masters and tied for eighth at the PGA).

Gary Woodland (70-1): The 2019 titlist missed the cut last year. His victory at Pebble Beach remains his only top 10 finish in this Major, and one of two times he’s placed in the top 25. Woodland finished at even par and in 48th at this year’s Farmers Insurance Open. The 37-year-old’s Major performances this year have been 40th at the Masters and 38th at the PGA.

Martin Kaymer (200-1): Since winning at Pinehurst in the 2014, the German has missed four cuts while placing 35th and 37th. He’s missed the cut in his last three PGA Tour events, and last reached the weekend at the Austrian Golf Open in April (third place finish).

Other recent winners at Torrey Pines

Marc Leishman (66-1): The 2020 Farmers Insurance Open winner beat John Rahm by one stroke last year before tying for 18th in his title defense. The Australian has one top 20 finish at the U.S. Open in his career. He tied for fifth at the Masters, and missed the cut at the PGA Championship.

Jason Day (66-1): The two-time champ (2015, 2018) has finished second at the U.S. Open twice (2011, 2013). The 2015 PGA Championship winner has finished out of the top 20 here in each of the last four years.

Bubba Watson (100-1): The 2012 winner has made his name at Augusta National with the 2012 and 2014 Masters wins. In 10 U.S. Opens, Watson has missed the cut six times and has yet to finish in the top 30.

Forever on the fringe

Rickie Fowler (50-1): Amazingly enough, Fowler was an amateur in 2008 when the tournament was last held at Torrey Pines. After tying for 60th that year, he’s proceeded to post three top-10s and two top-fives. Fowler’s only 32, and one figures that like Sergio Garcia, he’ll find his way into winning one major before his window of opportunity closes.

Phil Mickelson (50-1): The PGA Champion began 2021 auspiciously with a 53rd place finish at Torrey Pines, one week after missing the cut at The American Express. While he has won at Torrey Pines in the past (back when it was called the Buick Invitational and the Buick Invitational of California), he tied for 18th the last time the U.S. Open was played here. But he’s enjoying a second act to his career most would dream of — all six of his Majors have come since he turned 32. Was his PGA triumph the start of an improbable third act?

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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