Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Fantasy Golf: The U.S. Open Preview

"Hey . . . wanna hear the most
annoying sound in the world?"
As I lay in bed Monday night listening to the torrential rain work its way through the hole in my roof and then through the ceiling of the hallway on the floor above me before descending into a large copper tub with a steady drumbeat of sound that can best be described as a "ploop" followed by a "twang,"* two thoughts took turns passing through my mind: (1) now I get Chinese water torture; and (2) how is this going to effect the U.S. Open which will be played about 95 miles northwest of this monsoon?

The overriding story of the 2013 U.S. Open so far has been the rain which wiped-out member guest rounds up and down the East coast last weekend** and continued into the beginning of this week with a force not seen since Ed Harris tried to capsize Jim Carey at the end of The Truman Show. According to Ernie Els, you could bring helicopters in and they wouldn't be able to dry-out Merion by this Thursday (but what about hovercrafts Ernie . . . did you think of that . . . no, I didn't think so). So it's going to be a bit squooshy out there, but what does that mean to us as we try to project ourselves into the back nine on Sunday to see who's intestinal fortitude Johnny Miller will be questioning?

Tiger is obviously the prohibitive favorite at 6 to 1 but, if you still have him available, you had to already be asking yourself a couple of questions even before the weather became a factor (and, oh yeah, the rain is not done this week): (1) Did the train wreck at Muirfield give you second thoughts on the state of Tiger's game?; and (2) Will the repeated questions from the U.S. Open media circus about Sergio annoy Tiger to the point of distraction? If you answered "yes" to either of those, you may want to take a long look at a player who hits a few more fairways and one who won't be surprised when the atypical U.S. Open conditions don't eliminate some of the pretenders. (Tiger has been known to give a few stunned post-round interviews where a score he thought was solid came-up way short . . . those are always fun because he can be as incredulous as a 17 year old girl who just got her cell phone taken away for failing biology).

"Yeah, well so is my Johnson."***
Before we answer those questions, let's first acknowledge that the list of golf "experts" who have doubted Tiger to their peril in the past is long but distinguished. As recently as March, some of us were questioning him after he was knocked-out of the Match Play in the first round and then finished T37th at the Honda Classic. He then went cuckoo for Coco Puffs winning the WGC Cadillac Championship, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the Players Championship and he would have won the Masters if not for the absurdly bad break with the shot off the flagstick in the second round.****

That means his last five results are win, win, should have won, win and then a tie for 65th. I think it's safe to say that he was either (a) working on something at the Memorial or (b) really didn't feel like hanging-out and kissing Jack Nicklaus' ass on Sunday after his round (and if you watched the somewhat painful coverage with Jack in the announcers booth, you wouldn't blame him . . . whoa . . . was that a lightning bolt?). For the sake of this discussion, however, let's assume that Tiger was refining a few parts of his game that he thought would be critical for navigating Merion. If you accept that and dismiss the notion that any lingering Sergio chatter is going to distract him (which I think is reasonable), then Tiger's case is pretty strong . . . unless you consider the following:

1. Tiger has finished first or second in five U.S. Opens but they have all come when conditions have been brutal or borderline brutal. In 2008 at Torrey Pines, the winning score was a tie at -1. In 2002 at Bethpage, Tiger was the only player under par at -3. In 2007 at Oakmont, Angel Cabrera won at +5 with Tiger a shot behind and the winning score at Pinehurst in 2005 was even par with Tiger two back. (Tiger's win at Pebble has it's own unique place in history with Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak and Rich Kotite's coaching career because we'll probably never see anything like either of them again). With the wet conditions this week, everyone is calling for a record number of birdies and that's going to reduce Tiger's advantage over the field because he thrives on grinding more than just about any player in history. Get ready for at least one post-round interview where he looks like he's about to say, "but mom, how am I supposed to talk to my friends and how was I supposed to know Billy Horschel was going to shoot 64?";

2. If Tiger is going to win another U.S. Open, he's going to have to earn it. In his last six major wins, the runner-ups have been Rocco Mediate, Woody Austin, Shaun Micheel, Chris DiMarco (twice) and Colin Montgomerie who have combined to win exactly one major. Take a look at Rob Boltons Top 25 Power Rankings from PGATour.com this week and tell me that Tiger isn't going to have to outrun at least one, if not two or three world class players to the finish line on Sunday; and

3. He is playing his first two rounds with Adam Scott which means a lot of quality time with Stevie Williams and a slightly less awkward version of an Ike and Tina Turner reunion tour.

Ultimately, this should be similar to 2011 when Rory McIlroy went bonkers on a rain-soaked Congressional course and made 18 birdies and an eagle on his way to shooting 16 under. The one difference is that the rough at Merion is supposed to be unprecedentedly thick so there will be more of a premium on accuracy off the tee. This week's top ten list is therefore a delicate blend of straight hitters and birdie machines. As you can see, I am leaning ever so slightly away from putting Tiger in the top spot based on the conditions and the competition but I get two picks this week and he's being strongly considered for one of them. Will he make the FGR cut? I'll let you know on Thursday via Twitter (hey, I've got a league to win too).

Hey, look who has U.S. Open fever.
U.S. Open Top Ten

1. Graeme McDowell
2. Tiger Woods
3. Steve Stricker
4. Brandt Snedeker
5. Henrik Stenson
6. Matt Kuchar
7. Peter Hanson
8. Phil Mickelson
9. Adam Scott
10. Billy Horschel

Endnotes

* Why did we use a large copper tub? I have no f-cking idea. Using a snare drum or a glockenspiel to catch the water would have been less annoying.

** Fortunately, I was playing on the road last weekend at a club that takes the attitude of, "if our course isn't worth trashing for our member-guest, then what's the point of having it?" I love my home course but man they treat it like an old lady who refuses to take the plastic off the couch.

*** We've been way overdue for a Top Gun reference. Speaking of which, has anyone seen Rick Rossovich since his classic portrayal of the lovable if not somewhat dimwitted fireman across from Steve Martin who played a modern day Cyrano de Bergerac in Roxanne? Rossovich was responsible for one of the most randomly quoted lines of my college career when he was trying to impress a hot bartender with tales of his travels to the California Redwoods and noted of the experience, "I like to go there and just be . . . I always take a meat sandwich with me." That of course led to "we take a family trip to the beach every summer . . . I always take a meat sandwich with me" and "I'm heading over to the library . . . I'm going to take a meat sandwich with me." (college style hilarity ensued).

Practice, practice, practice.
**** If the ball doesn't hit the stick and ultimately cost him four strokes, Tiger is one shot back going into Saturday and no one is convincing me that he doesn't run away from the field at that point. The fact that he fought back to finish tied for 4th under the circumstances may be one of his greatest accomplishments. He knew he should have been DQ'd but that didn't distract him as all of those years spent leading a double life apparently trained him for that guiltless moment proving yet again that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. The guy is a pro.

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