Here are some preliminary thoughts on several players in the news as the US Open draws nearer.
Steve Stricker – His win in the last significant (not to say "Major") tournament before the Open will have some fantasy players picking him to win at Congressional. This is the fallacy of recency – the concept that whoever's hot now will likely continue to play well at the next Major. But Stricker's primary strength is in his wedge game, and US Open courses are not known for affording players a lot of wedge approaches to greens. Stricker is an excellent Tour player, and his win at The Memorial vaulted him to #4 in the Official World Golf Rankings, tops among American players. But that doesn't make him the right choice this year. One point in his favor: He's third on Tour in scrambling, something that will be at a premium at the Open.
Tiger Woods – ESPN recently reported that Woods spoke with Jack Nicklaus in late May, and expressed doubt that he could be ready to play by June 16, given the state of his knee and leg injuries. So what's a fantasy player to do if Tiger says at the last minute, "Okay; I'm ready to go"? Our advice is to use the Nancy Reagan approach, and Just Say No. As you read on this site last month, Woods is now an average Tour player, and that assumes that he's healthy enough to bear a weight shift. Why would you back an average Tour player with a bad leg? The answer is that you wouldn't, if there weren't something magical in the name. Amazingly, as of this writing, Woods is a co-favorite to win the Open, at 12-1. Those who pick Tiger to roar back and win in Bethesda are betting with their hearts, not their heads.
Charl Schwartzel – It's only June, and already there's only one guy with a chance at the Grand Slam. This year's Masters champion will get a lot of questions from the press next week about the pressure (though nowhere near the number of questions that Woods will get if he just shows up). Like Stricker, he's quite talented, and there's something to be said for the fact that right now, all four Majors titles are held by non-US players. (The last time an American won a Major was Phil Mickelson at the 2010 Masters.) But winning an Open takes very different skills from those required to win a Masters. Don't be surprised if Schwartzel finds the Open rough to be overly punitive, and gets a nice, early Saturday tee time – if he's there at all that day.
Luke Donald and Ian Poulter – If they ever convert the Open to match play, then I'll take these two against the field, and I'll lay odds. But it's stroke play for the first 72 or 90 holes, as Rocco Mediate can assure you. Donald, the current #1 in the world, actually does make a legitimate pre-Open short list of favorites; he, Woods, and Mickelson are each listed at 12-1, and Donald's game is nonpareil right now. Poulter will attract betting attention because, well, he attracts attention. He's a good pick to finish in the Top 15, but not a strong choice to take home the hardware.
Rory McIlroy – Let's stay on the other side of the pond for a moment and consider the Europeans' version of The Boy Wonder. McIlroy has talent enough to make two golf champions, if he ever considered becoming an organ donor. But really, when's the last time he put together four solid rounds in a big event? We all recall how he took charge of the British Open last year by butchering The Old Course for a 63 on Thursday. The next day he fell apart in the wind and carded an 80. He did come back with solid (though unspectacular) rounds of 69-68 on the weekend to finish T3; but US Open conditions will be uncharitable for four days, regardless of the weather. (If you really want to pick someone from the kiddie corps, try Rickie Fowler instead. McIlroy's listed at 16-1, while you can get terrific odds of 66-1 on Fowler.)
Jim Furyk – Now you're talking. Furyk is a grinder (for another example, see Zach Johnson), and this kind of setup generally rewards players like that, who can hang around par through tough conditions, and maybe steal a couple of birdies per round.
Lefty – Who's the best left-handed golfer in the world right now? If you judge by the OWGR, it's Mickelson, at #5. But you should consider Bubba Watson (#12) instead. His play over the last 12 months has been noticeably better than Mickelson's. Phil still has that magic touch around the greens, but Bubba's extraordinary length will make certain tough holes easier, all by itself. Trust me – if you consistently hit your approaches from the rough with a 9-iron and your opponent is hitting 6-irons from the fairway, you will eventually slaughter him over time. Bubba leads the Tour in greens in regulation, is ninth in total driving, and makes a very sensible play here.
Matt Kuchar – He's been rising steadily in the world rankings as a result of an extraordinarily consistent game. Ironically, his reliability picked up when his swing coach told him to take the athleticism out of his game, and just rely on big-muscle movements that can be grooved. If he shows up at Congressional with a hot putter, look out.
Lee Westwood – In examining his credentials, let's begin with a list of the majors he's won: Hmmm; looks like we don't have any of those. Okay; to expand the list somewhat, let's add in his wins in the "fifth Major," The Players. Alas; that doesn't help. How about ANY wins on this side of the pond? Well, there was his playoff win in last year's St. Jude; and back in 1998, he won something called the Freeport-McDermott Classic. And that's it. Westwood, despite being among the more dominant golfers in the world right now, has seldom done well in America. His best US Open finish is third, three years ago at Torrey Pines when he shot a 2-over 73 on Sunday to miss (by one stroke) that playoff between Rocco and You-Know-Who. We won't decry his talent, but we won't be picking him for our Open fantasy lineups, either.
Graeme McDowell – Can't leave out the defending champion, can we? Well, start him if you must, but the last player to successfully defend his US Open title was Curtis Strange. For those of you without a clear sense of history, that was before the Berlin Wall came down.
Vijay Singh – If you're thinking of starting him, STOP. He has yet to qualify for the event, and unless he wins or places in this week's event in Memphis (which he may not even enter), he'll be watching the Open on television like the rest of us. Last year he got a special exemption to play at Pebble Beach, but that probably isn't coming this year.
So, who am I backing at this early juncture? As I write this, there are still ten days left before the first group tees off. But if I had to pick a foursome right now, I'd go with Watson (Bubba, not Tom), Furyk, Donald, and Kuchar. They assuredly won't finish 1-2-3-4; but there's a pretty good chance that I'll have an opportunity to be rooting for at least one of them late Sunday afternoon. (In the interest of full disclosure, the author notes that his favorite golfer, for whom he will be rooting unabashedly, is Miguel Angel Jimenez. That doesn't make The Mechanic the best bet to win; but it's easy to root for a good-natured, well-liked guy who finishes a round of golf and then lights a cigar, unties his pony tail, and pours himself a glass of Rioja.)