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U.S. Open Preview: Tiger's Time, Finally?

Greg Vara

Vara is the lead golf writer at RotoWire. He was named the 2013 FSWA Golf Writer of the Year. In addition to producing the weekly preview and the bulk of the draft kit content, Vara participates in Yahoo!'s "Experts Picks" where he routinely dominates. He also picks college football games against the spread in his "College Capper" article.

The second major of the year is upon us, and unlike the leadup to the Masters a couple months ago, no one seems to have any idea how this will play out. Now, even though we all thought we knew who would win the Masters, the eventual winner, Bubba Watson, was quite a surprise. It wasn't always like this, though. The PGA TOUR changed immensely with the arrival of Tiger Woods in the mid-'90s, and for a long while the game became more predictable. That, however, is not the case now. The PGA TOUR of today more closely resembles the sport we witnessed in the late-'80s. Instead of three or four players in the mix each week, it's 30 or 40. Instead of only a handful of golfers with a chance to win a major, more than a quarter of the field has a legitimate shot. That unpredictability makes the leadup to this U.S. Open a little less exciting perhaps - an expected showdown between Tiger, Rory and Phil had everyone drooling prior to the Masters - but once the first tee is in the ground Thursday, that simply won't matter: this is the U.S. Open, and the man lifting the trophy Sunday might not even be on your radar today.

This week:
U.S. Open

Last Year:
Rory McIlroy shot a final-round 70 on his way to an eight-stroke victory over Jason Day.

Players to Consider:

1. Rory McIlroy

McIlroy is not at the top of his game, but he showed a little something last week in Memphis and might be ready to turn his game up another notch. He'll certainly need to this week.

2. Tiger Woods

Woods was in this exact position prior to the Masters, coming off a win in his most recent start leading up to the event. We all know how that turned out. That said, Woods certainly knows how to get around a USGA layout, and, as of now, his game is sharp.

3. Charl Schwartzel

Schwartzel has been a little off this season, but he looks to be in good position to strike this week. He was similarly under the radar entering the 2011 Masters. Schwartzel seems to be comfortable on U.S. Open layouts, which could lead to his second major victory this week.

4. Lee Westwood

It feels like many people are giving up on Westwood winning a major championship, and that's usually the time when it finally happens. Westwood has a couple top-5s on his U.S. Open resume and could very well add another this week.

5. Jason Dufner

It's easy to overlook Dufner this week. After all, it's been a few weeks since his most recent win, and his track record at the U.S. Open is nothing to brag about. But he's one of the best players going at the moment, and he proved his mettle at the PGA Championship last year, so we know he can handle himself on a tough layout.

Players to Avoid:

1. Kevin Na

Na has been under the spotlight a couple times this season, most notably for his inability to pull the trigger on his shots a few weeks ago, but this week he'll likely start and finish out of the limelight as he's really struggled on the USGA layouts the last two years.

2. Nick Watney

As is the nature of the events where the venue differs from year to year, it's certainly possible that a player who's struggled on multiple layouts can succeed on a random course, but the odds are against it. Watney has struggled nearly every year at the U.S. Open, and there's no reason to think this year will be different.

3. Jason Day

Day was the runner-up at the U.S. Open last year, as well as the Masters, but his game hasn't resembled that form at all this year. His game is better now than it was earlier this year, but he's still too far off to contend this week.

4. Y.E. Yang

Yang tied for third last year at the U.S. Open, but his play isn't at that level now. Yang already has a major victory on his resume, so we know he's capable of coming up big at a major, but it's not in the cards this week.

5. Zach Johnson

Johnson has the type of game that would seem to fit USGA layouts perfectly, but for some reason he's never fared well at the U.S. Open. His best Open finish came last year when he tied for 30th. And let's not forget about his performance last week either.


This week:
U.S. Open

Group A

1. Matt Kuchar
2. Phil Mickelson

I suppose it makes sense that in a week that seems so wide open no player in Group A made my top-5. That's not to say there aren't good options, though. As evidence by the two players I chose, there are quite a few solid plays this week. Donald is the most obvious omission, but I couldn't justify taking him over Kuchar this week.

Group B

1. Tiger Woods
2. Bubba Watson
3. Rory McIlroy
4. Lee Westwood

Group B is loaded, including the foursome selected here. Three of my top-5 come from Group B this week, and the only player not in my top-5 is Bubba Watson, who just happened to win the first major of the season. Watson's game doesn't seem well-suited for an Open layout, but he's actually had some success in past years. Watson earned a top-20 at the Open in 2009 and a top-5 in 2007.

Group C

1. Jason Dufner
2. Charl Schwartzel

This might not be the most popular pair this week, but that's all the better isn't it? Dufner will be looking to grab the major that eluded him last year at the PGA Championship, and he has the game to pull it off. Schwartzel already has a major in hand, so we know he's capable of handling the big stage this week.

Starters Round One

1. Matt Kuchar
2. Tiger Woods
3. Rory McIlroy
4. Jason Dufner

Selecting first-round starters is a difficult task made even more problematic during a major. Often a golfer will go one way or the other during the first round and never change course. The problem, of course, is it's difficult to tell which way he'll go in round one. That's where the research comes in. All you can do is put the best roster together and hope it plays out like you expect. After the first round, well, that's why you watch. You let your eyes tell you which way to go. As for me, I'm starting with the Players Champion, Matt Kuchar, in Group A. Group B I'm going with Tiger and Rory; pretty predictable, but they appear to be the best pair Thursday. Dufner in Group C on a hunch; Schwartzel has the major track record, but Dufner looks to be in better form.

Round Two and Going Forward:

As always during majors, check the weather. Most notably, the wind. Wind can alter an entire championship depending on which side of the draw you are on. That hasn't been the case lately, but you never know when weather will be a factor. All things equal, this is how I see the week playing out: Kuchar gets the nod Thursday, but Group A is up in the air after that. I'll go with the hotter player Friday. Woods and McIlroy have a pretty strong hold on the starting spots in Group B. I'll likely give Tiger a longer leash, however, so I plan on starting Tiger on Thursday and Friday. If McIlroy starts well, he'll also get the nod Friday; if not, I'll pull him. Westwood is likely the first one off the bench, but that could change depending on how he and Bubba start. Group C is up for grabs after Thursday. I'm leaning toward Schwartzel on Friday regardless of how Dufner starts.

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