4 U.S. Open pairings to watch during the first two rounds
If there’s one attribute that’s absolutely essential for any player hoping to walk away with the U.S. Open trophy this week, it’s an ability to be extremely patient. While it’s easy to live by the mantra “grip it and rip it” most weeks, the country’s open championship doesn’t afford you that luxury.
Four-foot wide fairways and rough up to your knees is the norm for the tournament that’s know as “golf’s ultimate test.” There’s a reason why the winner looks physically and mentally drained by weeks’ end. It’s because the course has most likely left him battered, bruised and ready for a week-long vacation.
Unlike the PGA Championship and British Open where no-name winners are the norm, the U.S. Open is particular when it comes to crowning a champion. Pebble Beach appears to be extremely choosy as well.
Just look at the names of past U.S. Open champions at Pebble Beach: Tiger Woods, Tom Kite, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus. Now THAT’S a list. Judging by the list of names, it’s safe to assume that we’ll be adding another future hall of famer to the list of champions to win the championship on the famed course.
As we prepare for Thursday’s opening round, here’s a look at four groups to watch during the opening two rounds. Most, if not all, of the players listed in each group have the pedigree to win this week. It’s just a matter of finding out who’s able to be extra-patient and grind out pars.
7:33 am PST – Camilo Villegas, Zach Johnson, Luke Donald: Two of the hottest players on the planet will be paired in this early morning group. It’s hard to put into words how well Donald has been playing, so I’ll put it in statistical form: T-3, T-26, T-2, Win, 2nd. Those would be Donald’s last five finishes since April 18th after he missed the cut the previous week at the Masters. Assuming he’s striking the ball well, there’s a good chance he’ll be near the top of the leader board on Sunday.
Zach Johnson, like Donald, is riding a wave of good play. His win at the Colonial, coupled with a T-12 last week at the St. Jude Classic, means he’s coming to the course with confidence. And we all know that’s desperately needed for a tournament such as this.
Camilo Villegas is still considered to be one of the best young players on tour. He also broke par in his last three rounds in Memphis last week, leading me to believe his game is coming around at the right time.
8:28 am PST – Nick Watney, Hunter Mahan, Ricky Barnes: Watney’s game has been up and down all season. But if there’s one place Watney seems to thrive, it’s on the West coast. Watney already has a win on the west coast (’09 Farmers Insurance) and seems to always fly under the radar. His ability to grind makes him a great dark horse choice.
Hunter Mahan is already gracing the top of Jason Sobel’s U.S. Open rankings, so he’s obviously a popular choice this week. Considering he finished T-6 at the U.S. Open last year and currently ranks in the top 30 in greens in regulation. We all know you need to hit fairways and greens if you want to contend.
Ricky Barnes can thank last season’s finish at Bethpage for getting him back on track. His T-2 in the ’09 U.S. Open officially moved him into the relevant category. His three top 10 finishes in his last six events means he’s got the game to at least contend.
1:36 pm PST – Lee Westwood, Ernie Els, Tiger Woods: No pairings watch list would be complete without a pairing like this. Lee Westwood’s game, like Luke Donald’s, is at its apex going into Thursday’s first round. I’m not sure Westwood could be more primed after last week’s win in Memphis. You have to believe he’s ready to break through and finally win a major after his recent close calls over the last couple years. The only thing standing in his way is a small stat: The winner of the U.S. Open has never won the week prior to the event. Good luck breaking that trend.
It’s been a while since Ernie Els last contended for a U.S. Open. But that all could be changing if you use his recent play as the barometer. The two-time U.S. Open champion has two wins in 2010, and I see no reason why he can’t contend at Pebble Beach.
I could write an entire column on Tiger Woods and his record-breaking win at Pebble Beach in 2000, but it seems like every news media on the planet already has a story chronicling the week. Simply put, Woods is THE story this week, just like he is every week he tees it up. While his game is still a work in progress, there’s something about courses like Pebble and St. Andrews that seem to bring the best out in Woods. He may not win this week, but I’m pretty certain he’ll be within three or four shots going into Sunday.
1:47 pm PST – Ryo Ishikawa, Rory McIlroy, Tom Watson: Next to the Westwood, Els, Woods pairing, this could be the next best group to follow for the first two days. Watson gets another chance to play with two future superstars in McIlroy and Ishikawa, after playing with 17-year-old Matteo Manassero at last year’s British Open. But let’s be honest, while this group is all about Watson. His chip-in at the 17th hole of the ’82 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach is a shot we’ll see replayed over and over this week.
Most will write Watson off this week due to his length off the tee, but don’t be surprised if he somehow finds a way to get in contention, if only for a day or two. He managed to turn in a tournament for the ages last year at Turnberry, a course he won the British Open on in 1977. Who’s to say he can’t contend at Pebble, a place that’s just as, if not more, special.
Ishikawa put the golf world on notice with his final round 58 earlier this year to win a Japan Tour event. While I’d love to say he’ll be in contention, the U.S. Open is usually a tournament where past success with the treacherous course setup is a must if you expect to win.
Any doubts regarding McIlroy’s game were squashed earlier this year when he won at Quail Hollow with a back nine on Sunday that led many to crown him as the best young player in the game. He managed a T-10 last year at Bethpage, a course setup that was as difficult, if not more, than Pebble Beach. My only issue with McIlroy is his limited experience playing on the West coast. He’s never played the opening tournaments of the since he came on tour in 2009.