Underdogs may have an edge in U.S. Open at Olympic

Posted: June 10, 2012

As host of the U.S. Open on four previous occasions, the Olympic Club in San Francisco has been known in the annals of golf not for who won the championship, but for who did not.

Your Open champions at Olympic have been Jack Fleck over Ben Hogan in 1955, Billy Casper over Arnold Palmer in 1966, Scott Simpson over Tom Watson in 1987, and Lee Janzen over Payne Stewart in 1998, with Fleck and Casper winning in an 18-hole playoff.

Together, the four winners captured a total of seven major titles in their careers. The four runners-up had their names etched on the four major trophies a total of 27 times.

That record makes you wonder what will happen this week when the Open tees off for the 112th time on Thursday over a course constructed on a hillside between Lake Merced and the Pacific Ocean. Could it be someone you'd least expect or a perennial also-ran knocking off Tiger Woods?

Actually, the art in predicting a 2012 Open champion is a collision of the U.S. Open history at Olympic and the recent roll call of winners in major championships, a streak that stands at 14 different champions in the last 14 majors. The last eight won such a title for the very first time, with six of them being 30 or younger at the time they won.

And the odds would appear favorable to see a 15th different major champion being crowned next weekend, and perhaps a first-time winner once again. If you check out this week's World Golf Rankings, six of the top 10 have yet to win a major, with No. 1 Luke Donald and No. 3 Lee Westwood each tugging at the tag, "Best player to never have won a major."

Plenty of players could be in line to win their first - the twenty-somethings such as Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson, and Jason Day; and the 30-and-older guys just finding their stride such as Matt Kuchar, Justin Rose, Hunter Mahan, and Jason Dufner.

The latter foursome has combined for six victories this year, two each for Mahan and Dufner, and no one would give you a funny look if you picked any of them as the champion at Olympic.

In fact, the recent play of Dufner, 35, who burst on the scene last year when he led the PGA Championship in the final round before losing to Keegan Bradley in a playoff, has made him a popular pick on the list of contenders this week. Dufner follows the Open credo of fairways and greens, and he appears to be unflappable in the heat of competition.

"Dufner fits right into the U.S. Open mold of a guy who has learned to temper his emotions totally, like Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus did," said NBC-TV analyst Johnny Miller, who as a 19-year-old amateur finished tied for eighth in the 1966 Open at Olympic, a club where he was a member.

"Those are the guys that seem to flourish in a U.S. Open, not the flamboyant types that are smiling and giving gestures and that kind of thing. You look at the Open winners at Olympic, they sort of fit that mold."

Kuchar, winner of The Players Championship, has some history at Olympic. Competing as an amateur in 1998, he tied for 14th, the highest finisher by an amateur in 23 years. He has the game and calm demeanor that could see him back in the hunt.

Of course, the task of picking the next Open champion could be moot if Tiger Woods decides to put together another exhibition of ball-striking as he showed in capturing his 73d career PGA Tour title at the Memorial last weekend.

When Woods won his 14th major at the 2008 Open at Torrey Pines, down the California coast from Olympic, he improved his success rate to better than three majors won out of every 10 played. Injuries and a personal scandal have kept him winless in the majors for four years, but he looks ready and eager to resume his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 championships.

But questions persist about Woods. He excited the golf world by winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, his last start before the Masters, and then tied for 40th at Augusta National. So it must be asked again: Is Woods back, or will his bouts of inconsistency continue?

"What Tiger did through those years where he was ridiculously good is unheard of," said ESPN commentator Andy North, a two-time Open champion. "I think it's truly amazing what he did. I sure would think the fact that he's now won twice this year, he's got to be getting a lot closer. I would think he's going to be successful and consistent again."

Besides Woods, you have others on the list of usual suspects. Phil Mickelson and Masters champion Bubba Watson will play with Woods the first two days. They will cause gridlock on any hole, and definitely must be considered as challengers.

Rory McIlroy, who set Open records for lowest 72-hole score (268) and most strokes under par (16) last year at Congressional, is one off the lead at the PGA Tour stop in Memphis going into Sunday's final round. He appears to have broken out of a slump that saw him miss his third straight cut last weekend.

So while history may be on the side of the underdog this week in the City by the Bay, solid shots, steady putting, and a serene disposition will be of the utmost importance.

112th U.S. Open

What: The 112th U.S. Open Championship.

Where: The Olympic Club (Lake Course), San Francisco (7,170 yards, par 70).

When: Thursday through Sunday.

TV: Thursday and Friday, ESPN, noon-3 p.m.; NBC10, 3-5 p.m.; ESPN, 5-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, NBC10, 4-10 p.m. Monday (playoff if necessary), ESPN, noon-2 p.m.; NBC10, 2 p.m.-conclusion.

Purse: TBA ($8 million in 2011).

Defending champion: Rory McIlroy.

Cut: Top 60 and ties and anyone within 10 strokes of the lead after 36 holes.

Field: 156 players. A total of 151 players have qualified. The remaining five spots will be filled by any player in the top 60 in the world rankings as of Monday who is not already qualified or by alternates from sectional qualifying.

Course characteristics: Olympic is known for sloping fairways that compel contestants to be ultra precise with their tee shots. While the fairways are tree-lined, hundreds of trees, most of them Monterey pines, have been removed from the course since the last Open there in 1998.

Where's Tiger? Tiger Woods will play in a threesome with Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson starting at 10:33 a.m. Thursday and 4:18 p.m. Friday.

Cool player information: Twenty-three players qualified for the Open through both local and sectional qualifying. One of those players is 40-year-old Casey Martin, who competed with a cart in the 1998 Open at Olympic because of a circulation defect in his right leg. He will use a cart again this week.

Welcome to TV: Colin Montgomerie will be a guest analyst on Golf Channel's Live From the U.S. Open telecasts prior to the start of coverage Thursday and Friday. David Duval will be a guest analyst on ESPN3.

- Joe Juliano


Contact Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @joejulesinq. Follow his blog, "Golf Inq," at philly.com/sports/golfinq


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