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Sunday, June 8, 2014

U.S. Open - Preview

It's time for the season's second major championship, so let's dig in and preview the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. 

Let's get some of the basics out of the way. 
  • Pinehurst No. 2 is a par 70, featuring just a pair of par 5s, 12 par 4s and four par 3s. It's also really long, stretching out to 7,565 yards. I would recommend going to the U.S. Open's website and checking out the hole-by-hole tour. It gives a nice idea as to what shot shapes will be needed for each hole. 
  • Pinehurst has hosted two previous U.S. Opens, with Payne Stewart famously beating Phil Mickelson in 1999 and Michael Campbell stealing the 2005 Open. 
  • The course has been restored to featured natural areas just off the fairway. This will look very different than most U.S. Opens, where long and penal rough is the standard. The lies in the natural areas will be a bit of a crapshoot, with some balls coming to rest on bare lies or sand and others finding t their way into unplayable situations. 
There are many keys to success this week, and here are a handful that stand out.
  • Most U.S. Opens are all about ball-striking, and to some degree this one is no different. Finding the center of the fairways and center of the greens is always a preferable situation. But, scrambling and putting will be a bigger factor this week than in most U.S. Open. The greens at Pinehurst tend to run off very dramatically in all directions, so they actually play much smaller than they appear. There is also a premium on three-putt avoidance.
  • While length matters, I wouldn't lead with it. Identify players that are solid in other critical phases of the game first, then double back to see who among those has the length to contend. 
  • Luck could come into play in multiple ways. The most obvious is good and bad breaks in terms of lies off the fairway, but consider the weather as well. There is a decent chance of thunderstorms every day of the tournament. Wet fairways and greens are easier to hold, possibly negating some of the premium of elite ball-striking. There could also prove to be a tee time advantage. As a native Carolinian, the one thing I fully expect is for at least one, and probably several, of the rounds to be halted due to weather. The storms may not last any longer than 30 or 45 minutes, but the severity of them could lead to lengthy stoppages. 
  • While history has proven that U.S. Opens generally don't produce flukes for winners, Campbell at Pinehurst in 2005 in an exception. The 54-hole leader, Retief Goosen, was anything but an exception and a duel between Mickelson and Payne Stewart in '99 was a battle of elite titans. Spend most of your time and efforts researching the top 50 players in the world.
  • If you are set on identifying a dark horse, look for a guy who can really putt and scramble. It's more likely, at least for this week, that a great putter / scrambler will have a good enough ball-striking week than it is a bad putter / scrambler will pull their short game together on some of the most difficult greens of the year. Usually it's the opposite.
  • I wouldn't rule out a young and elite winner this week. Ignorance could prove blissful, so someone seeing Pinehurst for the first time might be just fine. Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, etc. 
  • If we learned anything in 2005, it's that patience is a key. The final pairing of Retief Goosen and Jason Gore completely imploded. That means players who are five or six strokes off the lead headed into the final round could emerge with a win if they post anything under par. Anyone making the cut is alive.
  • Lay off the Web.com Tour and second-tier European Tour players. They aren't ready to win the U.S. Open yet. If they were, they would have figured out a way to be on the PGA TOUR (see Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka as guys who essentially promoted themselves). Jason Gore was a nice story for 54 holes, but didn't hold up under the pressure. 

We will return tomorrow with a look at our weekly Power Ranking as we try and identify the winner and others with value. Until then, happy research! 

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