Since golf returned from the coronavirus shutdown in mid-June, the scores have been low. Only twice has the winner not gotten to double digits under par. Four times the winner has been at least 20 under. At The Northern Trust, Dustin Johnson was 30 under. These guys are making it look easy. Well, the U.S. Open doesn’t do easy. And Winged Foot really doesn’t do easy.
But that’s just one of the big questions heading into the year’s second major. Can Tiger Woods find his way? Does Phil Mickelson have any magic left? Who will surprise and who will struggle? Our experts weigh in:
1. Any chance Tiger Woods emerges from his funk?
Bob Harig: Not sure Winged Foot is the place to find your game. Although the circumstances were completely different, Woods missed his first cut in a major as a pro in 2006 when the U.S. Open was played at Winged Foot, as he had not played since the death of his father, Earl. The similarity is lack of competition. Yes, Tiger played recently in the FedEx Cup playoffs, but a common theme emerged — and inability to put four rounds together. Really, in all four of Woods’ starts since the shutdown, he’s really had just one good day out of four. There needs to be a lot of improvement in all facets of his game for Woods to be competitive this week.
Michael Collins: Tiger is not in a funk. He’s in a place similar to guys at the bottom of the top 125 list or coming off the Korn Ferry Tour. He’s not getting consistent starts, which turns into not getting consistent finishes. Should we expect big things from this week? Absolutely not.
Ian O’Connor: Sure, there’s a chance. If Tiger Woods is upright, he’s got a chance. But it’s more like one of those Jim Carrey “So you’re telling me there’s a chance” chances. I do think Woods will win another major before he’s done, but most likely at Augusta and least likely at a U.S. Open.
Nick Pietruszkiewicz: No. Not at Winged Foot. He has admitted the adjustment to life on the Tour, without fans, has been difficult. But forget that he doesn’t have thousands following his every move — which brings him energy and distracts those playing with or near him — and focus instead on his game. It’s been a rough go since the restart. At one point or another some part of his game has gone missing — tee, short irons, putter. And not having some — or all — of your game sharp is not the way you want to go to Winged Foot.
2. There will be a lot of attention on Phil Mickelson in his return to Winged Foot. So what happens? So-so week? Missed cut? Contender?
Harig: Phil’s lack of form in regular tour events does not portend to being a contender at Winged Foot, where in 2006 Mickelson was fortunate to be in contention, given his inability to drive the ball in play for most of the week. That is still an issue in his game, and 14 years later, it is not likely that he can make up for all the wayward drives with a nearly perfect short game. If the early scouting reports are accurate, Winged Foot will be a beast, with a score around par being the winning number. If Phil can avoid the big numbers, perhaps he has a decent week.
Collins: Missed cut should be the realistic expectation, but will anyone be surprised if some of that old Lefty magic is still left in the tank for two or three rounds. The biggest hurdle for Mickelson will be the first round. If he can get through the first round inside the top 25, he’ll make the cut — which for me is a win for Phil.
O’Connor: As a sports journalist you’re allowed to root for the best available story, but not for teams or individual athletes, right? As much as I’d love to see Phil in contention on Sunday for the sake of the story, I think it’s just asking for too much. I say he makes the cut, makes it a little interesting on Saturday, but then falls off. And I hope he hits a driver on 18 all four days.
Pietruszkiewicz: How much fun would it be to see his name high on the leaderboard late Sunday afternoon? But, sadly, it doesn’t feel possible. His T-71 at the PGA Championship and missed cut at The Northern Trust, which bounced him out of the FedEx Cup playoffs, doesn’t make me feel good about his chances. Sure, he lit up the PGA Tour Champions in his debut to grab a win, but back on the big tour this past week at the Safeway Open, he was ordinary again. Ordinary won’t cut it at Winged Foot — and not with all that U.S. Open baggage coming along for the ride.
3. How likely is it that the players will complain about the setup or that Winged Foot is too hard?
Harig: It is almost inevitable. There is bound to be something that is over the top at Winged Foot, an already stern test that probably does not need much in the way of extra attention to make it difficult. All but one of the U.S. Opens played at Winged Foot has had an over-par winning score, and so there is bound to be some grumbling. If firm, fast conditions hold, it should be quite a wild ride.
Collins: It’ll be the same percentage as people who claim the earth is round. (That’s called a joke grenade — wait 3 seconds, then it hits.)
O’Connor: There will be some typical USGA griping, but hopefully not too much given the venue. Winged Foot is such a storied place, it deserves better than that. Do you go into Yankee Stadium as a visiting pitcher and just complain about the short right-field porch? Or do you say, “Wow, I’m pitching in Yankee Stadium?”
Pietruszkiewicz: This is pretty much guaranteed. Only once in the five times the place has hosted the U.S. Open has the winner been under par, when Fuzzy Zoeller shot 4 under in 1984. The last time this championship was here, in 2006 when Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie melted on the 72nd hole, Geoff Ogilvy won with 5 over. The USGA enjoys inflicting pain. It will inflict pain this week. And the players will not like it — at all.
4. We all know the favorites. Who is your sleeper pick this week?
Harig: Matthew Fitzpatrick. He’s quietly put together a nice record since the return to competition in June. While he’s missed three cuts, he also has four top-15 finishes, including three top 10s. His third-place finish at the Memorial was the result of a final-round 68 in some very difficult conditions. Plus, he was the only player to shoot in the 60s that day. Fitzpatrick seems to have the ability to grind it out when it is not easy.
Collins: Michael Thompson. If you remember way back in the day, Thompson had the U.S. Open lead for a minute at Olympic Club (the one Webb Simpson won). A more seasoned and battle-tested man could surprise a lot of people this week at Winged Foot.
O’Connor: I would have thrown a Scottie Scheffler at you if not for his unfortunate withdrawal because of a positive COVID-19 test. And I don’t think Webb Simpson qualifies as a sleeper, although you can make a nuanced case for it. I know there’s absolutely no reason to pick Justin Rose, since he’s missed four cuts in his past six starts. But the U.S. Open requires toughness above all, and Rose, who beat Phil at Merion, is a tough golfer. He’s my gut-feel sleeper.
Pietruszkiewicz: Well, I am picking Viktor Hovland to win the thing, so does that count? He plays well at USGA events, that much is clear. He won’t be daunted by the challenge presented at Winged Foot. And already this year we’ve had youth served, with fellow 20-something Collin Morikawa winning the year’s first major by taking the PGA Championship in dramatic fashion at TPC Harding Park.
5. Who among the top 10 in the world should we be worried about this week?
Harig: Bryson DeChambeau. After so much fanfare, Bryson is suddenly in a bit of a rut, finishing 50th at the BMW Championship. His 72-hole score would have been 25th out of 30 at the Tour Championship. The latter week was especially intriguing as DeChambeau eschewed the driver often in an effort to find more fairways and still struggled. Will he unleash the driver often at Winged Foot? There’s a fine line between distance and having to get out of the rough at a U.S. Open. It seems as if it could be a tough week for DeChambeau.
Collins: Collin Morikawa. His win at the PGA Championship was only his second start in a major. He did finish T-35 in his other major start — last year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. But that’s the problem. This time Mother Nature won’t tell the USGA what to do. It will be looking to brutalize golfers. Morikawa will have never seen what’s coming.
O’Connor: DeChambeau. It wasn’t long ago that we were wondering if he’d win only one of the three majors being played this year. But DeChambeau missed the cut at the Northern Trust, placed 50th at the BMW and finished toward the bottom at the Tour Championship, leaving me to believe this could be a tough week for him. He certainly has the game to win the U.S. Open, but I’m thinking it’s more likely Winged Foot brings out his hot temper.
Pietruszkiewicz: See if this sounds familiar: DeChambeau. I don’t like the long game at this venue — or any U.S. Open, for that matter. Sure, if he swings for the fences and keeps it in the fairway he has a huge advantage. But if he doesn’t, he’s going to get frustrated very, very quickly. And if he gets frustrated, that’s when the big numbers tend to arrive. This doesn’t feel like the right major for him to breakthrough and, instead, could be a short week for him.