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European Chances at the U.S. Open

By: Tony Dear


It might be argued that the 36 Europeans golfers in Philadelphia for this week's U.S. Open - and the 19 from the British Isles in particular - will have a slight edge over the competition given their familiarity with inclement weather (in case you hadn't heard, Merion ground to a virtual standstill Monday under several inches of heavy rain, which meteorologists are predicting might linger for a few more days).

Others might say that the rain will take the sting out of the putting surfaces, therefore all but removing Merion's strategic demands and allowing players who avoid the long, damp rough off the tee to fire straight at the pins. Such conditions might favor the 81 Americans, who are more accustomed to softer ground conditions.

Babble, bunkum and baloney, of course. To suggest modern American players can't hold their own in the rain is almost as dumb as insisting that . . . um . . . Europeans won't, don't or can't aim at the flag. And what that means for the other 39 players in the 156-man field is anyone's guess.

The winner, as Jack Nicklaus always used to say, will be the man who complains the least and is best able to knuckle down and overcome the occasionally hellish lie and subsequent bogey, or worse, that inevitably follows. Patience and a grim resilience, over the first two rounds at least, will be the key to staying afloat in this year's U.S. Open.

Despite the early rain, the weekend forecast actually calls for sunshine and temperatures in the 80s. That means those surviving the halfway cut will likely find a gentle, very forgiving course that will be played under cloudless skies and with winds not quite reaching 10 mph. Short, compact Merion, it seems, will most likely be there for the taking, and the U.S. Open scoring record of 16-under-par - which Rory McIlroy reached at Congressional two years ago - might be surpassed, provided scores aren't too high following the first 36 holes and the USGA doesn't stick too many weekend pins in places even it regards as borderline.

When you take into account the weatherman's projections, the course's lack of length, and the fairly disparate group of players who have won at Merion - both amateur and professional, it's tough to find your champion.

The Hugh Wilson-designed East Course obviously hasn't assisted bombers in the past. Not one of its four U.S. Open champions - Olin Dutra (1934), Ben Hogan (1950), Lee Trevino (1971) and David Graham (1981) - were among the longest hitters of their eras. And only one of the five U.S. Amateur winners - Chick Evans (1916), Bobby Jones (1924, 1930), Gary Cowan (1966), Chris Patton (1989) and Edoardo Molinari (2005) - hit the ball significantly further than average (the 324-pound Patton from South Carolina used his substantial weight to shift the ball a good distance).

However, in Hogan, Trevino, Graham, Evans and Jones - who completed his "Impregnable Quadrilateral" on the 11th hole in 1930, the list certainly does include a handful of players who could be regarded as the finest ball-strikers of their day, if not in history. And though the rain will most probably lessen the need to strike the ball quite as crisply or authoritatively as Hogan or Trevino, the narrow, bendy fairways will still take some finding, as will the correct part of the ingeniously contoured greens.

Europe isn't without splendid ball-strikers. The best of the bunch is probably Lee Westwood, followed closely by Justin Rose, whose beautifully orthodox, Sean Foley-built swing has been attracting high praise the last few months.

Westwood, now 40, has had 15 top-10 finishes in majors since 1997, including seven top-threes in the last five years. He finished in the top-10 at the U.S. Open the last two years and, though a slightly disappointing 48th in the PGA Tour's greens-in-regulation stat right now, he finished third last year and 19th the year before that. The persistent, nagging, cumbersome question mark that has long hung over Westwood's head though is his short game, especially his putting, which has never really come close to matching his long game. Now ranked 11th in the world after starting the year at No. 7, it seems Westwood hasn't been part of the major championship conversation for a while. But with 39 professional wins, the Englishman is clearly capable of finding the hole and should still be considered a legitimate contender.

Rose, who climbed to third following his runner-up finish to Tiger Woods at Bay Hill in March, is currently fifth in the world. He has recorded seven top-10s at the majors, including two in 2012, and that incredible tie for fourth in the 1998 Open Championship, when he finished just two shots out of the playoff at age 17 and which, when he calls time on his career, might still be the performance for which he is best remembered. Now 32, Rose, like Westwood, is surely prepped and ready for his first major victory, and Merion, you'd think, would suit him down to the ground.

Two others whose games and temperaments seem ideally suited to Merion and the U.S. Open are Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell. The Irishman is evidently U.S. Open-compatible, having already won the tournament - in 2010 when he outlasted Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Gregory Havret at Pebble Beach, which was officially only 44 yards longer than Merion this year. But Donald's U.S. Open record remains surprisingly poor given his apparent composure and calm exterior - characteristics you'd think would fit well with the tournament's requirements.

In eight full appearances at the U.S. Open - plus 69 holes in 2008 (he had to withdraw late in the final round because of a damaged left wrist), Donald has never finished in the top-10 and only twice in the top-20, the last time in 2006. No doubt, inaccuracy off the tee has been the former No. 1's downfall in the past. But Donald has addressed that problem the last couple of years, rising from 120th to 57th on the PGA Tour in 2011, finishing 38th last year, and is currently 34th heading to Pennsylvania.

A phenomenal putter - indeed better according to the statistics than even Brandt Snedeker and Woods, Donald surely has too many attributes to go throughout his entire career without seriously contending for at least one U.S. Open. And who's to say this won't be his week?

Anyone else? Oh yeah, Rory McIlroy, golf's almost-forgotten man, who in his last two outings tied for 57th at the Memorial and missed the cut at the British PGA Championship at Wentworth - the sort of spell that seriously limits your air-time and causes some commentators to wonder if we might have already seen the best of him.

McIlroy clearly hasn't fired on all cylinders yet in 2013, everyone can see that. But it's hard to identify any specific area of his game in which he has been noticeably worse this year compared to others. He ranks low on the PGA Tour in both driving accuracy and strokes-gained-putting, but then he always has. He is 12th in driving distance, fourth in GIR, and third in the all-round ranking, meaning it's surely only a matter of time before the 24-year-old Northern Irishman busts out and begins lapping fields again, just as he did at Congressional in 2011 and at Kiawah Island last August in the PGA Championship.

Europe has two other players in the world's top-20 - Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia. There's something about their disposition that suggests the U.S. Open isn't for them. But only a fool would totally reject the chances of players with 18 (Garcia) and six (Poulter) top-10 finishes in majors, even if one of them (Garcia) once insisted he didn't possess the game to ever win one, and the other (Poulter) had finished inside the PGA Tour's top-160 for greens-in-regulation only once in the last six years.

McIlroy, Westwood, Rose, Donald, McDowell, Garcia, Poulter: Europe will bring its usual suspects to the dance this year. And, unless Woods finds his top gear and leaves everyone in the dust (or puddles), they definitely have a great chance of winning America's national golf championship for the third time in the last four years.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.