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The Month Ahead - June

By: Tony Dear


It's June, and for golf fans that can mean only one thing - the CVS Caremark Charity Classic. Colonial winner Zach Johnson and recently-crowned Players champion Matt Kuchar will be back at Rhode Island CC to defend the title they won last year in record fashion, posting a two-day total of 24-under 118.

I'm only joking. June is U.S. Open month of course, and even with two tournaments to go before the players take on the Sam Whiting-designed/Bill Love-modified Lake Course at 152-year-old Olympic Club in San Francisco the needle on the buzz-o-meter is fast headed towards the red strip on the bottom-right of the dial. With Love's improvements, specifically to the once un-major-championship-worthy 17th hole and the notorious 18th green which had the players in fits at the 1998 championship and wasn't good enough to be called Mickey Mouse, this year's championship will hopefully be remembered for the golf rather than a questionable set-up.

In the years when Tiger Woods reigned supreme there was always talk at the start of the year about the calendar Grand Slam and whether or not it might be feasible. Woods certainly thought it was as did numerous experts, most notably Nick Faldo who, in January 2008, said that "this (would) be the year."

The only man still with hopes of achieving a Grand Slam in 2012 is, of course, Bubba Watson whose Masters victory eight weeks ago may not have been widely anticipated but was certainly welcomed.

It would be easy to dismiss Watson's hopes of winning this or, indeed, any other U.S. Open, however. Those that spray the ball do not relish 20-yard-wide fairways and shoe-hiding rough, and Watson's stats make little attempt at concealing his tendency to spray. In the last eight years, his average position in the driving accuracy table on the PGA Tour has been 176th. His best season was last year when he managed to locate 56.9 percent of fairways - good for 152nd place.

The inescapable conclusion is that the four-time PGA Tour winner will need spotters to find his ball too often, and that he will run up too many bogeys, doubles and dreaded "others" to contend. What's more, the amazing shot he played on the second playoff hole at Augusta National probably couldn't happen at Olympic because he wouldn't find anything like as good a lie so far from the fairway (unless the gallery had trampled down the grass), and from deep rough there's no way even he could generate the supernatural combination of hook-spin and backspin he conjured up at Augusta.

But consider the following - though his record in five U.S. Open appearances isn't great, Watson did finish tied for fifth in 2007 at Oakmont, a test so severe it might make Olympic look rather docile in comparison. As a major champion, he will surely harbor an inner confidence he didn't possess before regardless of the course's demands and whomever he goes up against. In this month's Golf Magazine, Johnny Miller says the course will favor Watson's draw off the tee (equivalent to a right-hander's fade). In the last three years, Bubba has finished second, first and first in Greens in Regulation (GIR) from Other than Fairway, and last year he was seventh in Rough Proximity, which measures the distance left to the hole following approach shots from the rough.

Bubba fans might cling to these facts when promoting their man's chances, but the profound differences between the challenge at Olympic and that at a regular PGA Tour venue are too great to ignore. At Olympic, the rough will be three parts longer and six parts thicker. The greens are about two-thirds the size of typical PGA Tour greens (4,500 square feet compared with 6,600), and the surfaces likely to be so much firmer, faster, and more exacting they simply won't tolerate anything loaded with top-spin, which shots from the rough will inevitably be.

Betting men probably won't be leaning too heavily on the Floridian, but he was a 50-1 dark horse ahead of the Masters. He's currently at 30-1 for the U.S. Open, which seems a reasonable compromise for a player who recently won a major but owns a game that most would argue is totally unsuitable for Olympic.

You might assume Phil Mickelson will likewise suffer in the rough. After all, his driving accuracy (average position of 169th from last eight seasons) is only fractionally better than Watson's. And yet, on courses that seem so unsuited to the four-time major champion's irrepressible exuberance, he has somehow recorded an incredible five runner-up finishes and nine top-10s in 21 starts. And in 1998, the 27-year-old Mickelson tied for 10th, eight shots behind winner Lee Janzen. Miller says this might be Mickelson's last chance to win the U.S. Open without really explaining why. If Hale Irwin can win at age 45, then surely Mickelson, who turns 42 on the Saturday of U.S. Open week, will have a few more opportunities.

Tiger Woods, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and defending champion Rory McIlroy will be the most fancied horses in the paddock (despite McIlroy's career-threatening two missed cuts in a row), but New Orleans and Byron Nelson winner Jason Dufner, and Matt Kuchar will attract a lot of attention, too, as should my pick Hunter Mahan, who has only an average record at the U.S. Open but is currently second in the FedEx Cup standings following two impressive victories.

But June isn't all about the U.S. Open. This week, the Tour is in Ohio for one of the many tournaments that has been referred to as a potential fifth major championship by people so eager to find one. Such talk has subsided now, but no one doubts the prestige of Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament. A strong field, including seven of the world's top 10 players, will tee it up at a Muirfield Village, whose condition has earned much praise.

Next week, Harrison Frazar returns to TPC Southwind in Memphis, where he won his first PGA Tour title last year at his 355th attempt. And following that, Sweden's Fredrick Jacobsen will defend his Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn. Tiger Woods' AT&T National goes to Congressional CC in Bethesda, Md., in the final week of June.

In Europe, there is very much a feeling of "after the Lord Mayor's show" with the BMW Championship in the books, and the ISPS Handa Wales Open, Nordea Masters, Saint Omer Open Presented by Neuflize OBC, and the BMW International Open to look forward to. June's final tournament, the Irish Open, rescheduled from August to avoid a clash with the London Olympics, will attract a great deal of attention, however, not only because McIlroy committed to play back in December but because it returns to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1947. One of the greatest courses in the world, Portrush will be hoping to convince the R&A it is worthy of a second Open Championship, which it hasn't hosted since 1951.

On the LPGA Tour, the Wegmans LPGA Championship takes place at Locust Hill CC in Pittsford, N.Y., where Yani Tseng will be looking to repeat her 10-stroke victory last year and capture her sixth major title.

At Nairn GC in Scotland, the United States will be going for its 29th victory at the 37th Curtis Cup, and the following week, the 117th Amateur Championship will be held on the other side of the country at Royal Troon and Glasgow Gailes.

Summer's here at last, which means the golf season is about to get interesting. And should the Masters champion be able to keep his Grand Slam hopes alive heading to Royal Lytham & St. Anne's for July's Open Championship, "Bubba Golf" will likely become an established sport.

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.