The US Open may not be my favorite major – that distinction belongs to the annual sensory delight delivered by the greenest place on earth AKA Augusta National – but it may be the best major. Much is made of the US Open being the greatest test in golf, provided that god doesn’t decide to stir up conditions resembling “The Perfect Storm” during the OG major on the other side of the pond. The difficulty of the tournament is both a blessing and a curse. While it’s fun to see the best players in the world tested to their limits, it’s also exhausting. As tough as it is for the players on the course, it may be that much tougher to witness them grinding so hard for four straight days. By Sunday afternoon, I feel like Michael Jordan at the end of the infamous flu game – depleted and hooked up to an IV bag of fluids. I don’t want to call myself a hero, but I’d like to see Thor crush 4 bags of Doritos in 4 days while riding on the emotional roller coaster known as the US Open.
That being said, on the spectrum of tournament setup ranging from the Bob Hope* birdie-fest to US Open carnage, I lean slightly towards the side of carnage. I like to see a course play tough but fair. I like to see good shots rewarded with looks at birdie and bad shots penalized with bogeys. I like to see players forced to think their way around the course. I don’t mind a little bit of gimmickry, (see, the greens at Chambers Bay back) because it’s interesting to see how the pros react to a deviation from the immaculate setups they usually face. It’s kind of fun to see who will adapt to atypical conditions and who will become petulant and throw professional tennis player level temper tantrums. To that end, I don’t really care about where the tournament is played, although I do appreciate a course that is both viscerally pleasing and an excellent test of golf. I know nothing at all about Erin Hills – until 2 weeks ago, I thought Erin Hills was the sideline reporter for the Orlando Magic. The most annoying part about the course choice and the setup as it pertains to the US Open is that both have a tendency to become a prominent part of the narrative during the tournament. There is truly nothing worse than when the course becomes the narrative, particularly in the Hot-Take Era.
(*NOTE: I have no idea who the current sponsor is of the Palm Springs tournament and I will call it the Bob Hope forever. I refuse to keep up with the rotating cast of corporate shills out of defiance over the number of hours I’ve had to witness some CEO regurgitate platitudes to a smiling Jim Nantz as golf action passes by, forever to remain unwatched.)
One of the other fantastic characteristics of the US Open is its propensity to elevate journeymen, amateurs, and has-beens into the fold. Whether it’s Andrew Landry, Beau Hossler, Michael Campbell, Erik Compton, or Lucas Glover (definitely unfair to include him with this company), there has been no shortage of fun underdog stories over the past dozen years. Some would actually cite this fact as a demerit against the US Open, arguing that a leaderboard light on big names makes the tournament less compelling. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I tend to think it is a bad take.
One of the reasons why golf is so compelling is because it is an individual sport, and a torturous one at that. Every golfer has battle scars. In recent years, I have discovered the joy in learning each golfer’s individual story in depth. No one gets to this level in golf without some blood, sweat and tears. As fascinating as it is to learn the backstories of the prodigious talents on tour like Mickelson, Rahm, and McIlroy,it’s also really interesting to learn about the guys who truly toiled before reaching the promised land.
Maybe some of why I’m drawn to the underdogs is due in part to my wiring. I have seen Rudy and Cool Runnings more times than Phil has seen the lobby of the sports book at Caesar’s. Nevertheless, my golf fandom became infinitely more fun when I started paying more attention to the Web Tour, the mini tours, college golf, and the perennial qualifiers. Familiarizing yourself with the fringe guys and qualifiers before the tournament starts will prime you to root for them and monitor their progress. After all, one of the beautiful parts about this game is that it is truly a meritocracy. Every stroke is earned and there is no debate about which player is the best in any particular week. The picture is clear. No tournament is more emblematic of the game of golf than the US Open given the arduous qualifying process that each player had to go through to get here. This tournament is purer than the waters of Lake Minnetonka, which I’m told by reliable sources is quite pure.
Now that I’ve gotten that off of my chest, I wanted to dive into some of the US Open pairings that caught my eye. I don’t know who is responsible for creating these pairings and what methodology is utilized, but they definitely do a good job of stirring it up.
Jordan Niebrugge, Talor Gooch, Kevin Dougherty – “The 2013-2014 Oklahoma St Cowboys”
In addition to having great names – “Gooch” and “Niebrugge” sound like euphemisms for naughty body parts – all 3 off these guys were part of the stacked 2014 Oklahoma State golf team that earned a runner up finish in the NCAA Championships, and all three are currently trying to battle their way onto the PGA Tour. Gooch is currently on the Web.com Tour and is a couple decent finishes away from earning a call-up to the big boy leagues next year. Niebrugge and Dougherty are both on the PGA Tour Canada circuit hoping to make their way up to the Web.Com tour. Niebrugge may be a familiar name to some. He finished T6 at The Open in 2015 as an amateur, which is the highest finish ever by an amateur in The Open, and also had a storied college career.
All three of these guys are a walking illustration of the incredible challenge that top college golfers face in trying to make it on the professional golf circuit. In no other professional sport is it such a struggle for top college talent to make it to the big leagues. While top rookies in baseball may be stuck in the minors for a few years and top rookies in the NBA may rot on the bench or spend some time in the D-League for a couple of seasons, they are at least earning guaranteed money. Top college golfers are forced to start from the bottom, facing an arduous series of qualifying processes and a hectic travel schedule with virtually nothing guaranteed outside of some sponsorship cash or staked entry fees, which dries up quickly without performance. Any of these guys would be a fun guy to root for, and I am betting that at least one of them will make the cut.
Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Thomas Pieters, Brooks Koepka – “The Bull Market”
If I had to go long in buying the stock of three guys from the field, these would be three solid choices. RCB is quietly becoming a force and despite a shaky stretch this past spring, is one of the most consistent players in the world. He’s also coming into the US Open hot on the heels of putting on the blue suede shoes last week in Memphis. While Koepka hasn’t made it to the winner’s circle this year, he’s been solid and has made 8 cuts in a row with 4 top 11 finishes in that stretch. Pieters is sort of the European version of Koepka, although he may actually have more potential. I’ve been burned by falling too hard for promising young Euros in the recent past (*cough* Matteo Manassero and Thorbjorn Olesen *cough*) but historical returns are not an indicator of future performance, so I’m all in on Pieters.
Henrik Stenson, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel – “Adele”
I’ve named this group “Adele” in part because it is a group of international sensations, and also because the only thing purer than Adele’s voice might be these three golf swings. This group will be a ball-striking symphony. At the same time, it would be fair to categorize 2/3 of the group as divas given their affinity for demonstrative antics. Stenson is not shy when it comes to showing his displeasure. Recent evidence supports the notion that Schwartzel is one of the more underrated head-cases on tour, between the divot middle finger incident this past week and Tron’s recent reporting of his post-round driving range self-flagellation sesh. Other groups have more brand name recognition, but for my money this might be the most entertaining group in the field.
Jimmy Walker, Justin Thomas, Paul Casey – “T Swift”
This group is basically the American version of the “Adele” group, hence the “T Swift” label (yes, I know Paul Casey isn’t American, but he’s been a full-timer on the Tour for awhile and it makes my moniker work, so just roll with it). Scholars maintain that the Iron Age officially ended around 350 AD, but this group provides ample evidence to support that we are still squarely in the midst of it. I’m going to make a bold claim and say the one of these guys is going to win this week. Mark it down.
Gary Woodland, JB Holmes, Jason Kokrak – “The Manhattan Project”
If you threw in that parkour specialist that James Bond kills in the opening chase scene of “Casino Royale” (niche joke), we would get the 4 foremost bomb makers in the world assembled in one group. I’m unfairly categorizing all of these guys as one-trick ponies, with that one-trick being some serious driver traj – this group will thrive under Fox’s generous usage of the pro-tracer this week. It’s an unfair narrative I’m crafting because all three have solid all-around games and have been successful on tour, but none has come through in a meaningful way in the majors. If anyone is to emerge into contention from this group, I like JB.
Russell Henley, Scottie Scheffler, Harris English – “Sherman’s March to the Sea”
Whether anyone in this group will make the cut is basically a 50-50 bet, although English as a first language had a nice finish this past week in Memphis, Henley is as good as anyone in the game when he’s in a groove, and Scheffler has intriguing potential. Regardless, these southern gentlemen might have the best odds of partaking in post-round Mint Juleps of any group out there. Rumor has it that Lefty was even thinking about throwing down some action at 3:1 odds (I made this up).
Danny Willett, Angel Cabrera, Zach Johnson – “The Undesireables”
It’s as if the USGA’s methodology was to take the least sexy major winners from the last eight years and banish them to one group. Shout out to El Pato, though, because he doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment.
Brandt Snedeker, Tyrell Hatton, Alex Noren – “Adult Top 40 Contemporary”
This is a greatest hits collection of the least heralded guys currently ranked in the top 40 of the OWGR. I like the sneaky potential of these guys generating some buzz.
Enjoy the US Open, everyone. Make sure to stay hydrated, have plenty of snacks, and carve out a comfortable spot on the couch – it gets pretty brutal out there.
(Cover photo courtesy of Golf Channel)