A mystery course in a mystery location has added a huge dose of intrigue to the 115th U.S. Open.
It’s been reminiscent of moon landings as fantasy managers and those who like a bet crowd around their laptops waiting for reports from any player who might have set foot on the surface of this alien landscape at Chambers Bay.
Disseminating the feedback has caused argument and debate and we won’t really know what to expect until we see the live pictures beamed back. In fact, in weeks to come, conspiracy theorists might suggest the whole thing was staged and the entire field was paid handsomely to keep their mouths shut.
Fun fact: Charles Howell and Jesper Parnevik believe the moon landings were faked but that’s another story.
So to the European challenge at Chambers Bay.
Once a graveyard for Euro hopes, the U.S. Open has now become the major that brings most success with Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Martin Kaymer combining to win four of the last five.
Those victories have come on vastly different courses – the coastal links of Pebble Beach, long and intimidating Congressional Country Club, short and quirky Merion Golf Club and classic and iconic Pinehurst No.2.
Sure, Chambers Bay is another entirely different animal but it’s still a golf course with 18 holes and, as with all U.S. Opens, the remit will be the same.
To quote USGA Executive Director Mike Davis, "What we really want our national championships to be is an incredibly challenging test where it challenges every aspect of the game, shot-making skills, your course management skills, your ability to handle the pressure at certain times of the championship.” NB. Eight of the last 20 U.S. Opens have been won in par or over par.
Driving Accuracy is the stat lazily assumed to be the key to U.S. Open success but, in fact, its importance is overplayed.
Hitting fairways will never hurt anyone of course but take a look at how the last 10 U.S. Open winners fared in various categories during the week of their triumphs (presented below as an average position).
Driving Distance: 15.0
Driving Accuracy: 21.0
Greens In Regulation: 10.3
Putting Average 11.1
Driving Accuracy comes bottom while All-Around performance (nine of the last 10 winners ranked in the top 3 in this category) is top by a distance. It suggests Mike Davis is getting it right. U.S Open courses are set up to test “every aspect of the game”.
There seems no reason why this won’t be the case at Chambers Bay either so, where applicable, I’ve listed each European’s position on the PGA Tour’s All-Around ranking (there isn’t a season-long equivalent on the European Tour).
Opened in 2007, Chambers Bay is a vast property with 100-foot elevation changes. This ‘good walked spoiled’ stretches around 7.5 miles so will be a physical test as well as a mental one. Variety is the name of the game with the 1st and 18th holes set to alternate between par 4s and par 5s while the par-3 9th has two sets of tees. It could be played as a gentle 160-yard uphiller or a 245-yard beast with a 100-foot drop to the green. That means par (70) is listed as being between 7,469 to 7,827 yards. Unlike other U.S. Open courses, fine fescue grass will allow balls to bounce and roll rather than get caught up in the usual thick rough so, in that respect, Open Championship skills will be important (Phil Mickelson has already made a comparison with St. Andrews, saying, “you’re hitting the same shots as the British”). Built on a sand and gravel pit used for mining, Chambers Bay isn’t a true links but “links-style” is certainly a fair moniker and having the option to putt from off the greens is another aspect tying it to an Open Championship as are the wide fairways and huge, undulating greens. In terms of courses used in other major championships, Whistling Straits (scene of Martin Kaymer’s win over Bubba and Dustin Johnson in 2010) has been cited as the most comparable to Chambers Bay. This will be the first U.S. Open to be held in the Pacific Northwest.
Temperatures will be in the 70s all week, with Friday morning showing a 40% chance of showers. Otherwise it’ll be a mix of sunshine and clouds. Winds are very modest and aren’t forecast to rise above 9mph.
In terms of the latest UK odds, Europe boasts the 7/1 market leader in Rory McIlroy and third favorite Justin Rose at 16/1. The ‘Leading European Contenders’ below contains profiles of all those ranked up to 80/1. In ‘The Next Rung’ I look at all the Europeans who are quoted from 80/1 to 200/1.
Leading European Contenders
If Whistling Straits form proves to be a decent guide then McIlroy’s already obvious chance would grow even stronger. He finished just one shot out of the playoff at the Wisconsin venue in 2010 and that’s when he had really bad hair and no majors. Wind is often quoted as Rory’s Kryptonite so it was interesting to hear Jordan Spieth say recently, “it’s not really windy there usually”. This week’s forecast backs that up. As the current Open champion, who likes courses with a sense of space, he could be the elephant in the room despite the temptation to look elsewhere on a course being dismissed as quirky. He’s top of the PGA Tour’s All-Around ranking this year which, as discussed in the intro, could be the ultimate key. The obvious negative is current form which shows missed cuts on each of his last two starts. He won his four majors off the back of finishes of 5-5-14-1. Mike Davis might also say Rory’s lack of a pre-tournament visit will hamper him on a course that supposedly can’t be learned in a couple of practice rounds. It’s also worth noting that the Northern Irishman hasn’t made the top 20 in four of his last five U.S. Opens.
Rose’s U.S. Open record divides neatly into two parts; he either does very well or misses the cut. It’s been more of the former in recent times though with his victory at Merion in 2013 and a T12 last year. Overall, he has five finishes of T21 or better and four missed cuts. The magic recipe for Merion was doing his homework there a week in advance and then returning home to rest up before the tournament. He hasn’t been able to do that this year so, instead, turned up last Friday for his first look. That will give him plenty of time to do the necessary homework and the canny Rose also walked the course with designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. to pick up more tips. A runner-up in The Masters, second at Memorial on his last start and 12th in the All-Around ranking on the PGA Tour this year, the Englishman looks poised for another huge week.
The Swede walked the course with a putter and a ball in May and described it as a “tricked-up links course”. Although he didn’t actually criticise Chambers Bay, that comment still has a negative vibe to it so Stenson’s wait for a first major may continue. He’s rather lightly-raced at the moment having teed it up just once in the last month (a slightly underwhelming T13 in his home Nordea Masters) although his U.S. Open record is solid. In his last five he can boast a T4 at Pinehurst in 2014 and nothing worse than a T29. He’s also 16th on the All-Around ranking this year.
The Spaniard has a third, a fourth and five other top 20s in his U.S. Open career and hasn’t missed the cut since 2007 so offers gamers plenty of reliability in a major where the elite make plenty of halfway exits. Sergio only managed two rounds (75-79) at the Irish Open on his last start but was runner-up in THE PLAYERS on his most recent outing in America. If the course does play like a British links, his Open Championship record of eight top 10s has to bode well. Hi sits 29th on the All-Around ranking.
Current U.S. Open champion Kaymer made a disappointing attempt to win THE PLAYERS again (T56) but he did make a successful defence of the prestigious Abu Dhabi Golf Championship in 2011. He’s chosen not to head out west early for practice rounds but does think Chambers Bay will suit him. Firstly, it reminds Kaymer of Whistling Straits where he won the 2010 PGA Championship and he also says he’ll be able to putt from off the greens, something he did with great success when winning at Pinehurst No.2 last year. Last two starts? A T18 at Wentworth and a missed cut in the Irish Open.
Casey likes playing on fescue grass – “it’s awesome, it’s like a carpet” – so should enjoy Chambers Bay where balls will bounce, skid and roll rather than disappear into deep rough. Casey, a runner-up in the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews, has a bunch of good finishes this year including a T6 at Augusta National although his best U.S. Open finish of T10 came back in 2007 and he hasn’t managed better than T40 since then. A reminder that he’s not available for the European Tour Fantasy game.
The Korean is an interesting contender this week. Not only did he create a thunderclap moment by running away with the European Tour’s flagship event – the BMW PGA Championship at Wenworth – by six shots, he also played in the 2010 U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay and made the semi-finals. He’d won the 2009 event so became the first defending champion to advance to the last four since Tiger Woods in 1996. That 2009 victory got him into the first three majors of 2010 although he missed the cut in all three but An did play well in last year’s Open Championship when T26.
A few months ago, Poulter opened his mouth on Twitter again and came out with this: "Well several players have played Chambers Bay in prep for US Open. The reports back are it's a complete farce. I guess someone has to win." With that seed of negativity planted, it’s easy to dismiss the outspoken Englishman but he does play well on links courses (2nd 2008 Open, 3rd 2013 Open) and in the majors as a whole (five top 10s in last 13 including a T6 at this year’s Masters). Poulter was also T5 at Colonial on his last start and is an impressive 10th in the All-Around ranking.
Westwood plays well in west coast U.S. Opens (T5 Pebble Beach 2000, 3rd Torrey Pines 2008, T10 Olympic Club 2012) while he has three top 3s in the last six Open Championships so is a fine exponent of links golf too. Put those two elements together and he looks a good bet to shine at Chambers Bay. Less encouraging is recent form of MC Players Championship, T38 Wentworth, T53 Irish Open. Currently 32nd on the All-Around ranking.
The Next Rung
Donald had to come through sectional qualifying to punch his ticket to Chambers Bay and warmed up for U.S. Open week with a low-key but decent enough T29 at the St Jude Classic while he had a good test of his links skills when T18 at the Irish Open last month. Surprisingly, he’s missed five of his last seven cuts in the majors but he does dot some decent finishes around (four top 10s since start of 2011) so could be a factor if his short game returns so somewhere near its best. Sitting a lowly 182nd on the All-Around ranking is a concern though.
The straight-hitting Italian would seem a good fit for a classic tree-lined U.S. Open course so maybe this isn’t the best year to get him on board. That said, his latest form is excellent – runner-up in the Open de Espana, T5 at Wentworth and third at Memorial and he had a genuine chance of winning the latter two. He’s made the cut in his last six majors and finished top 30 in two of the last three U.S. Opens so would likely make a solid addition to a fantasy line-up. Lies 56th on the All-Around ranking.
The South African won the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews by seven shots so, yes, he can play links golf! Five US Open starts have yielded just one finish better than T40 although that was a decent T9 at Congressional in 2011. The usual concern with Oosthuizen is can we trust his health? The answer would have to be ‘no’ given that he pulled out of the final round of the Colonial with a neck injury on his last start. Gamers beware.
G-Mac loves a US Open on the west coast. He captured the 2010 event at Pebble Beach and, two years later, finished runner-up at Olympic Club behind Webb Simpson. Open Championship credentials? He’s finished in the top 10 in two of the last three so, all in all, he’s always one to consider on any major played on a links course although missed cuts at Whistling Straits in 2004 and 2010 suggest maybe he’s not as good on the man-made ones. The big worry though is his current form which showed no signs of turning in Memphis last week when he shot 76-73 at the St Jude Classic.
The Englishman’s last visit to the west coast of America led to a breakthrough third-place finish at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship which earned him special temporary membership of the PGA Tour for the rest of the season. Willett made the cut on his U.S. Open debut last year while his best finish in eight majors is T15 in the 2013 Open Championship. He’s very much on an upward curve though and a sharp short game is an attractive asset for Chambers Bay. T6 in the Irish Open on his last start where he was third on the All-Around stats for the week.
A missed cut at St Jude was hopefully a blip as he’d finished well in two prestigious events before that (T18 at Wentworth and T8 at Sawgrass). Donaldson’s majors career is still in its infancy but he’s made 5-of-9 cuts on American soil including a T7 in the 2012 PGA Championship. Currently 89th on the PGA Tour’s All-Around ranking.
Noren arrives at Chambers Bay on the back of a home win at the Nordea Masters at PGA Sweden National where fescue grass was prominent although not on the greens. The Swede was also T8 at Wentworth so he’s one of Europe’s form horses. A wrist injury ruined his 2014 campaign while he’s only played five majors in total but a T9 in the 2012 Open Championship is reassuring for gamers who want to take a chance on him this week at the expense of one of the more seasoned campaigners at this level.
The South African has been a prolific winner on the European Tour and is now trying to crack America after struggling to adapt. The signs are certainly more promising and he posted a T7 at Hilton Head and also made it out of the group stage at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play. Grace was T11 in the BMW PGA Championship on his latest start and showed some links prowess when runner-up to Phil Mickelson in the 2013 Scottish Open. Yet to have a top 15 in a major championship after seven attempts though.
This is a guy who can shine on links-style courses having grown up in Ireland and it’s also worth noting how well he played on two west coast courses used for U.S. Opens at the start of the year when having his first dabble on the PGA Tour (T7 Torrey Pines, T21 Pebble Beach). A wonderful chipper, Lowry should enjoy working his magic around these greens. He’s 3-for-3 in the Open Championship (including T9 last year) and was T6 at Wentworth recently so could be a dark horse this week.
The two-time US Open winner (1994 and 1997) can still be a worthy addition to any fantasy team at this level and since 2000 he’s only twice gone through a season without registering a top 10 in one of the four majors (2005 and 2011). All those veteran smarts and stellar play in Open Championships (two wins and 11 other top 10s) will stand Els in good stead and he’s always had a habit of raising his game for these tournaments so don’t get too scared by recent form figures: MC-43-59-66.
He’d normally be a lock for a 10-pick fantasy team at this level and added to a solid record in the majors with T7 and T15 in the final two of 2014. But 2015 has been a miserable year for the South African and mediocrity has turned to near-crisis after three missed cuts in his last three starts. He’s down at 157th in the All-Around ranking so even Schwartzel’s biggest fans will have to show a lot of faith to select him this week.
So unassuming is Sullivan that he has the air of a competition winner who can't quite believe he's getting to tee it up with all these famous players he watches on TV. But don't let that deceive you. The Englishman is a rising force and, after two wins in Europe this season, took another jump with an impressive T13 at The Memorial last time. That followed a T6 in the Irish Open. This will be his first start in a major but Sullivan appears to have no fear so shouldn't be dismissed lightly.
The Frenchman will certainly appreciate the wide-open fairways and, in theory, could be an interesting sleeper. He’s made the top three in two of his last five starts on the European Tour and that includes the recent Nordea Masters. His experience in the majors extends to just one event, the 2014 PGA Championship, but he showed no signs of being intimidated and finished a very respectable T30.
Big things are expected of the Englishman although a serious impact here could be a rather large ask given that he’s missed the cut on his only two major starts (2014 Open Championship and PGA Championship). As well as his obvious talent, other plus points would be his sixth place at Wentworth and run to the quarter-finals of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in San Francisco.
Gallacher has likened Chambers Bay to Kingsbarns – one of the three courses used in the European Tour’s Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland – although he was only going off pictures rather than actual experience of the course. His links pedigree is an obvious attraction (he won the 2004 Dunhill Links) though and T24 in the Nordea Masters last time was a decent knock. A T18 at Whistling Straits in 2010 also supports his case.
Who’s On The Team?
Justin Rose would appear to have an outstanding chance of winning a second US Open in three years.
Like a good pupil, he’s turned up early to put in plenty of prep and has actually been singled out by course designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. as someone who should relish the test.
He’s a serious contender to usurp Rory for Star Player in the European Tour Fantasy game even though McIlroy’s Open win and 2010 Whistling Straits near-miss suggests Chambers Bay could be a great fit.
Martin Kaymer could put in a bold defence given the fact he can putt from off the greens again and not put pressure on his short-range chipping while this looks an ideal opportunity to cash in on the fact that Brooks Koepka and Patrick Reed are European Tour members as both played in the 2010 U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay in 2010.
One To Fade
It’s tempting to say Ian Poulter as he’s already got off on the wrong foot with Chambers Bay but Luke Donald’s poor position on the All-Around ranking suggests he’ll be found out.