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U.S. Open Preview: Counting Down the Top-30

Here’s hoping the players enjoyed the scoring fest at Pebble Beach a year ago because Winged Foot will be anything but that. The winning score the last time the U.S. Open was at Winged Foot in 2006? Five-over par. It got nicknamed “The Massacre at Winged Foot” in 1974 when Hale Irwin signed the winning scorecard at +7. In fact, just two players in history have ever finished under par at this golf course in a U.S. Open.

While some may have thought that the USGA could throw the players a bone and let them score this week at the Open, think again. The course layout is in one word “BRUTAL”. The fairways are narrow, the rough is up, the greens are quick, the course is long, and the weather forecast calls for a pretty stiff north wind that will leave the course dry with temperatures in the 50s and 60s, completing the perfect recipe for carnage.

With all that in mind, we look at the top-30 players who have the best chance at winni….errr…surviving the week at Winged Foot and holding up the U.S. Open trophy come Sunday.

30. Mackenzie Hughes: Hughes has four top-7s in his 11 times teeing it up, including two straight top-10s. A very consistent player who goes under the radar but has a lot of talent for a little guy. To contend, though, he needs to improve his driving accuracy. Ranked 158th in 2020 on that list. He can’t afford to miss them this week.

29. Paul Casey: When major championships come around, you’d be crazy not to consider Casey as a threat. The veteran very nearly took home the PGA Championship last month and has finished in the top-5 in all four majors during his career. He hasn’t had the greatest season but his two best finishes were in the two biggest events, the PGA Championship (T2) and WGC-Mexico Championship (11th). He thrives in the big settings.

28. Matthew Fitzpatrick: Really a hard lad to figure out. He has the talent and game to win any tournament and has had winning success in Europe but hasn’t been able to figure it out in the States. He posts many good finishes but has yet to reel in a win in America. He comes in with three top-6s in his last five events, but also has two missed cuts in that stretch, one of those at the PGA.

27. Tiger Woods: Honestly, I wanted to get him on this list and being at No. 27 is generous. If he makes the cut, it could be a win in itself. Tiger missed the cut here in 2006 at Winged Foot with back-to-back 76s, although how much his head was in it is not sure following the death of his father. Woods’ game is not sharp right now. He wasn’t able to advance past week 2 of the FedEx Cup Playoffs and his best finish since the return from the layoff is a T37 at the PGA Championship. Given the state of his putting right now and the complex greens at Winged Foot, it’s going to be a grind and then some for Tiger. But he is Tiger Woods and if he can just put together a good start and put together a couple scores close to 70, the confidence will build.

26. Tyrell Hatton: The moody Englishmen had one of the hottest runs earlier this year, winning twice (once overseas) and posting three straight top-5 finishes. He also finished with the fifth-best aggregate score two weeks ago at The Tour Championship. Despite his strong play, Hatton has struggled to be a factor in majors despite some good finishes. He missed the cut at the PGA last month and finished T-21 at last year’s U.S. Open. He’s streaky, though, so if he can get on a run it can last awhile.

25. Gary Woodland: The defending champion has had an up-and-down season but it’s been more down of late. Winged Foot will play nothing like Pebble Beach a year ago where he was able to win with a near-record score of 13-under par, unheard of for a U.S. Open. But since the Workday Charity Open in June, Woodland has a missed cut and four other distant finishes. He’s had a few weeks off to get his game back together and he knows how to win an Open, so maybe he can find the magic again this year.

24. Bryson DeChambeau: If he’s going to win this week, he needs to be more disciplined. If you try and overswing drivers like he’s been doing the past month, Winged Foot will eat you alive. He said on Tuesday that his strategy is to bomb it and hack it out with pitching-wedges and 9-irons when he misses fairways. We’ll see how that works out. He needs to be patient and not let the course get to him because it’s going to be a grind from beginning to end. He comes in struggling since the PGA Championship with a missed cut, a T25 and a T50.

23. Rory McIlroy: Now a father, Rory has said that winning a major isn’t as big a priority as it used to be. Going home and being a dad is. How much lag he will have playing this week is unknown, but I wouldn’t expect a lot out of him. He doesn’t play well on courses with slick and undulating greens and if he can’t drive it straight, he has no chance. But then again, he has too much talent not to at least have a fighting chance if he can just start off the opening rounds strong. If he gets out of contention early, he’s toast.

22. Harris English: Another good long shot to consider. Harris has finished 23rd or better in 7 of his last 8 starts, so it makes sense to have him inside of that here. A runner-up to DJ at the Northern Trust, English is still looking to win his first major. He really fell off a cliff there for a while in the game but seems to have it back together and just in time for the Open. His ball-striking talent ranks up there with the best of them and has shown that skill of late.

21. Patrick Cantlay: Surprisingly, it just hasn’t clicked this year for Patrick. He hasn’t played in a lot of tournaments and he’s had some decent finishes here and there, but no wins. Had a solid T12 at the BMW but it wasn’t enough to qualify him for East Lake. A very consistent player who should make the cut and hang around the first few pages of the leaderboard.

20. Matthew Wolff: It’s going to be all about the putting with Wolff. He’d have a PGA Championship if he could have just made a few five-footers on Sunday. His ball-striking is impeccable and his tee-to-green game has the potential to be the best in golf. The kid with the strange swing comes in motivated after his friend and college rival Collin Morikawa won the PGA.

19. Justin Rose: Despite a season with some missed cuts and bad finishes, don’t sleep on Rose. He’s a different player in big tournaments and majors. His last three majors he’s finished 3rd, T20 and 9th. He’s also won a U.S. Open on an extremely difficult layout with narrow fairways and high rough, similar to this.

18. Brendon Todd: Todd finished 3rd in driving accuracy in 2020 and compiled two wins. He was also in contention at the PGA Championship for a while. His straight driving will go a long way in helping him this week and I actually expect him to be near the top of the leaderboard going into the weekend. It’s whether he can stay there is the question. He’s been a Sunday disappearing act over the summer. One moment he’ll be in the lead and the next thing you know, it’s a high score sending him plummeting down the leaderboard.

17. Louis Oosthuizen: Always a threat in major championships, Louis has shown signs of brilliant play over the last month. He contended at the WGC-St. Jude and the Northern Trust and played well at the PGA Championship. He’s had a hard time holding it together over the weekend after good starts, however. The putter is the biggest question mark going into the Open as it always is with Louis. The difficult greens will be a test. Louis comes in with not just an Open Championship, but runners-up in all four major championships throughout his career.

16. Chez Reavie: If you’re looking for a great longshot, here you go. Reavie ranked No. 7 in driving accuracy in 2020 which will go a long way in helping him avoid stress this weekend. He also comes in with a third place finish last week at the Safeway Open and finished T3 at the U.S. Open last year at Pebble Beach. Whether he can hang with the likes of Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm down the stretch should it come to that, I don’t know, but his ability to hit fairways will go a long way in him being in contention this week.

15. Jason Day: The break should have done him well. He needed it. Jason Day was as hot as any golfer in July and August and had a shot late to win the PGA Championship where he was among that huge group tied for the lead late on Sunday. He had a stretch of four straight top-10s in August but then struggled in the FedEx Cup Playoffs. If the back holds up, he can contend this week. However, the high rough could give that back some issues if he’s in it too much.

14. Victor Hovland: He has had a very consistent year having not missed a cut since the Florida Swing in March. Just seems to hang around the first couple pages of the leaderboard every week. Hovland debuted in the Open at Pebble Beach last year and finished T-12 as an amateur. He also won the U.S. Amatuer two years ago. You could say he has a knack for USGA tournaments. If you have a few dollars to spend, picking Hovland to make the cut is a safe bet.

13. Phil Mickelson: Because why not? Call this is a feel-good and wishful pick. You’d be crazy not to root for Phil after what happened in 2006 at Winged Foot, the site of his epic final hole meltdown. Six runners-up at the U.S. Open, the one major that continues to elude him from the career grand slam. There are some rays of hope this week, despite the wounds left here from 2006. He won on the Champions Tour a few weeks ago and played well with the young guys last week, going on a string of 42 holes without a bogey. Unfortunately, he struggled to make birdies and finished -10, good enough for a T44. He’s not playing bad, though, and if he can just find a way to keep it in the fairway this week, the rest of his game is good enough to get him into contention on the weekend.

12. Kevin Kisner: The big question for Kisner coming in is whether Winged Foot is too long for him. He is straight and accurate, ranking 33rd in that category, and has the perfect pedigree for a U.S. Open. However, like Zach Johnson, he could be hitting a lot of long clubs into these greens. Playing from the fairways this week will have a huge advantage and Kisner is playing really strong over the last two months. He has three top-10s in his last eight starts and finished T19 at the PGA Championship. He’s the kind of quiet guy that tends to end up on top in these things.

11. Hideki Matsuyama: The Japanese sensation has had a hard time putting together four good rounds. He’s put himself in contention a lot over the last couple months but seems to wither away at the end. One of the best ballstrikers on Tour, the question is the same one it always is: can he make the putts. It’s been his biggest achilles heel over the years.

10. Patrick Reed: He loves the tough courses and, well, this is as tough as it gets. He won on complex and undulating greens at Augusta in 2018 and has quietly had a decent year with a WGC win. Finished with the 7th best aggregate score at the Tour Championship a couple weeks ago and finished T13 at the PGA Championship. A quiet contender this week that could sneak up there. He has a great short game that will come in handy. Watch out for Reed. Not a bad play if you have a couple bucks to spare given his odds.

9. Collin Morikawa: The PGA Champion went understandably cold there for a couple weeks before going down the stretch with a chance to win the FedEx Cup Championship. He finished with the seventh best aggregate score at East Lake and seems to have recovered from his PGA hangover. Winged Foot is a great course for his consistent game. He impressed at the U.S. Open as an amateur a year ago where he finished T35 in his first ever major championship start. If it weren’t for his PGA win, I’d have him much higher on my list. But it’s tough to win two in a row unless your name is Koepka or Woods.

8. Justin Thomas: The key for JT will be getting off to a good start. It seems to be his biggest issue in majors. He started slow at the PGA last month and just couldn’t get it going enough on the weekend to get back in contention. If he can start strong, then a win is definitely possible. Thomas’ best finish at a U.S. Open was T9 in 2017, the sight of his 63 in the third round.

7. Webb Simpson: He won on a very difficult layout in 2012 that should be very similar in style. He’s a guy that thrives in tough conditions given his accurate play and clutch putting. Before Johnson’s incredible run down the stretch, he was probably in the lead for Player of the Year honors with Morikawa. He’s cooled off some of late but still has two wins and a hoist of top-10s over the last six months.

6. Jon Rahm: Last week, Rahm played a practice round at Winged Foot and said if anyone finishes under par, they’ll win by several shots. When it comes to major championships, Rahm has been a disappointment. He’s too good a player to have 4th place be his best finish thus far in a major. But Rahm puts too much pressure on himself, something he will get better at with time. He had a strong weekend at Harding Park to finish T13 and comes in with a win just a few weeks back against the world No. 1, winning in dramatic fashion. I’m not sure it’s the greatest course for Rahm but when you’re confident like he is, you can grind your way to a good week even if the course doesn’t suit your eye.

5. Tony Finau: Mr. Consistent. He racks up top-5s and top-10s like I rack up bogeys on the golf course. Four top-10s in his last seven starts but still looking for that elusive first major title and first win in a big field. He has thrust himself into contention many times in majors so experience is not the issue. He was right there at the end at the PGA Championship last month, tied for the lead with just a few holes to go. Also finished T5 at last year’s Masters and the 2018 U.S. Open so he has the resume. The PGA proved to me that he can make noise on Sunday, something he lacked before in majors. Morikawa just played better down the stretch.

4. Daniel Berger: What a great year it’s been for Mr. Berger. Seven top-10 finishes since February including a win and three top-3s. He notched up a solid finish at the Northern Trust a few weeks back and contended down the stretch at the PGA Championship. Also, an accurate driver of the ball where he ranks among the top-third in the field. He has a lot of confidence coming into this week and has some U.S. Open success, finishing T6 at the 2018 U.S. Open on an extremely difficult layout where he went into the final round tied for the lead. A great pick to win this week.

3. Tommy Fleetwood: Like Rahm, Fleetwood is knocking on the door and has smelled a major championship several times thus far in his very young career. He led after 36-holes at the PGA last month before a weekend meltdown. He was runner-up at last year’s Open Championship to Shane Lowry and finished runner-up at the U.S. Open in 2017 and 2018 to Brooks Koepka. He got a tune-up last week at the Portugal Masters where he finished 3rd, giving him some much needed confidence going into this week. Fleetwood’s solid tee-to-green game will help him a lot this week. He showed at Shinnecock Hills in 2018 he can go low on very difficult courses. Plus, if the wind blows like is forecast, he is one of the best wind players in the game. I would be stunned if he’s not on the first page of the leaderboard come Sunday.

2. Dustin Johnson: There’s no doubt who the favorite coming in is. It’s this guy. He’s playing better golf than anyone in the world and is probably 75%-plus of the writer’s picks to win this week. Even the players know he’s the guy to beat. The 2016 U.S. Open champion, FedEx Cup champion and No. 1 player in the world has three wins in his last eight starts and three straight top-3 finishes. Some may say whether he can win on a brutal course? He won the U.S. Open on arguably the second-toughest golf course in the world at Oakmont four years ago (Winged Foot being the toughest). So what’s to stop him from winning this week? The driver. It’s what kept him from winning the PGA Championship last month. He’s putting superb and getting it up and down at incredible levels, something you need this week, but he will have to keep it more in the fairway. If he does that, he will continue to dominate and win. But he needs to shed that label of not being able to win the big one. There’s perhaps no better player in history with just one major championship. He needs that second major. He’s too good a player to have just one.

1. Xander Schauffele: The seventh-ranked player in the world scored a mini-victory at the Tour Championship when he finished with the lowest aggregate 72-hole score despite losing the 15 million FedEx prize to Dustin Johnson. Schauffele is one of the best major championship players in the field and undoubtedly has the game to grind it out at win at Winged Foot. He comes in to the Open in excellent form with six top-15s in his last 10 starts. More impressive is his major championship resume. In the U.S. Open, Schauffele has a T3 and T5 in two of his last three starts. He was runner-up at last year’s Masters and a runner-up at the 2018 Open Championship. Many would argue he is right behind Jon Rahm as the best player yet to win a major. He has a great opportunity this week to shed that label, although it won’t be easy given the course. His No. 98 ranking in driving accuracy is the one thing that gives me concern. But he’s patient, smart between the ears, and talented enough to manage his way around Winged Foot successfully. Schauffele’s due and he gets his first major this week.

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