The best winning storylines for the 2016 U.S. Open
It’s fair to say that we’re pretty spoiled right now as golf fans. The depth of talent at the top is insanely deep, and we have more compelling figures in the game than at any point in my lifetime. The last eighteen months have been incredible to watch because of these two facts, and I can honestly say that I can’t remember a tournament I was more excited for than the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
You could talk me into about 50 players for this week because of how good these guys are and how crazy Oakmont is, but what I wanted to do with this piece was take a look at the best winning storylines for the week. The only thing to note is that the eleven players listed below need to be ones that we think have a legitimate shot at winning the event. In other words, JJ Henry and Jeff Maggert are not going to be making an appearance on this list.
And yes, I know that eleven is a bit of an odd number, but I couldn’t decide between the bottom two guys on the list, so that’s how we got to eleven and not ten.
11. Louis Oosthuizen
If most players did what Louis Oosthuizen did at the U.S. Open last year, they’d be sick to their stomach for months. Oosthuizen, Rickie Fowler and Tiger Woods combined for a score of 28-over par in the opening round at Chambers Bay in what I suppose you could call professional golf, with Oosthuizen’s 77 being the low score of the three. Somehow, Oosthuizen missed a playoff with Jordan Spieth by a single shot after his Thursday nightmare, but from everything we’ve been led to believe about the 2010 Open Champion, it probably didn’t bother him too much. He’s got his farm, mountains of respect from his peers and apparently, he didn’t have to work that hard to get to the top of the game.
So, why is he on the list? Even though I’m usually one the first people to rail against the “this guy doesn’t win enough” narrative, it really does feel like Oosthuizen has underachieved to some degree at this point in his career. His swing is perfect, he hits the ball a mile, and he probably needs to be in the “when he plays his best, he can’t be stopped” conversation. I don’t know that winning this tournament would mean a ton to him, but getting a second major championship is a big deal and doing it on a course like Oakmont after winning the Open at St. Andrews is something special.
Plus, the winner’s cheque would go a long way to buying more tractors.
10. Hideki Matsuyama
What I said at the beginning about the depth of quality in the game might be most evident with Matsuyama. Let’s look at the rundown for the 24-year old:
- Two PGA Tour wins (Memorial and Phoenix)
- Ranked 15th in the world.
- Always seems to show up and play well in big events.
- Fantastic ball striker with a great swing.
And yet, he can’t really seem to get much attention because of the things that players like Rory, Jordan and Jason have been doing. Matsuyama isn’t in their league, mostly because his putter tends to hold him back, but he’s right there at the top of the next group and getting that first major win is obviously a huge deal and it would definitely help him get some more recognition. Don’t underestimate the potential effect it could have on an entire nation either, as Japan has yet to produce a major winner and Matsuyama is definitely good enough to win multiple championships before his career is done.
9. Zach Johnson
Shane Bacon was on the No Laying Up podcast last week to talk about the U.S. Open, and he mentioned something that seemed crazy to me: Zach Johnson, two-time major winner, has never finished inside the top-10 at the U.S. Open since his first appearance in 2004. Why did that sound crazy? It just doesn’t make sense that someone who is constantly in the middle and is one of the best putters of the last twenty years couldn’t put it together one week and crack the top 10. But, as Bacon pointed out, his ball flight is low for a tour pro and when you combine that with him being further back than most players due to his lack of distance, it starts to make some more sense.
What is his best finish at the U.S. Open? Tied for 30th back in 2011 when Rory torched the field at Congressional. So, you might be thinking, “Well, that doesn’t sound like someone who can win”, and you know, you might be right but I have to believe that at some point, there’s a good performance for Johnson at one of these things. Why is it compelling? I know it doesn’t feel this way, but in the history of golf, there have only been 44 players to win three major championships and Johnson would make 45 if he won this week. Those courses? Augusta National, St. Andrews and Oakmont. That’ll do.
8. Danny Willett
So much of the conversation after the Masters was about how Spieth collapsed on the back nine, making it real easy to forget that Danny Willett played great on Sunday and won the tournament. Willett has played three tournaments since the Masters: he was cut at the Players, finished T23 in Ireland after an awful final round and came in solo third at the BMW PGA. He’s trending in the right direction, and even though we saw it in 2015, winning the first two majors in a year just isn’t something that happens very often. Plus, winning at Oakmont would help steer the conversation more in Willett’s favour and even though we’d still talk about Spieth losing the 2016 Masters, Willett would definitely be seen with much more reverence if he could add the U.S. Open trophy to his collection.
7. Rickie Fowler
If you go by the current world rankings, Rickie Fowler is the best player in the world who hasn’t won a major championship to date, and like we talked about with Matsuyama, getting that first one is obviously a very big deal. I don’t think that Fowler is too bothered by not having one; in the sense that it’s not keeping him up at night, but at this point in his career, this really is the next step. He’s won a regular PGA Tour event (2012 Wells Fargo), a great PGA Tour event (2015 Players) and he’s won a few times overseas as well, plus he’s represented his country three times in international play.
He’s got tons of time to win a major championship, and he’s too good not to do it, but as you’ll see later in this list, we’ve said that about other players too.
6. Jason Day
Jason Day’s run at the top of the game has been nothing short of insane. He’s won seven of his last eighteen starts, which in modern times, is only something we’ve seen from Tiger and in a lot of those tournaments, he’s won by a comfortable margin. Day’s dominance is incredible, and adding a second major championship to his resume would be special. At 28 years old, he’s already talking about the Hall of Fame and his legacy, so you know that this means a lot to him, but while dominance is compelling, this story isn’t as good as the five below.
5. Rory McIlroy
When I did my five part “Golfer Watchability Index” last year, I named Rory as the most watchable player out there right now because ultimately, no one in the game gets me more excited to watch golf than him. When he’s on his game and playing well, he has a mesmerizing quality to him that only a handful of players have had in the modern game, and until the Irish Open a few weeks ago, it felt like it had been a really long time since we had seen that Rory McIlroy. A win at Oakmont would give Rory five major championship victories, making him the 20th player in history to get to that number, and as you can imagine, that list is full of the best to ever play.
As great as golf has been over the last 18 months, the one thing we’ve really missed is a truly dominant show from Rory and doing it at Oakmont would certainly be something special.
4. Jordan Spieth
Curtis Strange, Ben Hogan, Ralph Guldahl, Bobby Jones, John McDermott and Willie Anderson.
That’s the list of players who have ever won back to back U.S. Open titles, and that alone would likely be enough to put Spieth high on this list, but we all know what happened two months ago and that just adds so much more to the story. His win at Colonial a few weeks ago was great to watch because it showed what I think all of us knew already: that Jordan Spieth was going to be just fine. With that said, Spieth knows how much this U.S. Open means, and adding his name to the list of repeat winners at this tournament and the group of legends to triumph at Oakmont puts him in a pretty important historical context.
Hot take here: He’s going to be there at the end with a chance to win.
3. Dustin Johnson
It should have been DJ’s time last year. Between Augusta, Chambers Bay, St. Andrews and Whistling Straits, I’m not sure that you could pick four courses that gave Dustin Johnson a better chance to win his first major championship, and outside of Augusta when Spieth went crazy, he had a chance to win all three but came up empty.
The 18th at Chambers Bay is something that is going to stick in my mind for a long time. Johnson needed birdie on the 600+ yard par-5 to force a playoff with Spieth, and he should have gotten it done. His tee shot and approach (with an iron!) are two of the best shots that you will ever see on any course in any event, and he did it when he needed it most. It was incredible, and at that point, the question wasn’t about us having a playoff; it was about whether Johnson would hit the eagle putt and deny Spieth. It was finally his time.
Until it wasn’t. The three putt on those awful, bumpy ass greens at Chambers gave Spieth the win outright, and much like Oosthuizen, you’d think that sort of thing would eat away at a player but at least outwardly, that wasn’t the case. Johnson didn’t seem overly bothered by it, and to be honest, that’s the sort of reaction that I think will serve him well for the rest of his career. He’s not going to worry about the misses, and he’s got so much talent that he’s got to win one soon. You shouldn’t be surprised if it’s this week, and it’ll be a great story.
2. Sergio Garcia
Speaking of being too good not to win a major soon, please welcome Sergio Garcia! Look, we all know the story at this point, and Sergio definitely has his supporters and detractors who are reading this and are either nodding their heads in agreement, or they’re calling me an idiot, but for those who are on the negative side, hear me out.
As great as it would be to see someone like Matsuyama or Fowler win this week, there’s an expectation that they’re going to get multiple majors before their career is over. You can even throw DJ into that equation because people still look at him as being young enough and with the right mentality to get it done, but Sergio? As good as he is, more people are definitely on the “he’s never going to win one” train than the “it’s going to happen at some point” train. At 36, he’s still got plenty of time left to win one of them, and it seems like he’s in a good place mentally. Or at least, he’s in a better place mentally than he was ten to fifteen years ago.
Ultimately, I think that the way he won the Nelson a few weeks ago is the way that he probably ends up getting a major. He’s a few shots back to start the day with no pressure, and he fires a good number on Sunday when the leaders come back to the field and there’s no shame in that at all. I’m still firmly in the camp that he’s too good to not win a major, and you should be too. There’s only one potential story that tops it for me this week at Oakmont.
1. Phil Mickelson
It’s hard to believe that the above GIF comes from a tournament that happened seventeen years ago. Phil’s runner-up finish to Payne Stewart in the 1999 U.S. Open, where Stewart famously told Phil not to worry about the loss because he was about to become a father for the first time, came before he was a major winner and now, the U.S. Open is the only major that Phil has yet to conquer. It’s a pretty crazy thing to think about for a few reasons:
- Only Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger have ever won all four majors. Palmer didn’t do it. Neither did Seve, Watson, Trevino, Snead and countless others.
- Somehow, Phil ended up winning the Open Championship, which I would have put near “Adam Sarson qualifies for the U.S. Open” on the likelihood scale.
- He’s finished as the runner-up in this event five times since that loss in 1999.
Kevin Van Valkenburg did a great job ranking all of Phil’s losses for ESPN this week, and when you read it, all of these memories come flooding back. Shinnecock, Winged Foot, Pinehurst, Bethpage and Merion could have all been Phil’s and at least two of them should have been his, allowing him to join that super elite company with all four majors.
It’s Phil’s 46th birthday on Thursday, and when you combine that with all of the talent at the top of the game and his previous heartbreak, it really does seem difficult to believe that he can pull it off. Historical significance combined with an against all odds storyline on the toughest course in the world?
It doesn’t get any better than that.