I've also picked 5 players to watch this week... but I've chosen them based on very different criteria than most analysts. I've decided to take a contrarian stance.
Most of the picks I've heard are based on one simple fact: At the Olympic Club, just as it is at every U.S. Open, putting will be the most important skill, with chipping and pitching a close second.
That concept is flawed. The Olympic Club is a bizarre layout with the doglegs and slopes in opposition from a normal layout. By that I mean that the fairways slope away from the dogleg -- a dogleg left slopes to the right, meaning the ball will tend to run into the rough unless you hit it just perfectly, and vice versa.
Because of this, ball striking will be the most valuable skill this week. It's going to be so hard to get on the green in regulation that a good ball striker with merely decent putting and chipping skills will outplay the guys who can putt and chip well but can't get near the green in few enough strokes to capitalize.
With that said, here -- in no particular order -- are my 5 "golden boys" for the Open:
- Ernie Els: Els has been on the verge of winning for months now. His ball striking is awesome, but he's missed a few key putts. He's going to hit enough greens that his putting will seem miraculous.
- Jason Dufner: Dufner is the guy on my list about whom I'm most concerned. My fear is that he's still a bit tapped out physically and emotionally from that great month he had. I'm going to assume the two weeks he took off will have given him enough rest.
- Davis Love III: At 48 he may seem a bit old, but he's healthy, playing well, trying to make his own Ryder Cup team, and on a high after qualifying for the Open.
- Justin Rose: Again, a player whose ball striking has been impeccable -- he won the WGC-Cadillac earlier this year, you'll recall -- and he's been in the hunt since. Again, it's been putting that let him down... but that's not going to be as big a problem this week.
- Lee Westwood: Yes, Lee's my favorite. He's putting and chipping well enough for this track, mainly because I believe he'll be on the green in fewer strokes than most of his competition.
- I don't believe Tiger's "back" yet; if you follow this blog, you know he'll probably be my choice for the Open Championship next month if he continues on his present track. But I think his distance control is going to be a problem this week.
- I don't think Rory McIlroy's got his swing straightened out yet either. He's still making too many big numbers.
- Matt Kuchar simply isn't driving it well enough.
- Steve Stricker's whole game has seemed just a bit off all year. The Olympic Club isn't the place to find it.
- Luke Donald's going to have trouble with the length of the course. Usually I don't think that's as big a problem for the short hitters as most analysts make it out to be, but the weird slants on this course will make it hard to get any shot that misses the fairway close to the green. That's going to hurt all the shorter hitters this week.
- And Phil? Well, it simply depends on whether Phil plays strategy or power. I hope I'm wrong, but I wouldn't bet on strategy.