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European Chances at the 2012 U.S. Open
For 40 long years, Europe suffered a US Open drought for which no good explanation could be given. The Continent certainly put up its fair share of contenders between Tony Jacklin's win at Hazeltine in 1970 and Graeme McDowell's at Pebble Beach two years ago, but none of them, not even the ever-meticulous Nick Faldo or unflappable ironman Bernhard Langer, whose diligence and attention to detail actually made Faldo look a little careless at times, could plod their way to victory.
Of course the ability to plod has long been associated with U.S. Open success. Reeling off par after humdrum par, recording the odd birdie here and there, and avoiding the big numbers results in four-round totals of 280 or thereabouts, which tend to put the fairway and green merchants in a very dangerous position on Sunday afternoon.
The 36-strong European contingent reporting for duty at the Olympic Club this week contains a number of very capable plodders. Among them are several players - Soren Kjeldsen, Anders Hansen, Simon Dyson, Rafael Jacqueline - whose reticence, lack of exposure in the U.S., and style of play make them hard to identify. But their number also includes a pair of Englishmen with whom American galleries are very familiar and who stand a very good chance of breaking their major ducks this week.
Justin Rose may not strike everyone as the archetypal plodder, but at 19th in the PGA Tour's Driving Accuracy stats and third in Greens in Regulation, the 31-year-old Londoner can certainly be called upon to make an uneventful par when it's needed. Currently seventh in the world rankings and 10th in the FedEx Cup standings, Rose has won four times in the U.S. since 2010, the victories coming at tournaments whose status and prestige are only a notch or two below those of a major championship. At the WGC Cadillac Championship in Miami earlier this year, he shot 16-under 272 to beat Bubba Watson by one and earn his first World Golf Championship title. And at last year's BMW Championship, he opened with a 63 and finished at 13-under-par to win his first FedEx playoff event.
With a smooth, almost languid, rhythm and tempered approach, Rose's countryman Luke Donald comes across as the most dependable of plodders, every bit as inexplosive as Larry Nelson, Scott Simpson, Andy North, Tom Kite, Lee Janzen and Retief Goosen. But really, the manner in which he ascended to No. 1 in the world and has now accumulated 48 weeks at the top hardly matches the definition. Instead of finding fairways ad nauseum, hitting the green and then two-putting for lackluster pars, Donald has tended to miss fairways (114th, 120th and 57th in Driving Accuracy the last three years), miss the green (157th, 152nd 41st in GIR last three years) and then rely on an unfailing short game (20th, fourth and eighth in scrambling, and first, first, and fifth in sand saves) and exquisite putting stroke (first, first, first) to get where he is.
Ominously, the 34-year-old five-time PGA Tour winner has risen up into eighth position in Driving Accuracy in 2012, hitting over 68 percent of fairways, and it is that figure surely that now makes Donald a likely challenger at the U.S. Open, where he has never finished higher than a tie for 12th and never shot lower than 69. The newfound accuracy and his superlative putting could prove to be a pretty potent combination.
Other Euro plodders worth an each-way punt - players you shouldn't be too upset about drawing in the office sweepstakes - include Martin Laird, Robert Karlsson and Peter Hanson, who did so well at the Masters this year tying for third, two shots out of the playoff. And how about Martin Kaymer, the almost forgotten former world number one (now No. 12) and 2010 PGA champion who has said how much he likes the Lake Course at Olympic as it will favor his natural fade.
Though the straight-ball-no-frills policy pays rich dividends at the U.S. Open, it's not as if a little flair can't work from time to time. Payne Stewart, Ernie Els, Angel Cabrera and Tiger Woods all won in the last 20 years, and McIlroy's game isn't exactly subdued. The Northern Irishman is the defending champion, having blitzed a surprisingly tame Congressional CC last year to the tune of 16-under-par 268, which earned him an eight-stroke victory and the U.S. Open scoring record.
The world stopped spinning momentarily in May when the 23-year-old from Holywood missed the cut at both the Players Championship in Florida and the BMW Championship in England, raising laughably inappropriate and premature questions about how his lifestyle could possibly be compromising his chances of success. But it thankfully resumed normal service again last week when McIlroy might very well have won the FedEx St. Jude Classic had he not played the final seven holes at TPC Southwind in 3-over-par. After temporarily losing his game, McIlroy will have been relieved to rediscover it in Memphis, and though Olympic will no doubt prove a much sterner test than Congressional, only a fool would discount his chances of becoming the first man to win back-to-back U.S. Opens since Curtis Strange in 1988 and '89.
Sergio Garcia, perhaps the most unpredictable of Europe's extroverts, is having a so-so season, making the cut each time in the 12 tournaments he has played around the world, but rarely being asked for a post-round interview. Last week's tie for third at the Nordea Masters in Sweden was his best result of the year, but it has to be said that the Robert Trent Jones-designed Stadium Course at Bro Hoff Slot, 45 minutes north of Stockholm, bears little resemblance to the Olympic Club. The Spaniard does have a decent record in the second major of the year having recorded four top-10 finishes in the last decade, but that probably doesn't matter as he told us himself just 10 weeks ago at the Masters when he said he just doesn't have what it takes to win a major.
To win a major championship a player must possess a rare talent and an even rarer strength of character. Garcia has proven he owns the first requirement in spades, but he is doing a bang-up job of ensuring he never wins a Grand Slam event by giving his inner demons free run of his mind and allowing them to crush his spirit.
One European whose spirit seems uncrushable no matter how many times he finishes inside the top three at a major without actually winning (seven times) is Lee Westwood, whose five-shot victory at Bro Hoff Slot gave the 2000 European Order of Merit and 2009 Race to Dubai winner his 22nd European Tour victory. The world's third-ranked golfer was 25 when he finished tied for seventh at Olympic in 1998 and, though the Lake Course has seen a few changes since then, he should be full of positive vibes.
The Englishman's peerless ball-striking should provide him with plenty of birdie opportunities. It remains to be seen, however, if the putting that has never matched the rest of his game cooperates and consents to give Westwood the major championship he most certainly deserves.
Or is this the one Luke Donald deserves?
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.