COMMENTARY | A handful of late developments added intrigue to the 112th U.S. Open, which gets under way June 14 at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
Joining the field June 11 was 14-year-old Andy Zhang, an amateur from Reunion, Fla., who competed in Sectional Qualifying at Black Diamond Ranch at Lecanto, Fla., where he posted rounds of 70-72 to earn that Sectional's first alternate position. He gained his spot in the championship when Paul Casey withdrew because of a shoulder injury.
Zhang, who was born in the People's Republic of China, will become the youngest to play in a U.S. Open since World War II. Tadd Fujikawa previously held that distinction; he was 15 at the 2006 Open at Winged Foot.
While Zhang will make for good early-week copy, the most compelling wrinkle is Dustin Johnson's victory at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. It was his sixth career win on the PGA Tour, and Johnson became the first player since Tiger Woods to notch a victory in each of his first five seasons after leaving college (Coastal Carolina).
That Johnson won in his second start after a near three-month layoff, to recover from a pulled muscle in his back, merely underscores just how much talent this guy possesses. He's a threat to win anytime, anywhere.
Johnson will be hoping to improve on his performance the last time the Open visited the West Coast, in 2010. That's when he led by three shots after 54 holes at Pebble Beach, imploded on the 56th hole Sunday with an ugly triple bogey, and never recovered en route to an 82 and a tie for eighth place.
Johnson played OK the last time Olympic hosted a national championship, the 2007 U.S. Amateur. He qualified for match play with rounds of 72 on the Lake Course (the Open venue) and 73 on the Ocean Course. He lost in the first round of match play to the obscure Ricky Jones of Thompsonville, Maine.
The winner that year was Colt Knost, who improbably made the field this week by the slimmest of margins. Immediately after Regional Qualifying on June 4, the U.S. Golf Association held five spots in reserve to accommodate changes in the Official World Golf Ranking as of June 11. Two players, Branden Grace of South Africa and Spencer Levin, who grew up not far from Olympic in Elk Grove, Calif., snuck in under the wire; Grace hung on to his 54th spot in the OWGR, and Levin advanced one place to 60th. That left three berths for alternates from Sectional Qualifying, and one of them went to Knost.
Given his USGA history -- he also won the U.S. Public Links Championship in '07-- Knost had his sights set on returning to Olympic. His only routes there were to reach the top 60 in the OWGR or survive the qualifying process. After starting the year 435th in the world ranking, Knost rose to 206th thanks to third-place finishes at the Mayakoba Classic and the RBC Heritage (which he led after 54 holes).
Alas, he missed the cut in six of his next seven starts. At the Regional Qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, Knost shot 69-73 and missed a playoff for the final three spots by one stroke. But as fate would have it, he got the 11th-hour invitation because the USGA decided to take two alternates from Columbus, which was top-heavy with PGA Tour pros who piggybacked that Qualifier after The Memorial.
Levin began the season ranked 93rd in the world. He will bear watching, if only to see which Spencer shows up at Olympic.
Levin has had two spectacular meltdowns this year. He led by six shots after 54 holes at the Waste Management Open but closed with 75 and finished third. He led by three shots after 63 holes at The Memorial, but was done in by three bogeys and a double bogey on the back nine en route to another 75.
The next day, Levin failed to advance from the Sectional Qualifier in Columbus. Four days later, he missed the cut in Memphis. Owing to the vagaries of the world ranking formula, he somehow rose to 60th place.
Nevertheless, Levin has posted 11 top-10s in his last 51 starts, including a playoff loss to Johnson Wagner at the 2011 Mayakoba Classic, when he bogeyed the first extra hole. Perhaps his good fortune with the world rankings is an omen, not to mention that he'll wake up for Round Two at Olympic on his 28th birthday.
Since making it through European Tour Q-School last December, Grace, 24, has been on a remarkable run. Victories at the Joburg Open, Volvo Golf Champions and Volvo China Open vaulted him 217 spots in the OWGR after ranking 271st to start the season. (Among the top 100, only PGA Tour rookie John Huh from Korea has made a bigger leap since Jan. 1, advancing to 73rd place from 543rd.)
Meanwhile, two of the pre-tournament favorites showed signs of life on the eve of the Open.
Lee Westwood scored a five-shot victory at the Nordea Masters in Sweden, notching his 40th win as a pro and 22nd on the European Tour. Westwood has three top-5s in nine U.S. Open starts since 2000. It won't hurt that the Nordea event finished on a Saturday, giving Westwood an extra day to adjust after crossing nine time zones.
At Memphis, Rory McIlroy tied for 7th and gave glimpses of his old self after missing the cut in his previous three starts. McIlroy's ball-striking was often brilliant, but he was inconsistent off the tee and putted poorly all week. That won't cut it at the Olympic Club, where McIlroy arrives as the defending U.S. Open champ. Lest we forget, however, he still has six top-10s in 10 starts on the American and European tours this year, including a win at the Honda Classic and not counting his runner-up finish at the WGC Accenture Match Play.
There you have it. The U.S. Open field is set. Game on.
Dave Seanor is an award-winning golf writer who has covered the game for more than 20 years, including 13 years as Editor of Golfweek magazine. He was at the Olympic Club for the 1998 U.S. Open, the 2006 Pacific Coast Amateur, and the 2007 U.S. Amateur.
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