Unlike the PGA Tour, which uses a computer-generated random draw for its tournaments, the United States Golf Association likes to have fun with U.S. Open pairings. The Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson-Bubba Watson threesome that will highlight the festivities June 14 at the Olympic Club was true to form. Inspired, but not surprising.
In an unusual twist, groups will begin play on the first and ninth holes, rather than the first and 10th. That's because the ninth tee at Olympic is close to the clubhouse, and it was deemed expeditious to use that hole rather than shuttle players, caddies and officials out to the 10th. It's a smart move, considering the likely congestion at Olympic, which isn't a sprawling venue. Plus, play is never brisk during the first two rounds of the Open, with a disparate field of 156 trying to navigate the game's toughest course setup.
The USGA achieved its desired pre-championship buzz with the pairing of Tiger, Lefty and Bubba, who will begin Round One at the ninth hole at 7:33 a.m. Woods is riding the momentum of a come-from-behind victory at The Memorial; Mickelson was last seen withdrawing from that tournament (claiming fatigue, but obviously vexed by cell phone picture takers in the gallery); and Watson, whose miraculous shot from the hinterlands at Augusta National's 10th hole won him the Masters, and who took a month-long break to be with his newly adopted son, then missed the cut at The Memorial. They'll be the featured group Friday afternoon (1:18 off No. 1).
There are plenty of compelling storylines besides the obvious. For instance, the men who produced the two feel-good stories of Sectional Qualifying, Casey Martin and Dennis Miller, will begin the Thursday afternoon wave off No. 1 at 12:45.
Martin, now the golf coach at the University of Oregon, sued the PGA Tour in 1997 - a celebrated case that ended nearly four years later when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor - for the right to use a cart during competition. (He suffers from Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, which causes the slow, painful deterioration of his right leg.) Martin finished 14th on the Buy.com Tour (now Nationwide Tour) money list in 1999 to qualify for his only full season on the PGA Tour. He made 14 cuts in 29 starts in 2000, with a best finish of T17, all while enduring the added stress of the Tour's appeal of a lower court's ruling in Martin's favor. After that he knocked around on the Buy.com/Nationwide and NGA Hooters tours for six seasons before taking the Oregon job.
Martin, 40, entered the U.S. Open on a whim. He shot 70 at Local Qualifying in Vancouver, Wash., to advance to the one-day, 36-hole Sectional in Creswell, Ore., which he won with a pair of 69s. Now he makes a return visit to Olympic, where he tied for 23rd at the Open in 1998 - one stroke ahead of a former Stanford University teammate named Tiger Woods.
Miller, a portly 42-year-old club professional from Youngstown, Ohio, became a YouTube sensation when a video camera caught the Golf Gods smiling on him at the Open Sectional in Columbus, a venue top-heavy with Tour players who had competed in The Memorial nearby.
Twenty-seven days earlier, Miller had birdied the final hole at Local Qualifying in Cleveland to make a six-man playoff for the last three spots in the Sectional. He fell short, but ended up as third alternate for Columbus. You can always count on a handful of Tour players withdrawing from the Sectional that piggybacks The Memorial, disinclined to go 36 holes after not playing well at Muirfield Village. That's what happened, and Miller was in.
He shot 71 at Scioto Country Club and 70 at Ohio State's Scarlet Course, beating a couple of dozen Tour regulars, which left him in a four-man playoff for the final three tickets to San Francisco. One player birdied the first playoff hole, and the remaining three kept going. On the third hole, No. 18 at Scioto, Miller faced a 22-foot putt from the fringe for birdie. His effort looked tantalizingly good until the ball trickled to a halt on the lip of the cup. It hung there so long that Miller had already turned away in resignation before the ball dropped. The video is a priceless reminder of the fine line that separates failure and success in the maddening game of golf.
In other noteworthy pairings:
The top three players in the Official World Golf Ranking - Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood - will square off at 1:18 Thursday afternoon. The big question is how McIlroy, the boy wonder from Belfast who's been mired in the first slump of his professional career, will man up against his two big rivals from England. Most elite players rest up the week before a major, but McIlroy's search for his game took him to the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis. No worries. He's only 23, after all.
Right behind the OWGR Triumvirate are former Open champs Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell, who are paired with the underachieving (or perennially unlucky, if you ask him) Sergio Garcia. No doubt Garcia has watched the clip of Miller's putt over and over, wondering why stuff like that never happens to him.
Admirers of the power game won't want to miss the showdown between Alvaro Quiros and Gary Woodland. With an average of 300.6 yards on the measured holes, Woodland ranks 12th in driving distance on the PGA Tour. (He has purposely dialed it back after averaging 310.5 in 2011.) Quiros, a fun-loving Spaniard, averages 318 yards, which ranks second on the European Tour. He led that statistical category last year at 312.7. Problem is, they may not pull driver very often, owing to the narrow U.S. Open setup. But they'll likely go for it at the par-4 seventh hole, which will measure 265 to 288 yards, depending on tee placement. Seeing one of the game's big hitters knock it close there would worth the price of admission.
Korean golf fans (as well as the owners of the U.S. Open TV rights in that country) have to be thrilled with the threesome of K.J. Choi, Y.E. Yang, and K.T. Kim. (For the record, that's Kyung-ju, Yong-eun, and Kyung-tae.) While Yang, who slayed Tiger Woods at the 2009 PGA Championship, and eight-time PGA Tour winner Choi may be the most recognizable Korean players in America, the 25-year-old Kim is the up-and-comer to watch in this group. He topped the Japan Golf Tour's money list in 2010, and if you visit his profile on the JGTO website, you'll learn that his blood type is B. (No kidding, they list blood type for every player.)
Beginning at 1:25 p.m. Thursday off No. 9, a boatload of likely contenders get started. The first threesome is Martin Kaymer, the 2010 PGA Championship winner from Germany; Hunter Mahan, already a two-time winner this season; and Justin Rose, who leads the European Tour's Race to Dubai.
Next up are accomplished veterans Matt Kuchar, Steve Stricker and Ian Poulter - ranked sixth, 11th and 27th in the world, respectively - each with potential to win a major. Kuchar won The Players last month.
At 1:47, it's Jason Day, Louis Oosthuizen and Jason Dufner. Day, a talented young Aussie, has alternated between tying for ninth and missing the cut in his last four starts. Oosthuizen, the South African who won the 2010 British Open, lost in a playoff at the Masters, won the European Tour's Malaysian Open the following week, but has missed the cut in three of his last four starts (all in the States) since. The laconic Dufner sits atop the PGA Tour money list, thanks to two victories (New Orleans, Byron Nelson) and a second place (Colonial) in his last four starts. He has the demeanor and resilience needed to win an Open.
Right behind the two Jasons and Louis is a trio sure to attract the most youthful gallery: Rickie Fowler, Ryo Ishikawa and Dustin Johnson. Fowler has four top 10s in his last five starts, including a playoff victory at Quail Hollow - his maiden win on Tour - and a tie for second at The Players. Ishikawa won on the Japan Tour as a 15-year-old in 2007, and two years later he claimed the JGTO money title. In May 2010, Ishikawa shot a closing 58 to win for the ninth time on that circuit, and has since added two titles in Japan. At 21, he's beginning to find his footing in America, with a runner-up finish this year at the Puerto Rico Open and T9 at The Memorial. Johnson, a five-time Tour winner and poster boy for athleticism in pro golf, is trying to rebound from a back injury that idled him for nearly three months after posting three top 10s in February. He tied for 19th at The Memorial.
Meanwhile, in a sign of the times, three former U.S. Open champions - Ernie Els, Geoff Ogilvy and Angel Cabrera - will be preparing to tee off at No. 1 with significantly less fanfare. No iridescent outfits or flat-brim hats in this group, but one worth watching nonetheless. Just as the USGA matchmakers planned it.
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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