As you probably already know, the 2008 U.S. Open golf tournament will begin tomorrow in sunny San Diego, California, at Torrey Pines Golf Course. Both World #1 Tiger Woods and #2 Phil Mickelson hail from SoCal, so it's no coincidence that they have dominated Torrey Pines in recent years (one of the two has captured the Buick Invitational title in 8 of the past 10 seasons, with Woods claiming each of the past 4 tournaments), and are the odds-on favorites to win the national championship this week. Thanks to a new (and fairly unprecedented) practice of pairing players based on the World Golf Rankings, Mickelson and Woods (along with #3 Adam Scott) will also spend at least the first two rounds of the tournament going head-to-head, which should make the media (and the USGA) about as pleased as humanly possible. In other words, this year's U.S. Open has all the makings of an all-time classic.
But what about the course itself, you ask? For starters, it's going to be long. Really long. In fact, at 7,643 yards from the back tees, Torrey is the longest setup in Open history, and by a pretty fair margin (379 yards). However, in a rare non-sadistic decision by the USGA, the players won't be playing all of that distance; in reality, the Torrey that Tiger and friends will take on won't be much longer than 7,500 yards -- still long, but not excessive. Furthermore, the fairways, while narrow by Buick standards, are slightly wider than those of a usual U.S. Open setup, and the rough is more graduated than ever, which marks a significant change from the "miss the fairway and you're dead" policies of a few years back. If you ask the players who have already tried the USGA's Torrey Pines setup this week, they'll tell you that it's still the toughest test of golf out there. But they'll also sing the praises of USGA director Mike Davis, whose vision for the Open is far fairer (and more watchable) than that of predecessor Tom Meeks. Make no mistake, par will still be protected vigorously, but the scores will be lower than in recent years, and the game will be a truer test of golfing skill.
With all of that said, here are my Top 10 contenders for the Open crown. To win the Open, you have to be disciplined, mentally tough, accurate off the tee when need be, a great iron player, and a putting wizard (and not necessarily in that order). In other words, you need to be Tiger Woods. Who, not coincidentally, shows up as...
#1. Tiger Woods
Why he can win: History, for one. Tiger has dominated this course like no other, capturing 6 Buicks in 10 years and a handful of Junior World Championships at Torrey. He's got the requisite length to tame the longest U.S. Open setup ever, and the combination of iron accuracy, putting, and scrambling ability that are necessary to win the USGA's greatest test. The fact that the rough is now less penal only serves to negate one of Tiger's only weaknesses, his inconsistent accuracy off the tee. In other words, the odds are pretty good that Tiger walks away from Torrey on Sunday just 4 Majors behind Jack Nicklaus' record.
Why he can't win: He hasn't played a tournament in 8 weeks because of knee surgery. He hasn't walked a full 18 holes yet this week. The U.S. Open is the one Major whose setups are not quite tailor-made for Tiger's game.
#2. Phil Mickelson
Why he can win: Again, history. Mickelson played this course growing up and won on it multiple times over the past decade. His game is even better suited to U.S. Opens than Tiger's, with 7 career top tens at the event (including 2nd at Winged Foot two years ago). Mickelson's short game is still nothing less than phenomenal, and that can buy him some shots on the field at a course where everyone will eventually tangle with greenside bunkers and rough.
Why he can't win: Phil's mental game has long been his achilles heel. He couldn't close the deal on the Open two years ago, and he hasn't won a Major since. The home-course advantage will be strong, but he rode very strong crowd support at Bethpage Black in 2002, and still couldn't overcome Tiger Woods.
#3. Geoff Ogilvy
Why he can win: Already a past Open champion, Ogilvy's strong all-around game will serve him well this week at Torrey Pines, where he can match Tiger and Phil's length while hitting more fairways. Ogilvy's also an iron ace and has nice touch around the greens, which makes him probably the most complete all-around player from tee to green in the field this week.
Why he can't win: Putting. Ogilvy's not a bad putter per se, but he's not in the same class as Tiger and Phil; given the slick Open greens, this is going to put a lot of pressure on the rest of his game. When Ogilvy won the Open two years ago, he didn't exactly go get it... it was basically handed to him on a platter by Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie.
#4. Stewart Cink
Why he can win: Cink, one of the more underrated players in the game, is quietly enjoying a fantastic season so far in 2008. He's currently 13th in the World Rankings (and rising), and 6th in FedEx Cup points. Having improved his accuracy off the tee, Cink's game now meshes well with the Open mindset: hit it straight and long (in that order), nail your irons, and make putts. Don't be surprised if Cink makes a big splash this week.
Why he can't win: Cink is another player with questionable mental toughness, having missed a short gimme putt in 2001 that could have won him the U.S. Open. Of course, Cink has improved his putting since then, but that one miss will always haunt him.
#5. Anthony Kim
Why he can win: In an age of first-time Open winners (each of the past 3 champs were first-timers), why not Kim, a precocious 22-year-old who already ranks 19th in the World Rankings? Kim stripes the ball off the tee like any number of young would-be stars, but he is also a fair iron player and shows good touch on and around the greens. He also showed he can win on the big stage, taking the Wachovia Championship last month.
Why he can't win: Age and experience, or lack thereof. The only 22-year-olds who win Majors are guys like Tiger and Jack Nicklaus; needless to say, Kim isn't in their class. He's only played in 5 Majors, finishing no better than 20th and missing the cut 3 times.
#6. Stephen Ames
Why he can win: Simply put, Ames has game. While his driving isn't great, he's good ball-striker with a solid short game, which will always put you in the hunt at the U.S. Open. He's also on a bit of a hot streak right now, having finished 5th, 4th, and T13th in his last 3 tournaments.
Why he can't win: To be honest, Ames may not be long enough off the tee to conquer this course. Also, Ames doesn't have the greatest record in the Majors, having interspersed 4 Top Tens with a host of low finishes and missed cuts.
#7. Justin Rose
Why he can win: He's the 6th-best player in the game, just entering his prime. He finished in the Top 12 at every Major last year, including T10 at Oakmont. He keeps the ball out of the rough, hits plenty of greens, and has a nice short game. He also has plenty of Major Championship experience, having played them since age 17. Sounds like a pretty good formula for success this week...
Why he can't win: Rose's game has slipped thus far in 2008. He's not driving the ball as long as he did in '07, his approaches aren't as accurate, and his once-marvelous putting has gone to hell. If he reclaims his old game, he'll be in the mix, but if not, it could be an early exit for Rose.
#8. Pat Perez
Why he can win: Another local kid made good, Perez is intimately familiar with Torrey Pines and is playing the best golf of his career right now. He's not overwhelming in any one area, but he can keep it in the short stuff with distance, hit irons well, and make putts, which is a good formula at the Open.
Why he can't win: Perez has a history of tantrums and hissy fits that would rival John McEnroe's. Of course, he's calmed down in recent years, but what better place for another meltdown than the toughest setup on Tour?
#9. Sergio Garcia
Why he can win: Garcia's really feeling it right now, fresh off a Players' Championship and a T4 at Memphis last week. He has 2 career Top 10s at the Open, and possesses the length and ball-striking skills to be a serious contender at Torrey.
Why he can't win: As always, Garcia's putting is wildly inconsistent, which won't cut it on the undulating greens of a U.S. Open course. If he putts well, he could put away the BPTNWAM label once and for all, but the good money is on the flatstick costing him strokes this week.
#10. Stuart Appleby
Why he can win: Appleby has fallen from the Top 10 in the OWGR over the past few years, but he's put his game back together this season and is playing much better (30th in FedEx Cup points with 5 top tens). Appleby still has more than enough length off the tee and a fine short game, and his ball-striking and putting are markedly improved right now. If he hits enough greens and keeps the 3-putts to a minimum, look for Appleby to surprise at Torrey.
Why he can't win: Appleby had a poor record at the U.S. Open even when he was in his prime. He's not an accurate driver of the golf ball, which hampers him at courses with penal rough -- though the graduated rough this week will help him more than most.
The Dark Horse: Carl Pettersson
Why he can win: Pettersson's not exactly a household name, and he's not even that great of a golfer (he's currently ranked 79th in the Rankings). But he does have something going for him: his game is strangely suited to the U.S. Open. He finished 17th last year at Oakmont because he hits greens, has a solid short game, and can really roll the rock. Expect more of the same this week at Torrey.
Why he can't win: He doesn't hit it long or straight off the tee, which could be the kiss of death at this Torrey Pines setup. He's also just not a consistent player, which is critical for success at this, the USGA's famous shot-making examination.