It's time for Jason's major Day
Ben Coley previews the US Open and fancies Jason Day to provide the biggest challenge to Rory McIlroy at Pinehurst.
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Such is the buzz around the 114th US Open, that the absence of you-know-who seems insignificant. It isn't, of course - any major missing Tiger Woods loses something - but there's little doubt that we're in for a special event.
The reason this particular US Open might just stand out among its generation - one in which Rory McIlroy's all-the-way romp at Congressional and Justin Rose's emotional Merion triumph stand out - is that we have the perfect platform on which some fascinating storylines will unfold.
Pinehurst - more specifically the #2 course which hosts the event - is considered by many to be the home of American golf. Designed by the legendary Donald Ross, it represented the blueprint for resorts which sprung up across the country in the middle part of the 20th century, with superintendents and designers travelling to North Carolina to catch a glimpse of this masterpiece before attempting to create their own.
The land on which Pinehurst No.2 was built was originally purchased by entrepreneur James Walker Tufts in 1895, and it's his archives which have allowed for a multi-million dollar redesign to take place in advance of this year's tournament, one aimed at returning the course to all its former glory.
Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore were the men entrusted with this great challenge, and both agreed that the course on which Payne Stewart so bravely won the 1999 US Open and New Zealand's Michael Campbell cause a major shock some six years later, had lost some of that which had made it great.
Following deep consultation with old scripts and photographs, Crenshaw and Coore believe they've succeeded in restoring the course to that which Ross first imagined, then built, and continued to tweak throughout the first two decades of its existence.
In strict and simple terms, this means they've widened fairways and removed all rough from the layout - which you'd think would make life easier. However, where once was rough now lie sandy areas, with spots of pine needless and wiregrass tufts to add the element of luck that Dr Alastair Mackenzie - designer of Augusta National - considered so important to the sport of golf.
Here's what Crenshaw told pgatour.com: "It will be pot luck out (off the fairways). You can have a recoverable lie, or you can get a poor lie and have to chip out. It's all natural, though.
"It will probably make you try a lot of shots that you wouldn't have been able to. If you can put the club on the ball, you can try a lot of things. I think that's going to be exciting for a lot of people and obviously different for a U.S. Open. I think that's especially exciting because people who know Pinehurst and have played it forever know it's one of the great second-shot golf courses in the world.
"How you maneuver your ball up onto those greens is a lot of playing Pinehurst, knowing when to try to get a ball a little bit closer and when to play away from a flagstick."
And here's what he added in an interview with Srixon: "What drew Donald Ross to the area was largely sandy in nature. The Carolina sandhills are known for terrain that is very sandy, impoverished in places. Sand, pine needles and wiregrass...this will be unique for a US Open.
"If you leave the fairway you can have a recoverable lie, a sandy lie. It's really like pot luck; you could be behind a clump of wiregrass and you can't advance it, another ball may have a lie.
"We really felt like the rough was unnecessary and it did not depict what we thought Donald Ross had envisioned. No question, you'll see different shots played - I really think it'll be very exciting.
"There is going to be luck involved."
Phil Mickelson will be hoping luck is on his side as he goes in search of that elusive US Open title he so craves. It's one which would now complete a career grand slam following last summer's Open Championship success and there was enough promise in his performance last week to suggest he holds every chance of bettering his second-placed finish behind Stewart here 15 years ago.
"If nobody hit a green, I feel like my chances are the best," Mickelson said on Sunday. "I'm excited about the prospect of a U.S. Open that has (the) short game as such an important element."
Rickie Fowler, who has been practicing at Pinehurst with Mickelson in the run-up to the event, confirmed that there are spots around the green that will make it close to impossible to get up and down, and this confirms the suspicion that scrambling will be an important factor this week.
To my mind, however, while getting up and down will of course be vital to any player's prospects, the one factor which gives a distinct advantage before a shot is hit is the ability to hit the ball long and straight. Although not something which would've led us to Campbell or Stewart, this will be a very different test and any par 70 which stretches beyond 7,500 yards - as this one does - can be labelled a monster, one set to be extended further by rain throughout the tournament.
This won't exclude shorter hitters from the leaderboard and it certainly doesn't mean a player can spray it anywhere and win, but the likes of Bubba Watson, Mickelson and Dustin Johnson will have more options from the tee and should be able to capitalise if enjoying a good week with the big stick. Rory McIlroy, another who hits the ball a long way, is excited by the prospect of wearing his driver out albeit he, like many others, suggests this title will be won and lost on and around the greens.
Isn't that always the case? I think back to last year's majors, three of which were won by supreme ball-strikers who can be awful on the greens. Adam Scott said he made every putt that mattered on the Sunday of his Masters win, and the same can be said of Jason Dufner in the PGA. Increasingly, majors are being won by players who marry implicit trust in their long games with a good week around the greens.
While unique in comparison to other US Opens of recent times, form in this championship must be considered a positive because there are players who have the quality and mindset to produce on this stage and some who clearly struggle to do so. I'd also consider looking at events such as the 2010 US PGA at Whistling Straits - a venue with little rough but plenty of sandy waste areas - and last year's US PGA, played at the Ross-designed Oak Hill.
Other Ross courses include East Lake, Oakland Hills and Sedgefield Country Club and it may well be that these provide some pointers - players like Ryan Moore and Sergio Garcia have excelled on several Ross designs to suggest there's a degree of relevance here. However, that word 'unique' keeps coming back to me and in truth there's probably more educated guesswork involved here at Pinehurst than for any major I can remember.
With all of this in mind, I want a big-time performer who hits it far, is capable around the greens and looks primed to win a big one on my side. That man is Jason Day and I think he's an outstanding bet.
The Australian has a major record which is often referred to but one which, for the purposes of this preview, bears repeating. To date he has appeared in just 14 of them, yet already he has four top-three finishes - two of which have come from his three appearances in this event.
Excluding those like Lee Westwood who have played in upwards of 50 majors, Day's record is by far the best of any maiden and, unlike many of those who've been trying for years, there's no doubt whatsoever in my mind that Day has what it takes to win one. This doesn't mean that he will, of course, simply that he can.
Day has been at Pinehurst since Thursday, practicing throughout the weekend so as to enable him to relax at bit more in the immediate run-up to the tournament. It's a course he first visited in 2012 and again last year, and one he feels he can conquer with a game which has few faults.
The one problem is that Day has played in only one event since finishing 20th in the Masters, when it appeared to me that a lack of match practice cost him a real chance to take on Bubba. This is due to a thumb injury sustained when winning the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and is really the only negative I have when it comes to his prospects this week.
However, Day played encouragingly enough in The Memorial a fortnight ago and allayed any fears as to his well-being in saying afterwards: "No issues with the thumb at all. So I've been going at it pretty hard for the last two weeks. And it feels good. No issues."
Of course, I'd still have liked him to have played more competitive golf and get the juices flowing as there remains the possibility that, like at Augusta, he's not quite match sharp for this. I believe, however, that this is factored into quotes of 33/1 because I'd have made him clear fourth favourite for this on a level playing field.
Day is long, he's brilliant around the greens, he excels from sand and he's started winning events - and big ones, too. He's focused, he says he's fit, he's played a lot of golf at the course and he has an outstanding record in the events which matter most. He's as close as I can find to the complete package if we look past those at the very front of the market.
Finally, both the aforementioned Fowler and Day's compatriot Geoff Ogilvy have compared the redesigned Pinehurst to Augusta, where it's all about risk-reward, driving it long, hitting greens and getting up and down from some tricky spots when you fail to. Day's record there is exceptional and further enhances my belief that he's well worth chancing at a price which underestimates his prospects.
The next player on my list is Jonas Blixt.
Like Day, the Swede hits the ball a long way but his true strengths lie around the greens. When paired with Blixt at the Wells Fargo Championship, McIlroy said "he has a great short game" and it was in evidence at the Masters, where he ranked sixth in scrambling on his way to second, as well at last year's US PGA, where he ranked third on his way to the same spot.
That's pretty much all there is to backing the 30-year-old. He has the right game for this, and he's shown that he has the right mentality for majors, placing in both he's played in the US - the first of which came at the Ross-designed Oak Hill.
He's a two-time winner in just two full seasons on the PGA Tour and I've no problem with a missed cut last time, given that he'd previously threatened the leaders for much of the week at Wentworth and had been in dire form prior to that stunning Masters debut back in the spring.
Blixt has his sights locked on a place in Paul McGinley's Ryder Cup team and events like this provide his best chance to achieve that goal. He was at Pinehurst back in April for a look around and rates my idea of the best bet of those at three-figure prices.
Whittling down the rest isn't easy. I was on Garcia in last year's US Open and at the Masters and I for one think he could yet win a major, I just don't quite think his price reflects the fact that he withdrew from his last start with a knee problem and has generally produced his best golf when building up a sequence of starts.
Dustin Johnson is another I've backed in more than one major and I have had a small bet at 40/1 here, but with that price now gone I am prepared to leave him out despite the fact that, again, I do think he has a major in him and his bogey avoidance improvement suggests chances should arrive more frequently.
Instead, I'll chance Keegan Bradley producing the sort of form that has seen him win and place in the US PGA as well as land the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone.
In common with Day, Bradley hits the ball extremely high and that too could be a major asset this week given that the greens at Pinehurst are made smaller by their contouring - they're essentially all upturned saucers and anything towards the edge will fall away to leave a tricky up and down.
He's also one of the best drivers of a ball in world golf and, by his own admission, is at his best when faced with an all-round challenge. Those aforementioned US PGA efforts, the win at Firestone and his first victory in the Byron Nelson Championship all lay testament to that.
What's more, at 16th in scrambling this season Bradley is one of just two long and straight drivers who rank in the top 20 of this category - the other being Garcia. It suggests that there's not much wrong with his game and we've seen evidence of that when he finished second at Bay Hill, while his performance at Muirfield Village last time was a big improvement on all he'd done previously at that venue.
The concern would ordinarily be a poor US Open record and it's true that most winners of this great title had done something much better than Bradley's tie for 68th at Olympic Club and missed cut at Merion. However, Pinehurst is a world away from both venues and, on paper at least, looks to be much more suited to his game.
Bradley is a big-time performer with three wins from just 81 starts on the PGA Tour already to his name, so given that I think the course suits and he seems to be playing well enough he's got to go in the staking plan at 66/1 and upwards.
Jason Dufner has placed at the last two US Opens and has since become a major winner at a Ross-designed course so at 50/1 you could do worse than side with him, but the final spot on my list goes to the most likely winner - Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy is, for my money, the best player in world golf and probably by a handful of shots per event when he's at his absolute best.
He's spoken highly of Pinehurst, which will be closer to the test he came through with flying colours three years ago albeit not quite the rain-softened bomber's paradise that Congressional proved to be and certainly not so relatively straightforward.
There's no doubt that any rain that arrives will play into his hands but even if the course does drain as well as some say, McIlroy's putting has improved so much from last year that he may be able to cope with firm and fast conditions better than he has previously. Certainly, he's improving in that regard and his win in the Australian Open offers proof that he doesn't need a downpour.
Yet to finish worse than 25th all season and on the back of a first win on European soil followed by a solid share of 15th in the Memorial, Rory looks to be at his best and both major wins have come when he's arrived in this sort of form. They're further evidence that on his day he's almost impossible to beat and he'll seldom get a test which looks to place as much emphasis on long, straight driving and accurate approach play as this one.
Rory has already proven to be a profitable blind bet in majors and supporting him on the right course at 12/1 will pay dividends in the long run. For my money he is without doubt the man they all have to beat and while hopeful that Day might be the man to do it, McIlroy has to feature in the staking plan.
I will also take the 20/1 that he leads after round one. Some will call it a lottery, but it's one Rory won in three of just 10 strokeplay starts this season and around 12% of the events he's played in over the last four years, including at Congressional, while he was second after day one on his way to victory in the US PGA at Kiawah Island.
If McIlroy is to win this week, there's a fair chance it'll be courtesy of one of his trademark fast starts.