— K.J. Choi
After a subpar 2009 on the PGA Tour, he may have re-ignited his career with an Asian Tour victory in Malaysia last October. To wit, he has cashed in all 13 of his PGA starts this season, seven being top-25 finishes including a tie for fourth at the Masters. He didn't qualify for a U.S. Open until '01, but he has competed in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am nine times, including a T21 in February. At 40 years old, he knows that an Asian-born player can win a major, courtesy of Y.E. Yang's breakthrough at last year's PGA Championship. Choi is long and accurate off the tee and sits sixth in greens hit.
He's the sexy pick, the selection du jour. That's what happens when you enter a major on a run of three straight top-3 finishes. But there's more. He leads the PGA in scrambling, sand save percentage and three-putt avoidance, all of which will come in handy in four loops of Pebble Beach. Donald also ended a two-year hiatus from the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am this year, and finished T16. He has four top 20s in six starts at the event. His nemesis will be a strong wind in the wrong direction on the long par 4s, but the 32-year-old couldn't be in a better place in his career right now for a major breakthrough.
All that has changed this year is that the 40-year-old has returned to the trophy presentation. And twice at that. Otherwise, he's the same, gritty, grinding, tenacious competitor we've always enjoyed watching. He's fifth on the PGA Tour in scrambling and fourth in scrambling from the rough, vital numbers considering the small greens of Pebble Beach. The 2003 U.S. Open champion placed 60th here in 2000. In 14 starts at the annual tour stop on the peninsula, he has posted seven top 25s and missed the cut just once. He's also one of the lower-hitting ball-strikers, which will benefit his game if the winds pick up as they often do along the coast.
So little to share that you don't already have top of mind. Of course, this is the major that continues to elude him. As a five-time runner-up, he's second on the all-time money list in the U.S. Open. He's a three-time winner of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and sits No. 1 in all-time earnings at that event. Lefty's bane is putting outside five feet, as he's no better than 110th in any range greater than that magic number, but he's 20th on the PGA Tour from inside 5 feet and ninth from 3 feet to 5 feet specifically. With tiny greens that limit long-range putts and Lefty's short game and his experience at the course, we just might be talking "MickelSlam" in a few days. This is also the site of Tiger Woods' first of three U.S. Open titles. It's setting up that way for Mickelson, whose 40th birthday is June 16.
Now 37, the world's No. 3 golfer sits atop most lists of the best active golfer never to have won a major. Of course, he has experienced his fair share of razor-close calls in the last couple years. There was Torrey Pines in 2008, where he was one stroke too high to join Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate in the playoff; Turnberry in '09, where he bogeyed the 72nd hole and finished one stroke out of that playoff; and the Masters in April, where he held a share of the 36-hole lead and sole possession of the 54-hole lead, only to get dusted by Phil Mickelson's 67 to finish second after a closing 71, three swings adrift.
There are college-bound teenagers right now that have zero recollection of The Big Easy taking home two U.S. Opens in four years (1994, '97). And to cite that he was a co-runner-up here in 2000 is merely fact. The harsh reality is that he co-led the B Flight (with Miguel Angel Jimenez) behind Tiger Woods' record-setting, 15-stroke plastering. Els currently leads the PGA in earnings and FedEx Cup points, but you have to wonder where he'd sit if the world's No. 1 was scandal-free. Els' magnificent touch around the greens will be vital if he's to establish a new generation of believers.
As the reigning two-time winner of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, he is as cursed as he is deserving of promise entering this major. D.J. has carved out a niche as a foul-weather stud, so while the wind could provide a challenge, a warm and sunny course will feel different to him; that is, four months after the PGA stop in mid-February. And even if he manages to win this week, cynics will want to see him win somewhere else.
En route to a solo seventh at the Masters -- his career-best finish in a major -- he drew the admiration of commentator Bobby Clampett, who predicted Watney would win a Masters one day. That remains to be seen, but the 29-year-old is actually a superb fit for Clampett's home digs of Pebble Beach. While he has cashed in the last six editions at the annual PGA stop, Watney leads the circuit in greens in regulation and ranks fifth in GIR from lies off the fairway. He also possesses the distance and trajectory off the tee (one of the lowest), and he's had a solid season, with four top 10s in 14 starts. The kicker: he already has a victory on Poa annua greens (2009 Buick Invitational).
He is making his first appearance in a U.S. Open since 2003 by virtue of a special invitation from the USGA, and he deserves it. Watson nearly made history at Turnberry last year, losing to Stewart Cink in the playoff for the British Open, and then validated his resurgence by opening this year's Masters with a bogey-free 67 (he finished T18). Watson's lone U.S. Open title came famously at Pebble Beach in 1982, when he all but clinched a two-stroke victory with a chip-in on the 71st hole -- calling his shot to boot. He finished T27 here as a 50-year-old in 2000, and should contend on moxie alone. As one of the best wind players ever, that element, depending on its direction, will be his best friend or his worst enemy this week.
Now that the sizzle from the scandal has subsided, it's about time for Woods to contend. Really, that's all that's missing from the equation. Since his T4 at the hermetically sealed Masters, he has gone missed cut-withdraw-T19 in public. By in large, galleries have taken the high road, but his execution inside the ropes has not. He gets the partial benefit of the doubt here because he is who he is, not because he trounced the field by 15 strokes 10 years ago.
So much was made of the horrible weather at Bethpage State Park a year ago that it is often overlooked that the champion benefited from his randomly assigned spot in the late-early draw. Indeed, Tiger Woods "won" the early-late draw and he finished T6. Glover hasn't had a bad 2010, but he has been inconsistent. However, he finished T9 at Torrey Pines, which features Poa annua greens as well. He's a career 0-for-3 at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, but hasn't teed it up in that event since '05. The moral of the story is that even though he's the defending champion, he's still a sleeper this week.
Hard to believe that he hasn't won anywhere since the 2008 PGA Championship, but he might need to for stingy cynics to finally remove the asterisk from that win as well as his '08 British title, both without Tiger Woods in the field. The Irishman used to ramp into the biggest events, and recent minor knee surgery limited this one to a start in Memphis only. If anything, Pebble Beach will merely continue his prep for St. Andrews next month.
The next top 10 he posts in California will be his first. Whether it's the Poa annua greens, his traditionally slow start to each season, or a combination of factors, the Golden State has been everything but for the 28-year-old. Mahan went 2-1-1 at Harding Park in last year's President's Cup but really didn't impart any damage until the singles matches when his putter got hot in a victory over Camilo Villegas. And therein lies the problem. Mahan's mediocre short game puts way too much pressure on his putting. He's all or nothing, and with little to show for his experience.
His 62 to close out the Quail Hollow Championship for his first PGA Tour victory is the stuff of legend, only we're still too close to the event to fully appreciate it. The 21-year-old hasn't played a professional event in California and his experience on Poa annua is considerably limited. The vistas at Pebble Beach will remind him of his native Northern Ireland, but the nuances require experience. It won't take but a couple of wrong misses for anyone in the field to swallow a big number, especially for a first-timer. McIlroy's power and precise iron play should get him to the weekend, but he'll be chalking anything he can get as part of the learning curve.
In the short-term, you might as well throw darts in the dark with a blindfold on. The Englishman has proven he's an in-the-moment kind of guy, and his Twitter personality supports it. Poulter doesn't have too many reps on Poa annua, but he's an aggressive putter anyway, so he will need to be accurate off the tee and have his distance control dialed in to make a serious run. With his first PGA Tour victory in the bag and a left knee injury a thing of the past, his confidence won't be lacking, not that it ever is. He would've earned more consideration as a contender if he had been playing better golf lately.