— K.J. Choi
As it relates to success in the biggest events around the world, the U.S. Open hasn't exactly been kind to the 41-year-old South Korean. It's the only major in which he hasn't posted a top 10 (in 10 appearances), but he arrived at The Players Championship last month with a similarly forgettable resume. That changed with a playoff victory at TPC Sawgrass, which was also his fifth top 10 of 2011. No aspect of his game is better than any other; instead, he's above average across the board. He manufactured a masterpiece of a week at Congressional in 2007 in what was the inaugural AT&T National, ranking inside the top five in fairways hit, greens in regulation and putting en route to a three-stroke victory.
Not that the casual golf fan would have noticed before his rise to No. 1 in the world ranking, but the knock on the Englishman has been that he'll never contend in a U.S. Open because he sprays the ball with regularity. (To wit, in seven starts, it's the only major in which he hasn't posted a top 10.) And checking in at a mere 5 feet, 9 inches and 160 pounds, you don't need validation that he's not a bomb-and-gouger. Consider that Donald ranked outside the top 150 on the PGA Tour in 2010 in total driving and greens in regulation; he finished 180th in ball-striking yet led the planet in earnings. He has an active streak of 10 consecutive top 10s worldwide, including two victories and two runner-up finishes; he has placed inside the top 10 in 15 of his last 16 starts (and 16 of his last 18). This is his first competitive look at Congressional since the 2005 Booz Allen Classic, when he finished T13.
He's the guy whose avatar you select if you don't play as Tiger Woods in video golf. DJ is the new gold standard of the modern game. One of a select few touring pros in the world with the makeup and game to potentially retire with the career Grand Slam in the books. Stupid long off the tee, aggressive with his irons and putter, you expect him to rank near the top on the PGA Tour in the bounce back (he's currently second). Until this year, his weakness was his hitting it close from inside 150 yards, but a rededication has allowed him to check off that initiative. He led at Pebble Beach after 54 holes a year ago - a venue where he has claimed two of his four career PGA Tour victories - and then shot 82 to finish with a share of eighth. The dynamic repeated at the PGA Championship, where a penalty cost him a chance at the title. But what hasn't killed him has made him stronger.
If the U.S. Open is all about identifying the best golfer, then Kooch belongs on the short list. He co-leads the PGA Tour with eight top 10s this year, including a season-best co-runner-up at the Memorial, and he has cashed in 28 straight starts, good for the second-longest active streak. He ranks second on tour in adjusted scoring average and third in the all-around. at 32, he's in his prime, so it's not a surprise that his share of sixth place at Pebble Beach in last year's U.S. Open was his first career top 10 in a major, just that it took 19 starts to log one. (He also finished T10 at the PGA Championship last August.) And if you're concerned about his ability to hit the clutch shot, look no further than his magnificent 7-iron from the rough to a couple of feet in the playoff at last year's Barclays. It was one of the shots of the year en route to the money title.
The undisputed clubhouse leader as the best active golfer without a major championship trophy on his mantel was underwritten when he reached the summit of the world ranking last fall, becoming the fourth No. 1 without a victory in one of the game's four most important tournaments. (The three before the Brit - Ian Woosnam, Fred Couples and David Duval - all eventually hoisted major hardware.) Since, he has claimed three victories and posted a pair of seconds and a third, but he's also lost, regained and then lost his footing atop the formula to Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald. Westwood has posted top-three finishes at least once in each major since the 2008 U.S. Open.
He loves himself some Congressional - three top-12 paydays in as many starts at the AT&T National, including a runner-up in 2009 - but he'd deserve this billing even without that track record. The 29-year-old has top 10s in half of his 14 starts this year. His bane is scrambling for pars, which is usually exposed at U.S. Opens, but he's hitting a career-best 71 percent of his greens in regulation, so the damage is limited. Moreover, he's capitalizing on his birdie opportunities better than anyone on the PGA Tour with a birdie average of 4.60. He has also posted top 20s in three of five appearances at this major.
If there's one guy that deserves to win one of these, it's Lefty. The bridesmaid five times over sits second in career earnings at this major - he's the only non-winner inside the top 10 all-time. He already had six starts under his belt with one top five before Congressional last hosted in 1997. Mickelson recorded his most recent of 39 career PGA Tour victories just two months ago in Houston, and hasn't missed a cut all year with four top 10s in 12 starts. His 41st birthday coincides with the opening round.
The only man on earth eligible for the 2011 Grand Slam. The last to win the Masters and U.S. Open in the same calendar year was Tiger Woods in 2002. Schwartzel closed out a two-stroke victory at Augusta National in April with four straight birdies, and then jetted to Malaysia, forgoing the customary talk-show junket that's tucked inside the Green Jacket every year. He became the fourth consecutive foreign player to win a major. Just 26 years young, this is his fifth start in a U.S. Open. He'll arrive having shot par or better in his last 15 rounds on the PGA Tour.
Choosing to pull back on his schedule a bit this year has paid dividends, as he's fresh off a one-stroke victory - his 10th career - at the Memorial. He has four top 10s this year and leads the PGA Tour with 33 consecutive paydays going back to August 2009. Now the United States' top-ranked golfer for the first time in his career, the 44-year-old has just one goal remaining - to win a major. Interestingly, while his three top 10s in 15 U.S. Open appearances is one more than what he has recorded in each of the other three majors, he has at least one in each of the other three since his last at this one (2006). Nevertheless, he's a surgeon tee-to-green and one of the best putters alive. He also placed second at the 2007 AT&T National at Congressional.
Coming off a missed cut at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, where he is the all-time money leader, would normally be cause for alarm, especially since he had taken two weeks off before that following his victory at Colonial (which chased a playoff loss at The Players Championship the week before that). However, Toms is 44 now, and while certainly fit and performing at a level with which he is comfortable and familiar, a weekend off from hot and humid conditions in Memphis can't hurt. His supporters are eager for his return to the Atlanta Athletic Club in August, where he won the PGA Championship 10 years ago, but he figures to be a threat at Congressional. Hitting fairways and greens is his specialty, and he also ranks second on the PGA Tour in bogey avoidance, which is always critical when par is the goal.
The Big Easy hasn't done anything all year to earn our attention, but he makes the cut for this feature since he's the 'defending champion' at Congressional. Indeed, the second of Els' two U.S. Open titles occurred here way back in 1997. And if you asked him, he may say that it seems like that long ago that he last won. His victory at the South African Open Championship in late December 2010 also happens to be his last top 10 - he's 0-for-13 this year. He can blame it on his flat stick. He's currently last (of 185) in the PGA Tour's new statistic, strokes gained-putting.
Before his victory at the Transitions Championship last year, there was concern if he would ever return to the winner's circle. The man with the swing you'd never teach went 58 tournaments without a trophy, not that he was in a slump, mind you, banking well north of $3 million in each of the last six year. Well, he's in one now, relatively speaking. The 2003 U.S. Open champion (at Olympia Fields) has gone six straight starts without a top 20. You have to go back to the second half of 1998 to find the last time that occurred, and he still finished third on the money list that season. He's a proven grinder with four top 10s in five career starts at Congressional, but he just hasn't been able to put four rounds together lately.
For a guy that wasn't sure he wanted to tee it up at Congressional, he sure has a funny way of showing it. He wound up qualifying via a 7-for-4 playoff in the Tunica, Miss. sectional. The enigmatic Spaniard won the Booz Allen Classic at Congressional in 2005, and then opted not to defend (at TPC Avenel) because of a back injury. (He'd take some heat for not even making an appearance for the title sponsor.) Even if he hadn't missed the cut at FedEx St. Jude Classic, which included an 11 on a par 5 in his opening round and ended a streak of consecutive paydays worldwide at 14, he's the oldest 31-year-old in the field that owns the physical skill set to be its best.
It's been 22 years since Curtis Strange became the last to successfully defend his U.S. Open title, and no one would be surprised if G-Mac closes the deal again at Congressional. However, he has failed to post a top 25 in his last eight stroke-play events worldwide; that dates back to a T42 at Doral in mid-March and includes four missed cuts, matching his total from all of 2010. Before that, he was a one-man wrecking crew, validating his triumph at Pebble Beach with the Ryder Cup-clinching point at Celtic Manor, followed by a legitimate showdown at Sherwood with Tiger Woods at the Chevron World Challenge. Suddenly, that seems like a long time ago.
If the world ranking was a popular vote, some would label the lefty as America's top role model. He has all the shots; he's now a three-time winner on the PGA Tour; and his insane combination of power and precision is unmatched. The problem is that his reckless abandon leads to more big numbers than he can often absorb. Now, he just may be wired in such a way that moxie means more than merit. He came close at last year's PGA Championship, and manufactured a T-5 at Oakmont in the 2007 U.S. Open, but what he exudes in flair, he offsets with inconsistency. Beyond his two victories and 4-2 record at the WGC-Match Play, he has 10 finishes outside the top 20 in 13 starts this season.