Forty years have passed since Tony Jacklin became the last British winner of the US Open, but I can confidently state that we have never gone into one with a stronger hand. A variety of reasons lie behind that confidence, not least the players, whose individual chances are assessed below. Quite simply, British golf has never been stronger. Five of the world’s top ten are from these shores, including four Englishmen. Then there’s the fact that the runaway favourite is more vulnerable than at any time since turning pro in 1997. So much so that Tiger Woods may not even start as favourite. Finally, there’s the course, which is more Brit-friendly than any other on the US Open rota, to which I’ll turn shortly.
Furthermore, a Major championship that used to be dominated by Americans has increasingly become an international affair. Half of this century’s ten winners were international players, in comparison to only three different Americans (Woods has won three). It has also apparently become something of a haven for outsiders. Four of the last five champions began the week at 100/1 or more, with two starting at over 250/1. Last year’s leaderboard remains the unlikeliest ever seen in a Major, including 400/1 winner Lucas Glover along with 1000/1 chances Ricky Barnes and David Duval, who shared second place with the obvious Phil Mickelson.
However, I must caution against reading too much into that result. Last year’s conditions were rather freaky, played on a drenched course at Bethpage that created a target golf set-up rarely seen in a US Open. And while Glover was virtually unpickable, those previous shock winners; Angel Cabrera, Geoff Ogilvy and Michael Campbell; all had plenty of top-class pedigree.
COURSE AND KEY STATS
Compared to other courses on the US Open rota, Pebble Beach Golf Links stands apart. It may not have all the characteristics of a classic links, but this layout is about as close as players get to British Open conditions on the PGA Tour. It combines the usual US Open characteristics, with penal rough and hard, fast conditions placing an extreme emphasis on tee to green accuracy, with the type of exposure to bad weather that we rarely see outside the UK.
Unlike many other US Open venues though, if the weather is calm, decent scores can be made, with the par 5s particularly pivotal. Add small greens into the mix that require pin-point iron play, and we have a course that well and truly separates the men from the boys. Which rather explains how a peak-form Tiger won by 15 shots when the event was last played here in 2000.
Further analysis of that result in 2000 rather confirms my point about the likely advantage for overseas players this week. Behind Tiger, about whom normal rules never apply, five of the next six home were non-Americans. Amongst the Americans who did make the top 20, we tend to find wind specialists like John Huston, Justin Leonard, Fred Couples and Paul Azinger. The average American target golfer endured something of a nightmare over what proved a rather brutal weekend. This was during an era when Americans tended to dominate the world rankings, much more so than today.
The two stats I suspect will be most important this week will be greens in regulation and scrambling, as is so often the case in Majors. However, Pebble Beach or British Open form, or prowess in windy conditions, may be more relevant than any specific stat.
4pts ew LEE WESTWOOD @ 12/1 (GENERAL)
Westwood has been a long-range fancy to finally break his Majors duck at Pebble Beach, so it was slightly annoying to see him win the St Jude Classic, thereby encouraging bookies to shorten his odds further. I’ve always felt that the US Open, with it’s emphasis on long, straight driving, was Lee’s best chance of winning a Major, and Pebble Beach must be ideal given that he made the top five when the event was last played here in 2000. Of course it must be acknowledged that Lee was again unconvincing in contention over the weekend, just as we’d seen when going close at the Masters, last year’s Open and a string of other near-misses in Europe. Nevertheless, over the balance of his career, his win ratio is impressive, and hopefully Sunday’s change of luck will provide just the confidence boost he needs.
1.5pts ew PAUL CASEY @ 45/1 (GENERAL, 50/1 LADBROKES)
Another Major means another chance to back Casey, who I remain convinced is ready to break through. Not so long ago, I would have doubted his pedigree for a tough US Open venue, but he has improved vastly in terms of patience and course management. It is easy to envisage Paul plotting his way around the tough holes, and capitalising on the par 5s this week. I also like the fact he comes in fresh and presumably well prepared, since a couple of promising performances just outside contention at Wentworth and Colonial. 45/1 is a big price about a man who would be higher than ninth in the world rankings, were it not for some untimely injury layoffs.
1.5pts ew CAMILO VILLEGAS @ 50/1 (GENERAL)
Rather like Casey, Villegas remains a player on the verge of breaking into golf’s big time. The Majors look particularly promising for Camilo, as his shot-making skills and superb approach play tend to be the key to success around these tough layouts, and he is certainly a much improved all-round player since making the top ten at Torrey Pines two years ago. Furthermore, Camilo appears to have timed his run back into form well, firing three closing sub-70 rounds to reach the top ten at Southwind, and registering impressive greens in regulation stats over the weekend.
1.5pts ew RETIEF GOOSEN @ 50/1 (GENERAL)
Goosen also took the eye at Southwind, closing with three consecutive 68s and topping Sunday’s greens in regulation stats. His effort in the last US Open to be held at Pebble Beach could offer a significant clue. Back then, Goosen was a nobody on the world stage, and finishing 12th was by far his best effort in a Major. Interestingly, he opened that year with a poor 77 on by far the easiest scoring day. Goosen remains an outstanding exponent of windy conditions, and well capable of landing his third US Open title.
1pt ew GRAEME MCDOWELL @ 66/1 (GENERAL, 80/1 LADBROKES)
A player well versed in windy links-style golf, McDowell is my third British pick. He would probably have been available at double these odds if he hadn’t won at Celtic Manor last time out, but such was the quality of that performance that he must rate a serious candidate to follow up, with the additional benefit of a week off inbetween to prepare. Having made the top 20 in all three of last season’s US Majors, G-Mac has nothing to fear in this company.
0.5pt ew STEPHEN AMES @ 125/1 (GENERAL, 150/1 LADBROKES)
Given the nature of Pebble Beach, Ames is a huge price in triple figures. I doubt there are a dozen better players in windy conditions than Ames, who has made the top ten in three of the last six US Opens in less suitable circumstances. His 2010 campaign has been decent enough if unspectacular, registering six top 20s without challenging, but he won a PGA Tour event as recently as last November. Moreover, he was another player to take the eye at the weekend, closing with a 67 and a 68 to make the top 15 and ranking second in the all-important greens in regulation stats.