Handicapping this week’s U.S. Open, which begins Thursday at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, will not be nearly so simple.
Woods? He won’t be there, because he is again injured. Harrington? He hasn’t won on either the PGA or European Tours since that 2008 PGA and has missed the cut in four of his last five majors. Singh? He’ll be missing a major championship for the first time since 1994, after deciding against playing in a qualifying tournament. Garcia? His last victory came in November 2008.
The message: Dump the entirety of the 156-man field into a popcorn popper, and guess which kernel bursts first. The last 10 majors have been won by 10 different players. The last four have been taken by players who had never won one before. Four players — Woods, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald — have been ranked first in the world since the last U.S. Open.
So who, then, might be the favorite this week?
“It’s like pinning the tail on the donkey,” two-time Open champ Curtis Strange said last week. “You got no chance.”
Even when Woods isn’t involved in a tournament — nagging injuries to his left knee and Achilles’ tendon will force him to miss his first Open since 1994 — he has a way of dominating the conversation. That used to be because any victory over a Tiger-less field could be marked with an asterisk.
Now, Woods’s absence is a further reminder of how the landscape of the sport has shifted in the past two years. Even had he played at Congressional, Woods hardly could have been considered a favorite, having fallen to 15th in the world rankings after going winless since September 2009.
“We went for a long time where Tiger was the only [player with] multiple victories on the tour” in a given year, said Jack Nicklaus, who holds the record with 18 major championships. Now, “the young kids say, ‘Hey, I can do that.’ So all of a sudden it brings it on. For a while, it didn’t look like anybody could bring it on.”
Among those who have brought it on: Kaymer, a German who won last year’s PGA Championship in a playoff, then won his next two starts. England’s Westwood is almost certainly the most accomplished player in the world without a major championship, and at 38, there is some urgency to his pursuit. Donald, the Englishman who’s currently No. 1, is a diligent worker with an exceptional short game who, in Nicklaus’s estimation, “is quite capable of winning major championships.”