Golf

The U.S. Open: Favorites, darkhorses, picks

The U.S. Open Golf Championship returns to Oakmont Thursday, perhaps the most storied, and feared, championship golf course in America. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
The U.S. Open Golf Championship returns to Oakmont Thursday, perhaps the most storied, and feared, championship golf course in America. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File) The Associated Press, file

The Church Pews. The treacherous, speedy greens. The 113 years of history.

The 116th U.S. Open Championship is just days away.

On Thursday, the eyes of the golf world will be fixated on Oakmont Country Club, just outside Pittsburgh, as 156 players tee off.

The week has plenty of storylines to offer: Can Jordan Spieth defend his title? How will Danny Willett do in his first major since winning the Masters? What over-the-top, yet incredible outfits can Rickie Fowler put together?

All those questions will be answered soon enough — and I’ll be on-site providing coverage of those answers for the CDT.

But in the meantime, it can’t hurt to preview the field and maybe make a prediction or two.

The Favorites

Jason Day: The No. 1 player in the world is on top for a reason. In 11 events this year, the Aussie has won three events — the Arnold Palmer Invitational, WGC-Dell Match Play and The Players Championship. He’s in nice form, too, finishing 9-under par at the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago, winning The Players on May 15, and tying for fifth in the Zurich Classic. And sure, Day gets a lot of publicity for his ability to smoke it off the tee, which he can absolutely do. But what has the 28-year-old clicking is his work on the green. Day is first on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting, something that could come in handy at Oakmont.

Rory McIlroy: Despite a middling start to 2016, McIlroy has turned it on lately. The Northern Irishman has four top-10 finishes in his last five PGA Tour events, including tying for fourth at the Memorial. McIlroy also secured his first-ever win as tournament host at the Irish Open; the 27-year-old eagled the final hole to win by three strokes on May 22. McIlroy drives it well, and it’s been a key reason for his success this year, currently sitting at No. 1 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained off-the-tee. He can be inconsistent with the putter, so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out on Oakmont’s lightning-fast greens.

Jordan Spieth: The third member of golf’s Big Three, Spieth is the third betting favorite, behind Day and McIlroy. That makes sense. The 22-year-old winner of last year’s Masters and U.S. Open at Chambers Bay is hoping his recent form — and superior putting — can lead him to a repeat. Everyone will remember Spieth’s collapse at Augusta a couple months ago, but he’s put that behind him. Despite being cut at The Players, Spieth won the Dean & Deluca at Colonial just a few weeks ago for his second victory of the season; he won the Hyundai Tournament in January. While he has never played Oakmont competitively, Spieth visited the course in early May to practice, and called it “the hardest course in America.” We’ll see if Spieth can conquer it.

Justin Rose: One of the few players in the current field that played well in the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 2007 is Rose, who tied for 10th. The No. 10 player in the world is built for majors. He won the U.S. Open at Merion in 2013, tied for second in last year’s Masters, and has played well in 2016. The 35-year-old Englishman has five top-10s in 11 PGA Tour events, and there’s one potentially telling statistic in Rose’s favor: This season, he ranks No. 2 in greens in regulation from anywhere other than the fairway, hitting at 63.92 percent. Oakmont can get dicey if you’re not in the short grass. But if Rose misses a few fairways, he’s proven to be better than most at recovering.

Dustin Johnson: Johnson is still winless this year. And that’s the thing — he’s due. The 31-year-old was third at the Memorial, tied for fourth at the Masters, third at the Shell Houston Open, fourth at the Northern Trust Open, and tied for fifth at the Dell Match Play. Johnson averages 308.6 yards off the tee, good for third on tour, and is second-best at converting birdies. Anything better than par will be hard to come by at Oakmont, especially with its enormous greens. But Johnson’s length combined with quietly good putting — he’s 21st in three-putt avoidance — could help him exorcise any demons still lurking from his 2015 U.S. Open collapse.

The Darkhorses

Adam Scott: Some would hardly call the No. 8 player in the world a “darkhorse” but it kind of feels that way. In his last five events, Scott has finished T55, T12, T17, T42 and T28. And with the U.S. Open being Scott’s first event in a couple weeks, he might have fallen off some radars. Not here. Scott is well-rested, has two wins this year, and tied for fourth at the 2015 U.S. Open. Plus, the 35-year-old ranks first on the PGA Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green and fourth in proximity to the hole on the approach. If Scott is hitting fairways, he’s sticking them close to the flag.

Matthew Fitzpatrick: Spieth made headlines last year for winning at the age of 21 years, 10 months, 26 days. If Fitzpatrick wins, he’ll be 21 years, 9 months, 19 days. He wouldn’t set the record — Johnny McDermott won as a 19-year-old in 1911 — but he would turn some heads, and Fitzpatrick has the talent to do it. The Englishman posted a 5-under 67 in the final round of the Masters to tie for seventh, and won a couple weeks ago at the European Tour’s Nordea Masters. Keep an eye out for Fitzpatrick.

Matt Kuchar: Similar to Johnson, Kuchar, for how well he’s playing, is too good not to have won this year. The 37-year-old has seven top-10 finishes in 16 events this season, and his recent form has been ridiculous. Kuchar tied for third at The Players, was third at the Byron Nelson, tied for sixth at Colonial, and tied for fourth at the Memorial. And for someone as accomplished as Kuchar, the American has yet to win a major. Maybe that changes this weekend.

Russell Knox: The 30-year-old Scot won his first PGA Tour event in November at the WGC-HSBC Champions in November, and has since shown his skill in inconsistent waves. While he’s missed a few cuts and recently finished poorly at the Memorial, Knox tied for second at the RBC Heritage in April, and tied for 19th at The Players. On the European Tour, he tied for second at the Irish Open. Knox hits a lot of fairways — he ranks 10th in driving accuracy percentage and fourth in greens in regulation percentage — which will make him a sneaky play.

The Picks

Surprise (good): Retief Goosen is in contention on Sunday

Surprise (bad): Bubba Watson misses the cut

Winner: Dustin Johnson

He is only two years old but Juan Ignacio Rodriguez can hit a golf ball like a pro. This tiny tot has only been golfing for a year but watch out, world! Juani (as he is affectionately called by his parents) has his eye on the ball.

Note: All rankings/statistics updated through the Memorial Tournament

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9

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