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2011 U.S. Open: Phil Mickelson and 15 Americans Who Could Take the Title

Will LeivenbergFeatured ColumnistJune 14, 2011

2011 U.S. Open: Phil Mickelson and 15 Americans Who Could Take the Title

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    PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL - MAY 12:  Phil Mickelson tee shot on the 16th hole during the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship held at THE PLAYERS Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass on May 12, 2011 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    The US Open may appear to be an event that welcomes an international crowd, but that is just a facade.

    When the winner of a major championship is also a native of that country, they become a national hero and the hubris is palpable. Tiger Woods was an icon for American sports culture for over a decade because he did not only conquer golf events around the world, but he demolished international fields in his own nation, ultimately defending and representing the U.S.

    However, since Woods’ demise from the elite of golf, the landscape has changed, especially that of the major championships. Last year, three of the four major championships were won by non-American players, including the US Open by the unexpected Northern Irishman, Graeme McDowell. In addition, some of the most prestigious and difficult PGA Tour events were won by players from all-around the world in 2010, like Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy, Geoff Ogilvy and Louis Oosthuizen.

    This caused an uproar by sports analysts and experts at the end of last year’s golf season, who boldly called 2010 the rise of non-American players. This newfound diversity permeating professional golf created a level of parity, as well as unexplored enthusiasm.

    However, there's no doubting the the Americans are hungry to have the ball back in their court. A triumph by an American at this year's US Open at the Congressional Course has the potential to reroute, and ultimately re-energize, the Americans who have struggled in previous majors.

    But which American is poised to hoist the legendary trophy?

Matt Kuchar

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    DUBLIN, OH - JUNE 05:  Matt Kuchar hits his second shot on the par 4 10th hole during the final round of the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance at Muirfield Village Golf Club on June 5, 2011 in Dublin, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Matt Kuchar, nicknamed Mr. Consistency, does not want to take on the title that Phil Mickelson carried over his shoulders for more than half of his career—“Best Player without a Major.” 

    However, he may be unintentionally falling down that rabbit hole.

    Kuchar is undeniably a huge talent and an emblem of consistency, leading the PGA Tour last year in top-10 finishes (11 top 10s in 23 events) and is following that same trend this season (eight top-10s in 14 events).

    In order to reach the upper echelon of the golfing world, however, Kuchar needs to convert in a major championship, and the US Open may be his calling.

Dustin Johnson

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    BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 14:  Dustin Johnson hits a shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club on June 14, 2011 in Bethesda, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Other than maybe Phil Mickelson (who has five runner-ups in his career at US Opens), no other player has more to avenge and more to prove—both to the public and himself—than Dustin Johnson this week.

    The 27-year-old North Carolina native is most well known for his power, striking the golf ball with a speed and might nearly unrivaled in professional golf. Last season, Johnson won two events and contended for two major championships, most notably falling short in the US Open after entering the final round with an auspicious six-stroke lead.

    When he fell short again at the next major, the PGA Championship, due to a costly mistake in judgment, there was no telling how he’d be affected by the brutal loss. But Johnson defied the odds and won the BMW Championship—one of golf's most stacked fields and biggest stagesshowing the grit and determination that proved he refused to let his past define his future.

    A major championship is never just another event for golfers, but this US Open will be an especially meaningful moment in Johnson’s career. 

Jim Furyk

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    BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 14:  Jim Furyk hits a shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club on June 14, 2011 in Bethesda, Maryland.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
    Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

    For 2010’s Player of the Year, Jim Furyk, 2011 has not been so kind to him.

    Furyk, who in another life must have been some type of bird, has made just 10-of-14 cuts this season, with a measly two top-10 finishes. This coming from a major championship winner and winner of more than 20 events on the PGA Tour.

    However, the inescapable truth about Furyk is that you can never count him out. Considering his wide-ranging experience, crafty short game, ability to hit pin-point iron shots and nearly unflappable accuracy off the tee, Furyk poses a threat every time he steps on the tee box.

    This week will have to be about forgetting about this season’s woes and instead concentrating on how to perform best, minimize any mistakes, and accentuate his strengths. Who knows if a win at this year’s US Open could be the catalyst for another sensational year? 

Bubba Watson

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    PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL - MAY 12:  Bubba Watson hits a chip shot on the 16th hole during the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship held at THE PLAYERS Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass on May 12, 2011 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/G
    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    When Bubba Watson contended at last year’s PGA Championship alongside accomplished, young stars Martin Kaymer and Dustin Johnson, he showed hardly any signs of the pressure getting to him. He’s an all out, give it your best, swing your hardest, never look back kind of athlete.

    Watson pairs his unconventional swing with his unorthodox course management and surprisingly, it works. The long and tall lefty whacks the ball over 300 yards on average, which will be a huge advantage at the Congressional Course, host of the US Open, which measures over 7,200 yards.

    Watson’s lack of experience may hurt him down the stretch, but then again, he’s shown true grit in the face of adversity, and he may just have what it takes to seal this upcoming major championship. 

Steve Stricker

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    DUBLIN, OH - JUNE 05:  Steve Stricker waves to the gallery on the 17th green during the final round of the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance at the Muirfield Village Golf Club on June 5, 2011 in Dublin, Ohio.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/
    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Let’s face it, there is no actual problem with choosing Steve Stricker to win the US Open other than the fact that he may be as stoic as a second-century greek sculpture when the trophy is handed to him.

    Stricker has never been the most emotional, high-energy player. There is nothing wrong with that, but it’s that exact lack of enthusiasm and animated nature that causes fans to feel apathetic, or "vanilla," towards him.

    He’s a safe bet to contend. Stricker is widely considered the best putter on Tour, consistently draining putts from any and every surface of the green. What he does not have in length off the tee he makes up for in accuracy.

    So in the end, not only is he more than capable of winning, but perhaps a win at this year’s US Open could redirect public opinion of the relatively passive Stricker. 

Nick Watney

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    IRVING, TX - MAY 28: Nick Watney follows through on a tee shot during the third round of the HP Byron Nelson Championship at TPC Four Seasons at Las Colinas on May 28, 2011 in Irving, Texas. (Photo by Darren Carroll/Getty Images)
    Darren Carroll/Getty Images

    Throughout the 2011 season, it seems like Nick Watney has been emulating the consistency that Matt Kuchar has become known for on the PGA Tour. Whereas Watney had eight top-10 finishes in his entire 2010 season, we are barely halfway through the 2011 season, and Watney already has seven top-10’s in just 10 events, which includes a victory at WGC-Cadillac Championship.

    All cylinders are a “go” currently for Watney, who appears to have shaken the inconsistency that inhibited him in the past.

    After nearly winning last year’s PGA Championship, Watney showed that he needed to gain a bit more experience before he truly broke through. Well, this season has been a terrific indication that he is prepared for the incomparable challenge of the US Open. 

Rickie Fowler

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    DUBLIN, OH - JUNE 02:  Ricky Fowler hits his tee shot on the par 4 18th hole during the first round of The Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance at Muirfield Village Golf Club on June 2, 2011 in Dublin, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Im
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Rickie Fowler won Rookie of the Year in 2010 for a reason: he proved that the potential that shined through his game throughout the season was distinctively stellar for a first year professional.

    Throughout this season, he has continued to show off his skills, and yet, while he still has not won on Tour, he is often hailed by golf analysts as “due for a victory.”

    Well, why not win a major championship?

    Sure, the chances are slim, but then again, this is a kid who’s displayed incredible resilience under serious pressure. Last year at the Memorial, he held the lead on a stacked field for three rounds. Later on at the Ryder Cup, he birdied his last four holes in a row to win a crucial half-point for the American squad.

    Fowler is the real deal and sooner or later, he will win. So what if it’s sooner?

Mark Wilson

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    BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 14:  Mark Wilson hits a shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club on June 14, 2011 in Bethesda, Maryland.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
    Andrew Redington/Getty Images

    Prior to this season, Mark Wilson had won a couple of events, earned a few top-10 finishes, but overall was considered a bit of a fluke in terms of his success on the PGA Tour.

    In 2011, however, his performance has shown that he is tired of being considered anything less than a legitimate competitor.

    Wilson has won twice this year and finished in the top 10 in two of the year’s most prestigious events, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Memorial. There’s no more looking past him because he’s making bold strides that have catapulted him to the forefront of the golf world.

    Perhaps, we have only seen the beginning of Wilson’s excellent season, which may have a US Open victory right around the corner. 

Ben Crane

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    MEMPHIS, TN - JUNE 10:  Ben Crane plays a shot during the second round of the FedEx St. Jude Classic at TPC Southwind on June 10, 2011 in Memphis, Tennessee.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Crafty.

    Ben Crane makes his way around the golf course with an array of skills, shots and strategies that allow him to be a serious contender headed into this year’s US Open. 

    In the areas of his game that are not so stellar, such as driving distance and putting, he makes up for them with amazing accuracy (hits the fairway off the tee nearly 70 percent of the time) and in scrambling (ranked 15th on Tour).

    Crane has missed just two cuts this season, finished in the top 25 seven times and earned a pair of notable top-10 finishes at the Heritage and WGC-Accenture Match Play. Don’t rule him out come Thursday. 

Zach Johnson

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    FORT WORTH, TX - MAY 20:  Zach Johnson hits an approach shot during the second round of the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial Country Club on May 20, 2011 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
    Hunter Martin/Getty Images

    In a conversation of the best putters on the PGA Tour, there’s no leaving out Zach Johnson.

    The methodical, mechanically-oriented kid from Iowa has brilliant touch with the flat stick.

    Although winning a major championship is about the various parts of one’s game fusing together, putting is the backbone of the equation. Johnson has it.

    As we saw in his Masters victory in 2007, he has the capacity to thrive under pressure, and whether or not he show it again this week remains to be seen.

Hunter Mahan

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    BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 14:   Hunter Mahan hits a shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club on June 14, 2011 in Bethesda, Maryland.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
    Andrew Redington/Getty Images

    Not only is Hunter Mahan married to a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, but he’s also a pretty talented golfer.

    Mahan’s game is very meticulous. You will rarely see him approach a shot without having taken at least four to six rehearsal swings, have an in-depth conversation with his caddie about strategy and then stand behind his ball to visualize the shape of the shot. 

    That methodical nature may not work for everybody (Rory Sabbatini), but it works for Mahan.

    In 13 events this season, Mahan has finished in the top 10 seven times, which is an impressive sign of how he constantly puts himself in contention. Although he has never seriously contended in a major championship, he definitely has the skills to get himself in position to compete for golf’s most prized victory, the US Open.

Gary Woodland

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    IRVING, TX - MAY 29: Gary Woodland plays a tee shot during the final round of the HP Byron Nelson Championship at TPC Four Seasons at Las Colinas on May 29, 2011 in Irving, Texas. (Photo by Darren Carroll/Getty Images)
    Darren Carroll/Getty Images

    There is no doubt that Gary Woodland is a longshot at the US Open, mainly because of his his lack of experience, which is crucial in golf’s biggest stages.

    But, the one thing Woodland is not short of is distance. In fact, he ranks sixth in driving distance on the PGA Tour, pummeling the ball 304 yards on average. 

    On any other course that may be insignificant, but at the Congressional Course, the host course of the US Open, length will be a huge asset. 

    If Woodland can add some accuracy to his drives and find a rhythm on the putting greens, he could easily be contending come Sunday. 

Bill Haas

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    FORT WORTH, TX - MAY 21:  Bill Haas hits a shot during the third round of the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial Country Club on May 21, 2011 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
    Hunter Martin/Getty Images

    At the beginning of this season, Bill Haas was one of the hottest players on Tour. He was leading in nearly every stat, he’d made seven consecutive cuts and finished in the top 10 three times.

    Although he hit a bit of a wall in the next chapter of his season, Haas is due to revamp his game.

    In his last four events, he’s had a solo fourth place finish and a T8 as well, showing that the pieces are coming together.

    Ranked seventh on Tour in greens in regulation, Haas needs to keep the ball in the fairway, utilize his solid iron play and roll in as many putts as he can if he wants any shot at winning the US Open. 

Ryan Palmer

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    BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 13:  Ryan Palmer plays a bunker shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club on June 13, 2011 in Bethesda, Maryland.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
    Andrew Redington/Getty Images

    With three top 10s in 2011, Ryan Palmer has shown significant signs of improvement throughout this season.

    His T10 at the Masters was one of his first truly exceptional finishes in a major, and he will have that confidence to draw back on when he heads into the US Open.

    Congressional will be an arduous course for players short on distance, but similar to players like Phil Mickelson and Gary Woodland, Palmer will profit from his power off the tee.

    He’s currently ranked 19th in driving distance on Tour (297 yards on average) and will need to bring that force to the course if he wants to capitalize on a victory. 

Phil Mickelson

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    BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 14:  Phil Mickelson hits a shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club on June 14, 2011 in Bethesda, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    The only thing Phil Mickelson does not have going into this week’s US Open is a US Open victory. 

    The lefty formerly known as the “best player in golf without a major” eliminated that stigma with four major championships over the last seven years, yet the US Open has remained evaded him.

    Mickelson has a record five runner-up finishes at US Open’s in his career, more than any other player in the history of the game. Whether that is a testament to his outstanding ability to constantly compete in high pressured situations or instead a sign that he’s simply lacking the essential ingredient to win this event remains the conundrum.

    However, between his distance off the tee, supreme touch around the greens, strategic iron play, and abundance of experience—which is what has cost potential champions in the past like Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnsonthis week may be the one that allows him to avenge his past. 

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