BlogUpdated list of winners, losers and how hard this week will be

by Sal Johnson

From Pinehurst

One of the hardest things about predicting who will play well or not is information. I can sit in my office in Virginia and read all the stats and try to understand all the data, but frankly, you need to see what a player does in practice rounds to know what a player will do.
Even with my two days at Pinehurst, I don’t know much. But after seeing what the players are doing in preparation and seeing the course, I can make better predictions now than when I did my preview on Sunday and Monday.
After spending two days at Pinehurst, I can say right off the bat that this week’s U.S. Open could be the toughest course in the last decade. A lot goes into preparing a course, and many months are needed to ensure the course is in the best condition. No matter how challenging and perfect a course is set up, Mother Nature steps in and plays a significant role. Look at the PGA Championship last month in Valhalla. The PGA of America did a great job preparing the course for a major. Kerry Haigh, in charge, is the best in the business, but all his work was wasted when Mother Nature brought rain the week of the championship. As a result, instead of the winning score of ten under par that Haigh likes,Xander Schauffele shot the lowest score in the history of majors 21 under.

So here is why I say Pinehurst will be brutal, Mother Nature. After last weekend’s rain, things changed with the hot weather moving in. For Pinehurst, that means the course will be firm and fast. The speed of the fairways is around 8, and the greens are in the neighborhood of 15, which is blazing fast. Initially, when Pinehurst was built in 1907, they couldn’t grow grass because of the heat, so the greens were sand-grass, a combination of oil and sand. When better technology came along in the mid-30s, Ross built what are now the greens at Pinehurst. Yes, they have been rebuilt, but they have been careful not to lose that Donald Ross touch. When Ross did the greens, the ball was rolling about 8 or 9 feet on the stepmeter (about the same speed the fairways are today). So when he built the greens, he built them to be like an upside-down coffee plate, where the middle of the green is at the highest level, and the green slopes down so that, in some cases, a ball will roll off the green. But that was OK in the mid-30s. If you look at why Donald Ross built greens like that on all of his courses, it was for better drainage. So, the greens were never built for super fast greens like you have today.

As I walked the course, I first noticed that many players took more time to judge each green to see if a ball was rolling. I saw many players trying 40 and 50-foot putts, and in some cases, the ball kept moving and running off the green into a collection area. This will be the most embarrassing thing for the players on Thursday; I will make you a bet that when the USA opens their show on Thursday, you will see a montage of long putts that rolled past the hole, picked up speed, and rolled off the green. There’s nothing like putting for birdie and having to chip back to save par.

The most important statistic for the winner is the player who makes the most putts inside ten feet. So we can eliminate bad putters right now, guys like Lucas Glover, Daniel Berger, Webb Simpson, and Chris Kirk. So first, you will say that you never dreamed of picking those players anyway. But I can tell you many others you might have thought about picking. These include guys like Justin Thomas, Keegan Bradley, Adam Scott, Tony Finau, and Will Zalatoris. Those guys are putting poorly in 2024. Now you have others like Ludvig Aberg, Cameron Young, and even Scottie Scheffler, who aren’t great putters, but their tee-to-green game is so solid that they can survive this week. When I watch Scheffler play a few holes, I know he is considering avoiding three putts by getting his shot on the green in the perfect spot.

So, let’s talk about players and who will do well this week.

Off the bat, Tiger Woods is the best player suited for Pinehurst’s rigors. No, I am not saying he will win. Unfortunately, his legs are too far gone for that. But Tiger’s mindset and solid putting make him the best bet to win this week. Put Tiger into Rory McIlroy’s body, and they win every time they play.
You can make a lot of money by making proposition bets on Tiger, such as betting that Tiger makes the cut or finishes in the top 25, or even matchups like Tiger is -110 to beat Phil Mickelson. I will bet that Tiger beats his playing partners, Will Zalatoris and Matt Fitzpatrick (Matt will be close).

What about the winner?

Of course, Scottie Scheffler is the odds-on favorite to win. He should be the favorite because of his outstanding play all year and his excellent play for the last three years. If Scottie can keep up the same dedication, or better, Tiger’s ability to think of nothing but winning week after week, he can surpass Tiger’s record. But with his family taking shape, there may be a time when that family has become more important than their game. I can tell you three guys with that problem, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, and Justin Thomas, sorry, but the combination of making so much money, being able to do anything they want, and spending more time with their family is why they are struggling.

But going back to Scheffler, he is amazing, and he has found a way to maintain his game while spending time with his wife. But now, with a kid and knowing there will be more, it will be interesting to see if being the all-time best is more important to him than anything else. I can say that because just eight years ago, many of us thought that Jordan Speith would be one of the best, but that is not going to happen.

So, for this week, who are some others to think about? The more I see, the more I like Bryson DeChambeau. He has the significant advantage of hitting the ball longer than anyone else. But he will need some luck to win this week. One of the unique things about Pinehurst is what happens to you if you are off the fairway. The waste areas around the fairways have a hidden danger to them. If you hit it off the fairway, you can flip a coin to see if you are OK, have a good lie in the sand area, and get it on the green. But for others, a wayward drive could end up in someone else’s footprint or a terrible lie where the player has to measure it back into the fairway. If you’re unlucky, your drive could end up in a bush or a plant, making it impossible to get back on the fairway. In a way, we saw this with DeChambeau winning the U.S. Open at Winged Foot; when he wandered off the fairway, he still had shots to the green. But if there is anyone with the most significant advantage to win this week, it is Bryson.
I also like some of the usual suspects: Xander Schauffele, Rory McIlroy, Ludvig Aberg, and Brooks Koepka. Before we talk about the two players who could struggle this week, Collin Morikawa and Hideki Matsuyama. From tee to green, they are the best, and Morikawa has played great, but putting is an issue for them. Of course, it was an issue for Matsuyama in 2020, but he overcame it to win the Masters, one of the toughest tournaments for bad putters to win. We don’t know if the two of them can overcome those issues.

What about the others like Brooks Koepka?

The course is perfect for Koepka; he is always great off the tee and precise with his iron play. He is also a good putter and can get it up and down. Think Koepka is in the frame of mind where the majors are on his mind. The downside is that he hasn’t played well this year. Can he find that special magic to help him win four majors? He can. One last thing about Brooks. He played Pinehurst in 2014 and finished T-4, so he knows how to play the course.

What about Rory?

What a great talent he was. I’m surprised that Rory has only four majors and has yet to win in ten years. I wonder why he doesn’t win more; he seems to be a very complicated person. For the last year, he has been too involved in all this LIV golf stuff and some compromise between the PGA Tour and the Saudis. Even Rory knew it was taking up too much of his time and stopped. But he has been trying to get back in, and there is more talk about his personal life, so that could be a problem. But don’t underestimate him; I watch him hit balls, and he’s still a great hitter and one of the best from tee to green. Rory is his worst enemy; he overthinks; if he just went out and played without thinking, he would win more. One last thing: Rory is a very good putter and solid inside ten feet, so watch for him to play well.

Xander Schauffele

He plays almost as well as Scottie. Xander is the most underrated player on the Tour; he should have more than one major, and it is harder to believe he has only won eight times on the PGA Tour. The guy is one of the most consistent players in golf. There are hundreds of stats in the PGA Tour’s array, but I like this one for Xander: putting efficiency from 35 feet. Xander leads, meaning he is excellent at getting it up and down in long distances. He also leads in putting efficiency from 30 feet and is 3rd from 25 feet. So Xander should be perfect for the greens at Pinehurst.

Collin Morikawa

To be honest, I am afraid of his putting.  Realize that his tee-to-green game is near perfect, but putting has always been the item that has held him back.  Do I think he will be top ten, absolutely.  But a “W” may not be in the card for Collin the week

Some others to think about, like Ludvig Aberg

This is a serious player; he can be the next Scottie Scheffler. His tee-to-green game is solid; he is good at getting it up and down on greens he misses. Putting is an issue, just like it was for Scheffler, but Aberg is working on that. To win this week, you must be a great thinker; that makes Scheffler so good. Aberg showed us a lot by figuring out how to finish second at the Masters. In a way, Augusta National is a lot like Pinehurst in terms of the undulating greens. So if Aberg can figure it out at Augusta, he can figure it out at Pinehurst.

Viktor Hovland

He seems to be back to normal. We all know how good a ball-striker he is. In the past, his weakness was chipping around the green, elements that are important to winning at Pinehurst. This time last year, Hovland, whose weakness in his game was chipping, worked out his problems and was great on missed greens, one of the reasons he won the FedExCup. The big question is, does he have the skills to win, and is this a good time for him? I answer that sparingly by saying maybe.

Matthew Fitzpatrick

We can’t be at a U.S. Open without talking about Fitzpatrick. He is nowhere near a Scottie Scheffler or a Xander Schauffele, but he has the game to play well on some courses. I think Pinehurst is one of them. He is a solid putter, and I think he will figure that out. If he can win the U.S. Open, he can win anywhere.

The Defender

I said of Matthew Fitzpatrick: “If he can win the U.S. Open, he can win anywhere. That doesn’t apply to defending champion Wyndham Clark. He and Brian Harman have won major championships, but he has yet to do much since. Yes, he won at Pebble, but I don’t count that since he was suspended after 54 holes. Wyndham has the game, but I think he needs to understand it. The greens will be too much for Clark to figure out, so I don’t like him this week.

Some others to say yes or no about
Tonny Fleetwood

Yes, he’s a great putter and should be fine for Pinehurst, but he doesn’t know how to win, and I don’t think he can do it this week. If you want someone to finish in the top ten, Tommy is your guy.

Cameron Smith

If a U.S. Open course exists where Cameron can win, Pinehurst is it. He doesn’t have to worry about his drives going into thick, rough, and chopping out. But best of all, he is good once he gets on the green. That is why he won at St. Andrews. Smith was able to handle the greens. Unfortunately, I don’t think Cameron is the player he was when he won at St. Andrews. The big money of LIV golf has made him a little lazy, and I don’t think he worked hard to win at Pinehurst.

Max Homa

My biggest disappointment in 2024 is that I can’t understand why he hasn’t gotten better, and I don’t see that magically happening this week.

Sahith Theegale

He works hard and has his game together. He makes a lot of birdies and is straight off the tee. But his putting is not there yet. I can see him in the top ten, but not winning.

Cameron Young

Like Homa, a big disappointment in 2024. He has the game to win but hasn’t and won’t this week at Pinehurst. I am more inclined to back him to miss the cut before backing him to win for the first time this week.

Can an underdog win this week?

Unfortunately, there will not be an Orville Moody or Lucas Glover winner this week. Your winner will be one of the players mentioned above.

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