Golf’s second major championship of the year, the U.S. Open, is set to take place this weekend at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. The last time the U.S. Open took place at this historic site was in 1998, when Lee Janzen came from behind to beat Payne Stewart by one shot.
The U.S. Open is unique because it is an “open” tournament. Obviously, you can’t show up at The Olympic Club on Thursday and demand a spot on the first tee. You might get arrested. You can, however, enter the local qualifier, if you happen to have a handicap index of 1.4 or lower, and advance all the way to the U.S. Open.
This year, a player by the name of Casey Martin qualified. If you don’t remember the name, Martin’s story was one of the biggest in golf a decade ago. Martin suffers from a condition that minimizes the use of his right leg. In 2001, he sued the PGA Tour in an attempt to gain access to a golf cart while playing PGA events. Martin won, but his career never materialized. Now, he has another chance.
Another interesting qualifying story is 14-year-old Andy Zhang. Zhang, who was born in China, went through his sectional qualifying in Florida and was granted a spot in the event when Paul Casey was forced to withdraw. He is the youngest competitor in U.S. Open history and will be playing in his first major before his first day of high school.
What did the young man have to say about his experience so far?
“Wow, I just shook Tiger’s hand.”
Tiger isn’t the only one young Zhang will be looking to outdo this week. Defending champion, Rory McIlroy, blew away the field last year at Congressional, winning his first major championship with a record-breaking 16 under-par score.
Tiger, coming off his win at The Memorial, and Rory are the betting favorites but there are many others who are primed to enter the winner’s circle and possibly a first-time winner as McIlroy was last year.
Luke Donald—Donald is the hottest golfer coming into this week and is the current holder of the world’s No. 1 ranking. Donald has five top 10 finishes in his last eight starts and has already won twice this year. His precision iron play and ability to work the ball off the tee should give him an advantage at the tricky Olympic Club layout.
Lee Westwood—Westwood is still searching for his first major championship and has fared well at U.S. Opens in the past with two top-five finishes. He’s not the longest hitter on tour but the Olympic Club is a shotmaker’s golf course, which suits Westwood nicely.
Steve Stricker—Stricker is one of the few who played in the U.S. Open the last time it was at the Olympic Club and he fared well. His putting skill alone puts him in good position to compete at the U.S. Open, but when you add in his lethal short-iron game and scrambling, expect him to be around on Sunday.
Jason Dufner—Dufner made a name for himself last year at the PGA Championship when he battled Keegan Bradley all the way to the finish. Unfortunately, Dufner came up a bit short last year but has put together a very good 2012 season up to this point. We know he can find his way around major championship golf courses but does he have enough to close the deal this time?
Bubba Watson—Bubba hasn’t played much golf since winning The Masters earlier this year. He spent a week or so in the limelight, doing TV shows and interviews to seemingly everyone with a microphone, and then took some time off to embrace fatherhood and spend time with his wife and their new son. It would be shocking to most if Bubba won two majors in a row but, sometimes, it is hard to make sense of Bubba’s game. You never know.We’ll see what happens with play starting Thursday.
Joe Fries is a sports writer and golf pro living in Miami Beach, Fla. You can follow him on Twitter @The7thFreezer.
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