Picking U.S. Open champ pure folly

Sergio Garcia of Spain watches his tee shot on the fourth hole during the third round of the Wells...

Sergio Garcia of Spain watches his tee shot on the fourth hole during the third round of the Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament at the Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina May 7, 2011. (REUTERS/Chris Keane)

IAN HUTCHINSON, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:35 PM ET

TORONTO - It may be an insult or a relief, but Sergio Garcia is no longer automatically smacked with golf’s most backhanded compliment anymore.

With the likes of Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Steve Stricker, Bubba Watson, Lee Westwood and Matt Kuchar around, no longer can Garcia be called the best player never to win a major as the U.S. Open gets underway today.

At 76th in the world and having to qualify for Congressional, Garcia isn’t the best at anything, so he won’t have to carry that two-ton gorilla today the way Phil Mickelson used to when he held that unenviable title.

Who’s to say though? Maybe Garcia’s natural skills will cut through the headwebs and petulance that have characterized his career, but there are plenty of others who better personify the “best” portion of the never to win a major line.

That’s what makes any attempt to pick a major champion such folly, combined with the fact that Tiger Woods is a spectator due to injuries, eliminating the urge to automatically claim him the favourite.

“Tiger won many, many different ways,” said Hank Haney, who tinkered with Tiger’s swing before Canadian Sean Foley took over. “He could win by overpowering a golf course. He could win with his short game. He could win with his ball-striking. He could win with his putting.”

If Woods was still in his prime, it’s debatable whether he would still be the one dominant player. He would still be a favourite, but there’s now a horde of potential major champions.

This unpredictability renders all of this pre-tournament talk about European dominance merely idle bar talk in the absence of a leaderboard to provide reality. All of that changes Thursday and who knows what the real story will be come Sunday?

“I think it’s virtually impossible to pick. Obviously, you’re going to have to drive the ball in play and you’re going to have to putt well. We could see another first-time winner again. I wouldn’t bet against that,” said Haney.

It’s all a part of a natural cycle for golf, according to 1995 U.S. Open champ Corey Pavin, who got it done before Woods crashed onto the scene.

“I think with Tiger not dominating like he did for 13-14 years, whatever it was, we’re getting back to a period, I think, where there’s a lot of players that can win tournaments,” said Pavin, who will be in the field at Montreal’s Champions Tour event in a couple of weeks.

“We’ve seen a few players play at a very high level, but even those players are not winning as much as Tiger or Phil (Mickelson) were,” he added. “You can almost have 20 guys that you can list and probably one of those 20 will win the tournament, but that’s not a guarantee either now.”

Whether it’s one dominant player or golf’s version of parity, it’s good for the game, according to the 2010 U.S. Ryder Cup skipper, but you’re still going to get people belly-aching.

“You can argue for and against both of those scenarios, but to me, it’s always funny because when there’s a dominant player, everyone wants someone else to play well and then when there isn’t a dominant player, everybody wants a dominant player,” said Pavin.

LESS BITE THAN FIRST THOUGHT

If this makes sense, defending champ Graeme McDowell says Congressional isn’t the bear he first thought it was when he played it a few weeks ago, but he still figures even par will win the tournament, which is what he originally predicted … Something that could be a factor is not so much the rough or the slick greens associated with the U.S. Open. “The bunkers are interesting. They’re probably the most interesting part of the setup this week. There’s a lot of sand in the traps. The balls are plugging quite a lot. I saw at least four or five plugged balls, and that is something interesting that you don’t often see,” said McDowell … Congressional, at par 71, will be set up at close to 7,600 yards although that will vary from day to day. It’s the second-longest course in tournament history behind Torrey Pines in 2008 … So, you’re in a close battle coming down the stretch on Sunday. How do you feel about deciding it on a 523-yard, par four 18th hole? Does the hefty winner’s cheque and the trophy come with a year’s supply of Advil?

CANUCK STUFF

Adam Hadwin of Abbotsford, B.C., starts today at 9:01 a.m., with Belleville’s Jon Mills scheduled for 2:30 and Calgary’s Wes Heffernan at 2:52. All three start from the first tee … Heffernan is now working with Dennis Sheehy, who coached Stephen Ames before Foley. “It’s kind of been little changes that have turned into one big thing because of years of doing certain things that are making me not as consistent as I need to be if I want to be on the PGA Tour,” said Heffernan, who has played twice on the Canadian Tour this year. Hadwin is fourth on the Canadian Tour money list and Mills is 18th on the Nationwide Tour money list, a position that would earn him his PGA Tour card if it held to the end of the season.


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