SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — As far as sports predictions go, it doesn't get any harder than trying to accurately forecast who will win a golf tournament. In any given week, there are something like 30 players who could feasibly take home the trophy. Compare that to the other individual/country club sport, tennis; in those Grand Slams, there are realistically only...five?...players who could win.
Making matters worse for the golf predictions industry: Every once in a while, a Shaun Micheel or Todd Hamilton or Ben Curtis will come around, steal a major championship and rudely remind us that there are way more than 30 players who can win, should their stars align.
Thus, the following picks are educated guesses at best and indulgences in a fool's exercise worst. But that never stopped anyone in the internetsphere. So let's have a crack at it—here are some predictions for this week's U.S. Open Championship, which begins Thursday morning at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y.
Sleeper who will contend come Sunday afternoon
Daniel Rapaport: Guys who have success this week will need to fly it a country mile off the tee and have a full arsenal of short-game shots. Rain last week and on Wednesday has softened the course considerably, tilting things in long hitters' favor even more than anticipated, and the shaved areas around the greens will force players to employ a variety of different trajectories with their chips and pitches. A player I keep coming back to is Tony Finau, who is second on the tour in driving distance and 18th in strokes gained tee to green. Finau has played well in majors before (remember when he took 10th at Augusta on an ankle the size of a softball?) and he'll be on the first page of the leaderboard come Sunday afternoon.
Michael Rosenberg: Bryson DeChambeau. He is long enough, his iron play is strong enough, and he is hot enough, having just won the Memorial. Winning this event often comes down to making a lot of difficult pars on long holes, and DeChambeau has the game to do it. Calling him a sleeper may be a stretch—he's up to 22nd in the world and has a good chance of making the Ryder Cup team—but he is at least a napper, as he has never really contended in a major. DeChambeau could be this year's Brooks Koepka: a winner who was well-known among golf fans but not so much among the crowd that only watches four times a year.
Long, long shot to place a fun wager on
DR: How about Braden (not Nigel) Thornberry, the world's second-ranked amateur and rising senior at Ole Miss? If you can get past the optics of his...unconventional...swing, Thornberry has the tools to compete with the world's best. He won the 2017 NCAA individual championship. He owns six course records. He finished tied for fourth in his PGA Tour debut last year and finished tied for 26th last week in Memphis. An amatuer hasn't won this tournament since 1933, and an amateur won't win this tournament this year, but Thornberry could make some noise during the opening rounds. Enough noise for you to brag about your bet. And that makes it worth it.
MR: Adam Scott. Come on: Who wouldn't love this? Former world No. 1 goes through qualifying to keep his majors streak going (Scott is playing in his 68th consecutive major), then stuns the field by winning his second major. No, I don't expect this to happen. But you said "fun wager," not "wise investment."
Favorite who will disappoint
DR: It goes without saying, but confidence with the putter is a non-negotiable prerequisite for major championships. On Shinnecock's undulated, tricky poa annua greens, the last thing you want to feel with your putter in your hands is uncomfortable. Jordan Spieth has been nothing short of shockingly bad with the flatstick this season. The stats are terrible—190th in strokes gained putting, 170th in total putting, 118th in one-putt percentage, 161st in three-putt avoidance—but the eye test might be even worse. It wouldn't surprise me, and I know it wouldn't surprise Michael, if Spieth righted the ship this week. But I'm staying away from the three-time major champ.
MR:Dustin Johnson. He is the world No. 1. His 'A' game is probably better than anybody else's 'A' game. His U.S. Open history is excellent—he won in 2016 and famously three-putted to finish second to Spieth in 2015—and he just won in Memphis. But playing an event the weekend before the U.S. Open can backfire. The U.S. Open is mentally taxing enough. Trying to make it your second win in as many weeks seems like too much to ask. Most of the top players started playing Shinnecock while Johnson was still in Memphis. There is a reason for that.
DR: I actually think Shinnecock suits Tiger's current game pretty well. Yes, there's a premium on hitting fairways, something that is not his strength, but these fairways are generous in width. Tiger's biggest advantage this week will be around the greens, as the shaved areas will reward creativity and variety in short-game shots. At 42 and coming off four back surgeries—and after a bout with the chipping yips—Tiger is once again one of the five best chippers/pitchers in the world. He'll pick up multiple shots on the field this week around the greens. I don't think his putting is good enough to win major number 15, but I think Tiger finishes inside the top-20. I'll go with T-13th.
MR: He'll be in the hunt after two rounds then fade on the weekend. I am part of the growing chorus of people who believes Tiger will win a major again. I just don't see it happening this week. Everything between the tee and the green is good enough, but it's hard for me to see him driving and putting well enough for four rounds to win the U.S. Open.
DR: See above. Tiger and Phil's games aren't too dissimilar right now, though Tiger is striking the ball a bit better with the irons while Phil's putter has been better. I think the two aging superstars finish close to one another this week, and I wouldn't be totally surprised if they play together on the weekend. T-13 for Phil, too.
MR: 10th. I'm not picking him to win, and I'm not cruel enough to predict he will finish second for a seventh time. But it should not surprise anybody if he contends here. I do wonder how many chances he will have to complete the career Grand Slam. He turns 48 Saturday and would be the oldest U.S. Open champion ever should he win.
DR: Let's see. The last time the Open was at Shinnecock, Retief Goosen won at 4-under. The course was firmer then, but it was also shorter. But these players are much, much longer, so the distance increase is completely negated. The USGA will want to exact some revenge from last year's birdie brigade at Erin Hills, but they'll be careful not to go too far in the other direction and repeat the '04 nightmare. I'll say -7.
MR: -5. The last two winning scores at Shinnecock were 4-under (Retief Goosen, 2004) and even par (Corey Pavin, 1995.) The wind has been blowing and the course should be soft Thursday but firm by the weekend.
DR: +4. Someone will shoot 66 on Thursday thanks to soft conditions. Scoring will die down after that.
MR: +5. See above.
DR: So, so hard to pick against Dustin Johnson here. He's had tremendous success in U.S. Opens. He was absolutely dominant last week. And he has the extra motivation of wanting to prove that he is the deserving world No. 1. He'll certainly be in the mix come Sunday, but I'm going with Brooks Koepka this week. He's flown a bit under the radar this year mainly because he simply hasn't played very much—he missed 15 weeks with a wrist injury—but he hasn't missed a beat since his return, highlighted by a solo second at Colonial. He'll become the first back-to-back winner since Curis Strange in 1989.
MR: Rickie Fowler. He said after the Masters that that was the first major he has played when he knew he could win. He played like it. He just got engaged. He's happy and focused. He is ready to finally do this.