Thursday, June 16, 2016

Who do you take at the U.S. Open: The Big Three or the field?

OAKMONT, Pa. -- The question going into the U.S. Open nine years ago was whether you would take 12-time major winner Tiger Woods or the remaining field of 155 players.

Now, going into this Oakmont Open in 2016, the question is if you would take the Big Three or the 153 leftovers.

So, do you believe Jason Day, defending champion Jordan Spieth or four-time major winner Rory McIlroy will win this U.S. Open?

It's hard to argue with picking Day, who is the total package right now. He's won three times this year, has the largest lead at the top of the Official World Golf Ranking since Tiger Woods and has a great track record in this championship with a pair of second-place finishes. It's not hard to imagine him winning had he not dealt with a severe bout of vertigo last year at Chambers Bay.

Day has the skill set that works for a U.S. Open, and he knows it.

"I think it sets up best for this because I hit it high," Day said of the Open. "Usually, the course is running very firm. Usually the greens are firm and fast. I feel like I hit it high, and I feel like I've got good touch around the greens. I think this one sets up best for me."

He has the power to keep driver in the bag, hitting the 2-iron he blasted 300 yards to win at The Players in May and the 3-wood he can smash 330 yards in firm conditions. He leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting. He can power the ball out of rough. But perhaps most important is his mental edge. He may be a slower-than-average player, but Day is absolutely committed to every shot, something that is a must here at Oakmont. Let your mind wander for a little while and pay the price.

"I'm not saying that all the other players don't want it just as much as me, but all I'm doing right now is focusing on trying to win golf tournaments, and I understand that the only way to do that is get the process right," Day said.

Then there's Jordan Spieth, who swears he's over that Masters meltdown from April. He won at Colonial to earn his first PGA Tour win in the state of Texas, so maybe that's true, but if Spieth opens up a sizable lead any day this week, that memory has to invariably creep in his mind. Even if for an instant, it'll be there.

For the sake of argument, we could disregard the mental scar tissue and say Spieth is in a state of zen. However, his best skill here, putting, is somewhat mitigated by the firmness and speed of these greens. It'll be more difficult for him to make 20-, 25- and 30-foot putts that give him such an edge. That's the bad news. The good news is that Spieth is a strong lag putter, which should prevent him from having as many throat-constricting 6-footers for par and bogey as everyone else. The downside is that Spieth is below the PGA Tour median inside 6 feet.

Spieth said the greens here and at Augusta National are similar. So perhaps he can carry over the confidence he has clearly developed at the Masters -- everywhere except No. 12, at least -- and translate that to here.

"You can't let your mind slip on these greens for one moment, or else you're going to be left with possibly a 10- to 15-footer on the next putt, if not worse," he said Monday. "So really have to be cautious of it."

And what about Rory McIlroy? He won the Irish Open in May to get that ball and chain off his ankle, but he's been shut out in this stretch of majors where Jordan Spieth is a lock for the top five and Jason Day has threatened to win two of the last three. McIlroy found himself in a position to take on Spieth on the weekend at the Masters, only to blow himself out of the tournament when Spieth's uncanny knack to just hang around got in his head.

Oakmont should play to the Ulsterman's strengths, at least in theory. The demands here from tee-to-green are ones McIlroy can answer with the same ease as Day. In fact, McIlroy is a better player off the tee with arguably more effortless power. The four-time major winner can hit moonballs that fly high and land as softly as these firm greens will allow. The problem is McIlroy's putting, which is streaky with an inconsistent stroke. If he gets flummoxed by the speed of putts and the relative difficulty of converting on the strong suit of his game, his ballstriking, McIlroy may play himself into a corner from which he cannot escape.

Then there's the nature of the four majors McIlroy has won. McIlroy was no worse than 13 under par in each of those victories. That will certainly not be the winning score here. It probably won't even be under par.

If nothing else, McIlroy is self-aware. He knows the concept of this Open isn't exactly in his wheelhouse.

"As you said, the majors that I have won have been soft and under par and more suits my style of game," he said Tuesday. "But to be able to win on a course like this with the conditions the way they are, it would probably be my, I don't know, maybe my biggest accomplishment in the game. But definitely would make me feel like a more complete player, I guess."

The players that have won here are complete players. Nicklaus, Hogan, Miller, Nelson. They were studs who were mentally tough and didn't cave to Oakmont's constant pressure. Each of the Big Three deals with that mental stress differently, but they all have the capacity to emerge as champion.

Then again, there are plenty of players who have won here that weren't a finished product when they hoisted the trophy. Jack Nicklaus had to stare down Arnold Palmer in 1962 for his first pro win. Ernie Els won a playoff here in 1994 over Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts, then the best putter alive, to pick up his first win in the U.S. Angel Cabrera stared down Tiger Woods to pick up the first of his two major wins here in 2007.

So, is there a player like that -- a yet-unknown multi-time major winner -- in this field that we don't know yet?

If history is any indication, there is.


Ryan Ballengee is a Yahoo Sports contributor. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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