June 12, 2013

Open Needs A Repeat Winner

The 113th U.S. Open Championship tees off tomorrow at Merion Golf Club, outside of Philadelphia. For many East-Enders, it will be the first chance to catch a major tournament up close since the U.S. Open was played at Bethpage Black in 2009. Maybe it's my bias, but majors have a little more excitement and juice behind them when played in the Northeast corridor. The enthusiastic galleries and heavy media presence add hype and energy not found in any other area of the country.

Both fan favorite Phil Mickelson and world #1 Tiger Woods have found themselves in the hunt in majors in this region. But this year's storyline may not involve the old guard. If recent history holds true, the game will be waiting to find out which young star will break through next. But that wouldn't be the best outcome for the sport.

The last four U.S. Open champions were first-time major winners: Lucas Glover, Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy, and Webb Simpson. Who in this year's group of contenders could make the leap? Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Lee Westwood, and Luke Donald are all potential winners who would make for a very interesting story line. A victory by Sergio Garcia would be especially intriguing, given his self annihilation and jawboning with Woods at the Players Championship.

In fact, 12 of the last 17 majors have been won by first-timers. It's positive for the game to show there is plenty of worldwide talent capable of winning on the sport's biggest stage. But there's a downside to having frequent first-time winners. All sports need rivalries, villains, and favorites. The golf world would be best served with a repeat winner this week. That storyline would be better for the game, rather than adding another player to the list of potential breakthrough stars.

While golf still has Tiger Woods, it's been five years since Tiger's last major . . . his one-legged triumph over Rocco Mediate in a playoff at Torrey Pines. With four wins already this season, Tiger is favored to resume his march toward Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major victories. Yet despite a strong start to the season, just two weeks ago Woods finished in a tie for 65th at the Memorial, 20 shots behind Matt Kuchar.

Meantime, Phil Mickelson, Tiger's chief foil over the last 10 years, has battled health and personal issues over the past couple of seasons. After Phil's early season win in Phoenix he's had three top five finishes this year, including this past week when he made a run and finished in a tie for second at the FedEx St Jude Classic. After five runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open and surrounded by a fan base that loves him, can Mickelson win his first U.S. Open and get the final leg of his career back on track?

After breaking through for his first major at this year's Masters, can Adam Scott add a US Open and build on the victories that the pundits predicted for the world's most enviable golf swing?

Can Rory McIlroy right the ship and win his third major in as many years?

If these big name major champions are in the hunt on Sunday it would give the fans what they crave, and make NBC TV executives happy with big ratings. The storylines would stabilize the top of the golf world, which it hasn't had since Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Paddy Harrington won 12 of 20 between 2004 and 2008.

In order for golf to thrive as a TV event it could use a repeat winner on Sunday. Consistent rivalries generate strong emotions. As it is, it's tough enough to sustain fan interest in a sport that often has a different winner each week. The game of golf would definitely benefit if a familiar face hoists the U.S. Open trophy this Sunday.

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