Payne Stewart’s name will be heard a lot this week as the USGA returns to Pinehurst No. 2 and the site of his biggest win.
It was a great sports moment in the 1999 U.S. Open on the 72nd hole when he raised his arm after making the winning putt in those USA colored knickers. But I more loved hearing what he told Phil Mickelson, who finished 2nd, on the green right after the putt dropped in the cup. Stewart immediately went to the man he beat with his 15-foot putt, took Mickelson's face in his hands, looked him hard in the eyes and told him that what he was about to experience was much more important than what he had just lost.
Mickelson had carried a beeper during his final-round clash with Stewart. If his wife, Amy, went into labor, Mickelson said he'd skip out of the Pinehurst Country Club to be with his wife. The beeper stayed silent. The next day, Amy Mickelson gave birth to their first child. Stewart, a two-time U.S. Open champ, died in a plane crash four months later.
It was the first of a record six-runner up’s for Mickelson in this event. He again has a chance to try and win the career grand slam. Only three living golfers -- Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player -- have accomplished the feat of winning all four majors (in its current form) and Mickelson can change that this year. He’s had a tough year but the stage is set. Phil’s best chance was at Merion last year but lost out shooting a final round 74 and saw Justin Rose win his first Open. His game this year has been very inconsistent and has me thinking we won’t see him in the running on Sunday. But the story can be tremendous if he comes out a winner on this course, on Father’s Day.
-No Tiger: We knew this for a while but that doesn't make it any less of a story. This will be the sixth major Tiger will miss since turning pro and it just won't feel like as big of a deal without him. We know he’s still chasing Jack for the majors record but if Tom Watson wants him on this year’s Ryder Cup team, he better hope he gets healthy soon.
-Back-to-back: In an unprecedented move, the USGA has, both, the men's U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst this year. The women will play the next week on the same course. If the course takes a beating this week due to weather and play, next week could be interesting.
-Great groupings: The USGA always has fun with its groupings and it hasn’t disappointed again this time around. Three former Masters winners are together; Bubba Watson, world-#1 Adam Scott and Charl Schwartzel. Three U.S. Open champs are grouped together; Retief Goosen, Geoff Ogivly & Lucas Glover. Phil Mickelson plays with the man that beat him last year; Justin Rose, and the third member of that group is U.S. Amateur champion Matt Fitzpatrick. Rory McIlroy plays with Webb Simpson and Graeme McDowell.
-Swan song for Johnny Miller: The USGA and FOX Sports signed a new TV deal for the next 12 years to broadcast the U.S. Open starting next year. It likely means no more Johnny Miller for the U.S. Open anymore.
I think NBC does a wonderful job with the Open and Miller and his partner, Dan Hicks, will be missed during this annual event. Memo to FOX: this is the U.S. Open…no glowing golf balls please! FOX has reported that Joe Buck and Greg Norman will be their lead announcing pairing.
Players I like to contend: -Rory McIlroy: When Rory’s been playing well, he’s been the best player in the world. But he hasn’t been able to play with any consistency. I think he can be in contention but doing it over four consecutive days has me a little worried. Rory is #1 on the PGA Tour in putting, so if the putter gets hot, he could be there on Sunday.
-Zach Johnson: He’s so accurate (6th on Tour in driving accuracy) and is a good putter suited for these fast conditions. He doesn’t hit it super long, which will be tough this week, but his ability to play steady and stay out of trouble might be enough to win.
-Paul Casey: He’s had a re-birth somewhat this season. He’s finished in the top 20 in 8 of his 14 worldwide events this season. It’s a long shot, but he’s my long shot.
-Prediction: Zach Johnson
Send me your pick @BrianWGR on twitter.
For a full hour of golf talk, including full discussion of the U.S. Open, tune into to the Tee 2 Green Golf Show Saturday morning with Brian Koziol, Kevin Sylvester and PGA Pro Jeff Mietus from 7-8am and a special re-broadcast from 2-3pm. LIVE play-by-play of the U.S. Open can be heard on WGR 550 this weekend with coverage beginning at 4pm.