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In the midst of the controversial LIV Golf Tour, attention turns back to the majors as we approach the 2022 US Open. Jason Daniels takes a look at those who could be grabbing the headlines.

The week of the third major of the year should always be about Kevin Na’s photos of the height of the rough, brief clips of how fast the USGA has made the greens and how Phil Mickelson has still to get the career Grand Slam, still yet to win this event after 25 attempts.

This is no normal year though and, just a week after the first LIV golf tournament, sadly the talk is bound to be of the return of Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia and the aforementioned two ‘rebels’.

It’s certain that the USGA will not want the build-up to be a circus but, secretly, are we not all hoping the groupings include Rory McIlroy with two of DJ, Reed or Na?

Politics aside, the course at The Country Club, Brookline looks sure to be a brutal test for the players after Gil Hanse tinkered with the track. Short holes ask for pin-point accuracy to small table-top greens, whilst the likes of the longer par fours see the fairways narrow (to under 15 yards at traditional landing distances). Risk-and-reward holes ask a question for all players who miss the small greens, whilst many of the targets will need putts of five or six feet of break.

As it should, the course does not rely on length from the tee. It instead asks an enormous question of positioning and placement. Comparisons to Southern Hills, another Hanse project and the latest venue for the PGA make obvious sense, as does the old maxim around Augusta, far easier off the tee but with the criteria to ‘miss it in the right place’.

For those interested, the ruling authority has released a fly-over of every hole with guiding comments along the way.

Despite the differences between this course and many other, longer, major tracks, trends appear.

The Masters asks for a player ranked in the world’s top-20 (now nine of the last 11 after world number one, Scottie Scheffler did a job), whilst perennial world top-10 Justin Thomas made it six from 11 PGA winners inside the premier few. Now on to the US Open, where tracks may vary by 600+ yards, but at which every winner since Rory McIlroy, in 2011 has been in the top-30 in the week before the event.

Principal assets required are always based around the rough, and while the past six champions have all been wayward off the tee, they have hit it an awful long way. TCC looks a different test on paper and yet, players would surely rather be trying to flip wedges into small, fast greens from 80 yards than 8-irons from 160. This is a test of all facets of your game and why only the best succeed.

Take that lot into consideration, juggle the golf balls and these are the five players to watch out for this week.

Scottie Scheffler

Given those that have won before, 25-year-old Scheffler looks one to take from the very top of the market – the 10 or so that currently reside at less than 25/1.

Scheffler’s meteoric rise to the very top of the rankings may have shocked a few – from a non-winner to number one in seven weeks – but signs were always there that he had the potential to at least be amongst the best of his class, his win at the U.S Junior Amateur putting his name amongst the lists of future stars.

Before even his first win at the Pheonix Open, Scheffler could boast a pair of top-20 finishes at Augusta, a 4th and 8th at the PGA and a top-10 at Royal St George’s on his first attempt at The Open.

Whilst the Phoenix Open doesn’t scream a comparison to the brute of the U.S Open, recent winners in Arizona include two-time US Open and four-time total major winner, Brooks Koepka, Masters champion and two-time US Open top-ten, Hideki Matsuyama, and Gary Woodland, winner of the Phoenix in 2018, a year before his victory at Pebble Beach (Koepka runner-up).

Let’s also not forget that Scottie was inside the world’s top-20 before his first victory and hasn’t stopped playing well since.

Victories at a very difficult Bay Hill, at the Match Play (a year after being beaten in the final) and at Augusta simply confirm his status, and whilst thoughts may have been that he’s over his ‘patch’ with a missed cut at Southern Hills, he bounced back when mugged by a flying Sam Burns at Colonial last week, having at least shared the lead after every round and taking a two-shot advantage into Sunday.

It was a strange final round for Scheffler, who didn’t make a birdie for the first time in ages, but that’s easily forgivable in his recent record, especially as he continues his excellent tee-to-green play.

Season’s figures show him 16th for driving distance and outside the top-100 for accuracy – 30th for total driving fitting almost perfectly alongside the last six champions – but it’s his consistently high-class iron play that makes me believe he will put the less accurate players under pressure.

Scottie ranks second in greens-in-regulation for the season, with recent highlights being first at Bay Hill, fifth at Augusta and a pair of top-eight rankings at the Byron Nelson and Colonial; 13th in strokes-gained-approach, and an overall 16th from tee-to-green.

When he misses the odd fairway, he’s ranking 30th for around-the-green and high enough for his short game to believe he won’t be giving much away to the field.

He’s short enough in the market, but looks totally relaxed as the current best in his field, has a clearly successful relationship with newish caddie Ted Scott, and as the place offers increase, has to be the one to be interested in.

Will Zalatoris

Another previous winner of the US Amateur, a year after Scheffler, it is almost inconceivable that the 25-year-old goes much longer without winning on the main tour.

After just one Korn Ferry Tour victory but a catalogue of places, Zalatoris, took Special Temporary Member status after the Bermuda Championship in November 2020, and in 38 starts at the top level has three runner-up finishes and eight further top-10s.

It’s a long way from the Corales and Bermuda events to the big stage but a sign of his talent came early on at Winged Foot, scene of the 2020 US Open, when making a hole-in-one during the first round, on the way to a final 6th place. It hasn’t stopped since.

In April 2021, Willy-Z finished a closing runner-up to Matsuyama at Augusta, following that up with a tied-sixth a year later (behind Scheffler). A top-10 at Kiawah Island in the 2021 PGA Championship and a play-off loss to Justin Thomas at the renewal at Southern Hills gives him an overall record at the ‘big four’ of seven starts, five top-10 finishes (2/2/6/6/8), a withdrawal at Royal St George’s and a sole missed-cut.

Looking at the prices, 20/1 to 25/1-ish may seem short for a non-winner, but his tee-to-green play is so exemplary that the extended place terms shout for him to be backed.

Over the last couple of months, the world number 14 has ranked 13th off-the-tee, first for approaches and 16th for combined tee-to-green. Look closer to see another that is top-15 in distance off the peg and top five in greens-found. If anyone had strangely dismissed his chance, he reminded us of his talent with a most recent five-birdie final round at Muirfield, his last shot, on the toughest hole on the course, being 177-yards to 19 inches.

Put up on the ‘five to follow at The Masters and beyond’ he retains enormous interest when quality is called for, as it is this week.

Sungjae Im

In all honesty, I can rarely read the game of the South Korean current world number 22, but everything we know points to a good week for the two-time PGA Tour winner, and he is just about the best bet in the 40-80/1 bracket.

Stats-wise he works nicely, with a top-10 ranking over the last eight weeks in all of ‘off-the-tee’, tee-to-green, and crucially around-the-green lists. In that period, the 24-year-old has played five events, making the cut in each and including his second top-10 at The Masters.

Missing the PGA because of a Covid scare, he is another to have a five-birdie final round at the Memorial, birdieing two of the final three holes (5th and 6th hardest ranked) although with a similar result, he comes into the field with a differing method to a Zalatoris, basing his game on driving accuracy and short game. Whilst he differs in his M.O, he is similar to the two above with a top-10 seasonal rating for greens-in-reg and tee-to-green.

Given the small greens, many will scratch for par from just off the green, whether in rough or the tough bunkers, and his season’s work is very eye-catching, being third for scrambling from 10 to 20 yards, 13th for 20 to 30 yards and top-20 for sand saves.

Major form outside of Augusta is one of consistency rather than brilliance, but three top-35 finishes at Winged Foot, Kiawah and Torrey Pines read well enough given this should be a more suitable test for one of the shorter drivers on tour.

 

Mito Pereira and Davis Riley

If looking for something of a ‘shock’, surely both the 27-year-old Chilean and Will Zalatoris’ college-mate lead the way.

Winning a major as a debut victory on the PGA Tour is rare, but it happens, with both Charles Schwartzel (Masters) and Martin Kaymer (PGA) nabbing a big one, joining Michael Campbell and Shaun Micheel on the list with the last-named bagging his title as his only victory at the top level.

I doubt these two 20-somethings are going to suffer the same blank years as the 2003 PGA champion, and, having both looked imperious from tee-to-green, could easily land the each-way money for a sport that now needs to look to these future stars given much of the old guard have been, and continue to be, tempted elsewhere.

In our ‘Players to watch in 2022‘ we noted Pereira as ‘not averse to winning at any course that calls for accuracy’ and in just 26 starts at PGA Tour level, he’s recorded six top-10s and four further top-20 finishes. Pleasingly for those that insist on current form, his latest four outings contain a worst finish of 17th, a seventh-place at Colonial and, of course, his best-ever finish, a third-place finish at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills.

It was a painful watch for those that stuck with the oft-punted Chilean, former number five in the world amateur lists, as he let a final hole lead slip away with a wayward tee shot and approach, certainly unexpected from such a quality tee-to-green player but hardly a shock given it was just his second-ever major.

The way he dominated that Gil Hanse-affected track cannot have failed to impress as he ranked fifth for driving accuracy (for the third time in succession), seventh in approaches (fifth top-20 in a row) and in greens-in-regulation for his fourth in a series of five top-10s.

It certainly would not have been a surprise had he taken a while to get over the loss, but just a week later he was there again, finishing strongly to finish seventh, having been 43rd after day one, before following up with another strong-finishing effort (T13th) at difficult Muirfield, lying 59th after round one, and 35th going into Sunday’s payday.

He is ‘let down’ in the stats by being outside of the top-30 so, despite that valuable major experience, that should put him outside of a winning chance, but his seasonal tee-to-green game – rank of 11th – all based on top-10 quality approaches, sees him highly fancied in those top-10/20 markets.

25-year-old Riley is no less of a prospect and might even be considered more likely to run up the titles.

A two-time finalist at the US Amateur, losing to Scottie Scheffler after calling a penalty on himself and a year later to subsequent KFT room-mate Will Zalatoris, the rookie won a pair of events on the feeder tour before gaining his PGA Tour card after the joint pandemic-affected years.

It’s been a slow process for the 2018 Palmer Cup member (alongside Collin Morikawa, Sahith Theegala and Matthew Wolff) and he struggled with his tee-to-green game for his first dozen starts, before finding something at the Valspar, eventually losing an overnight lead in a play-off against Sam Burns (that man again).

Unlike Pereira, Riley took a couple of events to get over the loss but has returned to form in style, his next six events giving up finishes of three top-fives, one top-10 and a pair of top-15s.

Of course, seasonal stats will be skewed given the effect his early-season form will have, but lately Riley has his game spot on with his tee-to-green play – four successive top-20 rankings, led by his irons,

This is a big ask, but like his fellow rookie, there is no ceiling to his talents, and with one of the recent top-15 finishes being a 13th at Southern Hills, he is another that could be a touch of value on the side markets.

Others of note

Victor Perez – First and second for tee-to-green in his last two DP World Tour events. A strong driver and outstanding iron player, he has back-form that includes a World Matchplay semi-final loss to eventual 2021 winner and 2022 finalist Billy Horschel, fourth at the 2019 HSBC World Champions, and a top-10 at Sawgrass. It’s an ask, but not totally out of the market for top continental European.

Cameron Young – Yet another mid-20-year-old that has improved buckets over the past few months in his rookie year. Having missed the cut in his first three majors, wouldn’t normally be one to be interested in coming into such a tough test, but has caught the eye with a string of results. Prominent throughout as he finished runner-up at the Sanderson on just his second full start, he’s backed that up with another second place at Riviera, where strong driving counts, a pair of top-20 finishes at Bay Hill at the Honda, and latterly a trio of top-three finishes including tying Pereira at Southern Hills. TCC doesn’t look the course to do it, but could easily over-power it, in Bryson-meets-Winged-Foot style.

Dustin Johnson/Phil Mickelson/Kevin Na/ Sergio Garcia/ Louis Oosthuizen et al  – Press conferences could be fun.

Odds are correct at the time of posting

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