First-time major champions are the rule in golf these days. The last three U.S. Opens, British Opens and PGAs, and last two Masters have welcomed new members to the club.
Curtis Strange suspects more of the same to transpire at this week'sU.S. Open, which starts Thursday at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, a layout that ranges from "quirky" to "ridiculous."
Tiger Woods, fresh off his Memorial victory two weeks ago, or Phil Mickelson, a five-timeU.S. Open runner-up. But he has a hunch.
"Other than those two, I like Hunter Mahan," said Strange, the ESPN analyst and two-time U.S. Open champion from Hampton Roads. "Why? I don't know. Current form, and he's a really good player."
Mahan, 30, has yet to win a major. His best U.S. Open was a sixth-place tie in 2009, and he's missed the cut the past two years.
But like Woods, Mahan has won twice this season. He bested Rory McIlroy 2-and-1 in the final of the World Match Play Championship and edged Carl Pettersson by a shot at the Houston Open.
Moreover, Mahan has been consistent, missing only one cut in 12 tournaments. He's second on the PGA Tour money list and eighth in the world rankings.
Mahan doesn't defy physics off the tee like 2012 Masters winner Bubba Watson or reigning U.S. Open champ McIlroy, but at Olympic that won't much matter.
Indeed, Strange believes the course's doglegs and "quirky," sloping fairways dictate conservative play off the tee, with 3-woods and long irons more useful than a titanium Louisville Slugger.
"Bubba doesn't like the golf course," Strange said, "and I don't blame him one bit, because it takes the driver out of his hand."
Neither Strange nor the players like the 670-yard 16th hole, the longest in U.S. Open history. Mickelson called it "arguably the worst" hole at Olympic, and Strange said he's heard others call it "ridiculous" and "goofy."
Strange also panned the 520-yard first, which the governing United States Golf Association converted from a reachable par-5 to a diabolical par-4 that's only 2 yards shorter than the par-5 17th.
"I'd want to play the golf course Jack Fleck and Hogan played, and Casper and Arnold," Strange said. "And now you're not."
In 1955, the obscure Fleck stunned iconic Ben Hogan in an Open playoff at Olympic. In 1966, Arnold Palmer squandered a seven-shot, final-round lead before losing a playoff to Billy Casper.
Other Hall of Famers have stumbled at Olympic's Opens. Payne Stewart lost a four-shot, last-day lead to Lee Janzen in 1998, and Tom Watson couldn't stave off Scott Simpson in '87.
None of Olympic's Open winners finished better than 3-under par, a stark contrast to last year, when McIlroy was 16-under at rain-soaked and defenseless Congressional outside Washington, D.C. McIlroy is attempting to become the first since Strange in 1989 to repeat at the Open.
But Strange wonders whether the 23-year-old McIlroy will have the patience and discipline to resist pulling driver. He has similar doubts about Mickelson (four majors) but none about Woods (14).
Mickelson has never won an U.S. Open, while Woods owns three such titles, the last, famously, in a 2008 playoff against Rocco Mediate. Woods hasn't won a major since, but Strange still considers him the game's best "when he's playing well."
Injuries and the tabloid crash-and-burn of his personal life exposed Woods as mortal, and into the void have stepped first-time major champions such as Martin Kaymer, Keegan Bradley and Charl Schwartzel.
"From my standpoint, it's kind of fun," Strange said. "It's given everyone else a stage."
Yet Woods stands alone among golf attractions. His victory at the Memorial produced the event's largest television audience since 2004, and if he's on the leaderboard Saturday and/or Sunday, NBC executives and advertisers will be celebrating at the 19th hole until sunrise.
"The real hard-core fan enjoys learning about the new guys," Strange said. "But those numbers are few. … He still drives the needle like no one else. Like him or not, people will watch."
David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
ESPN's Strange likes Hunter Mahan's chances of breakthrough victory at U.S. Open
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