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Picking a U.S. Open winner is a tough task

The rough is thick, so accuracy off the tee is paramount.

The greens are slick, so avoiding three-putts is crucial.

These are the known quantities when talking about the United States Open.

This year’s tournament at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh is no different.

But here are some things you may not be aware of concerning this week’s major: Seven different golfers have won the last seven U.S. Opens; long-hitting Bubba Watson claimed a top-five finish at the last U.S. Open contested at Oakmont; and only one continental European (Germany’s Martin Kaymer) and two Australians (David Graham and Geoff Ogilvy) have won the United States Golf Association’s annual battle against par event.

So who exactly will triumph at the 2016 edition of the U.S. Open?

Well, that’s a daunting task to figure out considering just how random the champions have been in the past seven years. Tiger Woods was the last former champ to win it again, when he outlasted Rocco Mediate in an 18-hole playoff in 2008. Woods hasn’t won a major since, and his well-documented injuries and poor form have made the former world No. 1 look like a shell of his prime years.

So the obvious favorites are golf’s new “Big Three” comprising of No. 1-ranked Jason Day, defending champion Jordan Spieth and previous U.S. Open champ Rory McIlroy. Day has the major pedigree, claiming the PGA Championship last year with a record-setting 20-under par performance, and he’s No. 1 on the PGA Tour this season in both scoring strokes gained and putting strokes gained.

However, Day lacks an integral piece to his game: he’s hitting just 56.05 percent of fairways. That could prove his undoing, unless he finds some accuracy off the tee. Despite this, there’s nothing wrong picking the potent Day come Sunday.

Spieth faded at the Masters this year, missed the cut at the Players Championship and couldn’t close out the AT&T Byron Nelson. Spieth rebounded to win the Colonial and silencing the critics. His clutch putting and tenacious competitive fire were driving forces behind a banner season that saw him claim the first two major championships and narrowly miss out on the British Open. He also finished three shots behind Day at the 2015 PGA Championship.

Nobody has repeated as a U.S. Open champ since Curtis Strange in 1988-89. Let the fact that Spieth wasn’t even born yet when back-to-back U.S. Open champs last occurred sink in a bit, and you’ll see just how rare that is. So history, like what Spieth faced last season looking to win the modern Grand Slam, might prove his undoing. But like Day, you wouldn’t be foolish picking Spieth this week.

McIlroy is actually the second favorite, behind Day, at 7-1 odds heading into the Open. Unlike Spieth, what could prevent McIlroy from hoisting his second U.S. Open title is putting. He entered the Memorial ranked 122nd in putting strokes gained. So McIlroy changed his grip and ranked No. 3 among the field at the Memorial.

Dark horses

Bubba Watson is a dark horse this year. Even though Watson bombs the ball, his Open record isn’t too kind with five missed cuts in nine attempts. Plus, his fantastic start to 2016 has turned into a more mixed bag lately. A past top-five finish at Oakmont, where 5-over par was the winning score the last time the Open was contested at the course, is a confidence-booster for Watson. Yours truly won’t select Dustin Johnson, despite his string of good results (eight top-15s in his last nine starts), because DJ has become his generation’s Phil Mickelson at the majors. Johnson has come close, but has yet to taste major glory. Until he does — and he will — Johnson isn’t a safe pick.

A final dark horse would be Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama ranks 10th in strokes gained off-the-tee, but the Land of the Rising Sun has never had a U.S. Open champion. History isn’t on his side.

Our soothsaying crystal ball isn’t an exact science. It was accurate ahead of last year’s British Open claiming Spieth wouldn’t win the Grand Slam and that the Texan didn’t need to worry ahead of the Colonial victory. Of course, we’ve been wrong before, too, when saying Tiger would get a major victory just a couple years ago when the courses set up for his game.

And this week’s tournament is anyone’s guess. One thing, though, is certain: Oakmont’s teeth will be on full display, and McIlroy’s description of “trepidation,” in a news conference when asked about the emotions for players going into the U.S. Open this week, means the famed layout will prove the toughest test.

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