A week after golf’s phoney war ended and its civil war began, the sport heads to a venue well-used to controversy, writes Matt Cooper.
It was at The Country Club in Brookline, Boston – host of this week’s US Open – that the tumultuous Ryder Cup of 1999 took place. It was rum affair, now better known as the ‘Battle of Brookline’. The European team was, of course, well-used to being reliant on a handful of stars, but it was never more obviously the case than 23 years ago and, faced with a quandary, captain Mark James elected to go for broke: he used seven of his 12 players in all five sessions and three played no golf whatsoever until the Sunday.
On the Saturday evening his gamble seemed set to pay off with the visitors leading 10-6. But the seven stars were knackered, the untested trio demoralised and the American team was lifted by their captain Ben Crenshaw delivering a sort of quasi-religious/spiritual motivational speech ahead of the singles. And then there was a fourth factor: the wild locals. Colin Montgomerie’s father left the course he was so appalled by the abuse the galleries hurled his son’s way, James claimed his wife was spat at, and Andrew Coltart’s caddie believed a marshal concealed his player’s ball!
Outrageous scenes and it was all compounded when the American team prematurely celebrated victory, leaping and cavorting on the 17th green when Jose Maria Olazabal still had a putt to extend his match. And some folk still think golf is a sleepy endeavour that needs livening up!
Of course, all this animosity is in the past, but the Boston galleries do retain a reputation for being raucous and it might well be a factor this week. Sport also has a funny habit of revisiting the past. Might Europe be due a little payback this week? You know what? I think it might.
In recent majors we’ve had success backing players who’ve had recent experience of contending in the tournaments that define a golfer’s career and I make no apology for repeating that policy. Since the start of 2017 no less than 19 of the 21 major championship winners had either finished top eight or been in genuine contention with 18 holes to play in at least one of the three majors played before their triumph. They were reminding, or introducing, themselves to the thin air of a back nine on Sunday or experiencing the nerves of sleeping on Saturday night with the knowledge their life might change the next day.
Which takes us back to Southern Hills and last month’s PGA Championship where Tommy Fleetwood carded 69-67 at the weekend to claim a share of fifth. It was a welcome return to form at the highest level for the popular Englishman and came just a month after he recorded a career-best T14th at the Masters.
He also owns decent experience in the US Open, finishing fourth in 2017 at Erin Hills and second a year later at Shinnecock Hills. He also knows all about playing in the final round of a major when in with a chance of winning after playing alongside Shane Lowry in the last group out at the 2019 Open. Ending that day in second hurt and this could be the week when he puts those bad memories to good use.
We're BACK at Brookline!
Find out when all of your favorite players will tee off at The Country Club.
— U.S. Open (USGA) (@usopengolf) June 13, 2022
Fleetwood’s fellow Englishman and fellow fifth place finisher in the PGA Championship Matt Fitzpatrick is popular this week because he’s both in blistering form (nine top 20s this year) and he also won the US Amateur at Brookline in 2013. But at the prices (he’s 22/1) I much prefer Canada’s Corey Conners who was a beaten semi-finalist in the same tournament nine years ago.
We were on Conners at the Masters and much of the reasoning for the selection remains valid, in particular his strength in the majors since the return from lockdown. He now has three top 10s at the Masters (including sixth in April), he claimed the first round lead in last year’s PGA Championship, and he was fourth with 18 holes to play at last summer’s Open.
He’s yet to make a cut in the US Open but that allows us to pinch value and where better for him to right his championship record than on a course he knows well? He’s also in fine form himself with eight top 30s in his last 10 starts including third at the WGC Match Play and sixth last week in his home Open.
Final pick Max Homa hasn’t quite got the major experience, but I still like his chances and he did, at least, land a career-best major result at Southern Hills (T13th). Until then his major, and championship, record had been very poor but the way he tweeted about Merion, host of his US Open debut and also of last week’s Curtis Cup, made it clear that he loves a traditional and slightly quirky test (and he’ll have that all right at Brookline).He’s a two-time winner this season, including last month at Potomac in the Wells Fargo Championship, and I also like that his first two victories on the PGA Tour came on major-hosting layouts Quail Hollow and Riviera.
That’s three golfers against the favourites which is not to say that I don’t rate the chances of Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Scottie Scheffler or, indeed, Shane Lowry and Cameron Smith. I just think at the prices they’re worth taking on this week.