Punch Shot: Winner of 2023 U.S. Open? This week’s Michael Block?
The 123rd U.S. Open begins Thursday at Los Angeles Country Club in Los Angeles, California. The GolfChannel.com writers weigh in with their predictions:
Who wins the 132nd U.S. Open?
RYAN LAVNER: Brooks Koepka. An easy pick, perhaps – his major record this year, his major record in general – but it’s also the wisest one. The major in which he’s historically performed the best is the Open, and now he’s playing some of the best golf of his career. At a place that will heighten the importance of distance control and smart course management, Koepka is primed for major No. 6.
REX HOGGARD: Jon Rahm. The Spaniard won the last West Coast Open in 2021 at Torrey Pines and appears uniquely qualified to complete the California double this week. The Masters champion has been solid all season and his iron play (he ranks third on the PGA Tour in strokes gained: approach the green) is a perfect fit for Los Angeles Country Club.
BRENTLEY ROMINE: Xander Schauffele. I ranked Scottie Scheffler No. 1 at the start of the week, but his putter is worrying me more by the day. So, I’ll go with Schauffele, who has a sparkling track record at U.S. Opens, combines lethal long irons with great putting, and is long overdue to win one of these major trophies.
What will be the winning score?
LAVNER: 8 under. A dry forecast should allow the USGA complete control over the setup. That makes it easy to imagine a gentler start to the week (with a huge field and what is expected to be painfully slow pace of play), then tightening the screws over the weekend with that familiar “thud” of the greens.
HOGGARD: 8 under. Despite concerns that the rough isn’t long enough and the players hit the ball too far, the North Course will hold up to the modern game. In fact, the bigger concern should be the USGA’s history of stepping over the line with overly difficult setups, but if officials toe the line, the venerable layout will deliver.
ROMINE: 12 under. There will be a ton of variance in the scoring, but the handful of players who bring their A-games will be rewarded with lots of birdie opportunities.
Who is your sleeper pick (outside OWGR top 25)?
LAVNER: Rickie Fowler. Fowler was the last man out a year ago, unable to crack the field as the first alternate, but now he could be a significant factor. Lost for years with his swing, Fowler is among the best ball-strikers on Tour this season and comes into golf’s most demanding test with consecutive top-10 finishes. Plus, LACC’s ruggedness and interesting green complexes should appeal to his creative side.
HOGGARD: Rickie Fowler. Fowler’s resurrection has been impressive to watch, and his consistency is unmatched this season, with top-20 finishes in seven of his last eight starts. Getting himself back into contention at a major is the next logical step in his comeback.
ROMINE: Rickie Fowler. In great form, striking it well, a creative chipper around the green and an absolute killer of par 3s, which LACC has five of them. Pick him and look brilliant.
Hole you’re most looking forward to watching?
LAVNER: 15th hole. The par 3 could play anywhere from 78 yards to 124 yards – a range that, obviously, the best players in the world are expected to be able to hit it close. But it won’t be that simple. The O-shaped green, sure to be rock-hard by the weekend, will repel any shot that isn’t perfectly struck or in the proper landing area. It’s a tiny hole that’s reminiscent of Merion’s 13th at the 2013 Open; an untimely bogey here (or worse!) could doom a player’s chances come Sunday.
HOGGARD: No. 15. Rahm spoke for the masses earlier this week when asked about the par-3 15th hole, which can play from 80 to 145 yards depending on the tee and hole location. “Very rarely are you going to have a hole that short where the best players in the world are going to be thinking about going 20 feet long left to use that slope to at least hit the green, and that’s something beautiful,” Rahm said. “It’s a hole that gives you a lot to think about.”
ROMINE: No. 15 on Saturday. The short par 3 is expected to play as the shortest one-shotter in U.S. Open history, likely at 78 yards. Even with lob wedges in their hands, these players are going to find this fun, little hole extremely devilish. We could see everything from holes-in-one to incredible up-and-downs to more than a few disasters.
Who will be the low LIV finisher?
LAVNER: Koepka. Already praised Koepka, so the bonus pick here is Cam Smith, whose game is sharper than it was a few months ago and should feel right at home at a course that has evoked Australia’s sand belt. LACC’s width will negate some of Smith’s wildness, and his nifty short game should bail him out from some of the dicey spots players are inevitably going to find themselves.
HOGGARD: Brooks Koepka. The uncertainty around the LIV players returning to major championships is gone thanks in large part to Koepka’s play in the first two Grand Slam starts, which included a victory at the PGA Championship and a runner-up showing at the Masters. Koepka has his familiar swagger back, and L.A.C.C. will produce the kind of chaos he loves.
ROMINE: Mito Pereira. I could take the popular route and go with Brooks Koepka and Cam Smith, but how about another player I’m really high on. Pereira has been a top-5 iron player in recent months and I’m betting on him to lead the field in greens hit in regulation, which is a great recipe for being in the mix at a U.S. Open.
Who is this week’s “Michael Block”?
LAVNER: Sahith Theegala. To be clear, Block is not ranked 28th in the world, as Theegala is. But we’re putting him here for three reasons: Theegala has yet to prove himself on this type of stage; he grew up 50 miles away; and he has a magnetic personality that could stir the crowds into a frenzy if he makes a run.
HOGGARD: Eric Cole. No one could have predicted Michael Block’s Cinderella week at the PGA Championship, but if you’re looking for a story to cheer for, check out Cole. The 35-year-old Tour rookie came up just short in a playoff at the Honda Classic, and he finished tied for sixth last week at the RBC Canadian Open.
ROMINE: Eric Cole. A feel-good story, the 35-year-old Cole cut his teeth on the mini-tours for years and experienced tragedy with the sudden death of his brother last year before making it to the PGA Tour, where he’s posted three top-10s this season, including a playoff loss at Honda.
Who will finish as low amateur?
LAVNER: Michael Thorbjornsen. The rising senior at Stanford has flashed against the pros before, most notably at last year’s Travelers, where he finished fourth, the best Tour finish by an amateur in six years. In his third Open start, he fully knows what to expect.
HOGGARD: Maxwell Moldovan. Emotions overwhelmed the Ohio State junior at the Springfield, Ohio, qualifier after losing an eight-hole playoff for the final qualifying spot into the U.S. Open, but he made it to L.A.C.C. as an alternate and is poised to improve on his performance last year at The Country Club.
ROMINE: Michael Brennan. His move to left-hand low after a disappointing fall at Wake Forest has done wonders. He won twice in the spring, including the ACC Championship, and has the ball-striking chops to hang with Sarge and Thor.