A year ago today, as we wondered whether Rory McIlroy would reclaim the title of ‘world’s greatest golfer’ from Jordan Spieth at Chambers Bay, it would have been difficult to imagine a reality where a third man had surpassed them both. And yet, here we stand – Jason Day’s rapid ascent was as sudden as it was spectacular, and in that brilliant, ongoing epoch, an unprepared media was forced to invent an emergency framing device known as ‘the big three’ and pray that it wasn’t too small to contain the man. (The jury’s still out.)
The fireworks started for Day with a win at the Canadian Open in July—a bittersweet victory, it’s funny to remember, following his disappointment at St. Andrews – and continues to the present. The torrid stretch encompassed his first Major victory, his first two FedExCup victories, and his first visit to the top of the world rankings.
When he captured the Players Championship in May against the toughest field in golf, he had won of 7 of his last 17 starts – a streak that falls just short of ‘Tiger-esque’, but is unprecedented among his peers, including Spieth and McIlroy.
Day has been so good for almost a full year that he’s leap-frogged his two biggest rivals, and as we approach a jam-packed summer season, he threatens to make the idea of ‘big three’ look ridiculous.
He is the favorite, above all others, wherever he plays. That’s true even on a difficult track like Oakmont, the treacherous site of this year’s U.S. Open, where rumor has it the USGA has ratcheted up the difficulty by training packs of angry pit bulls to chase the players around the course.
Jordan Spieth has the next-best claim to the crown. In fact, if he had managed not to chunk his wedge eight feet behind the ball on the 12th hole at Augusta, he’d own his second Green Jacket, and we’d be engaged in a fierce Day vs. Spieth debate.
But the blow-up was real, and instead of heaping further praise on his young shoulders, we journalists resorted to mind-reading. Would he suffer permanent psychological damage? Would he spend the rest of his career chasing after squirrels and wearing club covers on his hands?
Crisis averted: In just his second start back, Spieth won the Colonial, proving that one bad hole wouldn’t consign him to a lifetime of slobbering around the PGA Tour in a straitjacket. Something seems a little off with Spieth, even still, but with two tournament wins and a third-place ranking in the FedExCup standings, his version of ‘off’ seems pretty fantastic. On a course like Oakmont that demands precision, preparation, and putting, nobody is better suited to win.
Which leaves us with Rory, the lagging third member of the troika. His star has fallen the farthest since 2014, but that’s relative – his worst major finish is 17th since triumphing at Valhalla, and he’s won multiple tournaments in the U.S. and Europe. Still, it feels like there’s something inconsistent in Rory’s psychology that goes beyond his streaky putting.
The greatness we sensed two years ago seems just beyond his grasp, and Oakmont is no place for those with vague demons. At his best, he’s transcendent, but when the conditions are menacing, can he really avoid a terrible round? Can he putt well enough to avoid disaster? The smart bet is no.
But beyond the big three, let’s explore some other value picks:
It’s so easy to forget about Rose. He sort of non-descript and quiet, and he doesn’t play with great frequency.
But his game has been solid to good all season, and the fact is that Oakmont suits him perfectly. He’s an obsessive, detail-oriented player who’s good at staving off disaster while lesser men post 80’s.
Also, there are too many reasons not to like those around him in the betting market. Dustin Johnson will choke if he gets near the lead, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson should be considered permanent ‘near-misses’ until proven otherwise, nobody ever knows what’s happening with Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson hasn’t stopped panting with relief since he escaped the FBI’s wrath despite a solid show in the St Jude Classic and Bubba’s a U.S. Open head case.
And I’m not convinced that Danny Willett has stopped celebrating since his Masters win. Rose, by a process-of-elimination looks destined for a top-seven finish.
Undervalued. This year, he’s quietly gotten himself in shape, put his marriage woes behind him, and re-invigorated his game. His worst score in his last 12 rounds is a 72, and he’s ready to contend in Majors again.
I love him at Oakmont.
This year’s Kevin Kisner. A PGA Tour journeyman of sorts who has caught fire, racking up four top-10 finishes since late March. Week-to-week, he’s always near the top of the leaderboard, and you’ll want to take advantage of that momentum while he’s got it. With guys like Chappell, it never lasts for long. (And by the way, he loves the U.S. Open, having finished top 10 there both in 2011 and 2012.)
You want a chance to win big? Take Kim to finish top seven. All he’s done is finish in the top three at six of his past seven tournaments on the Asian Tour. Granted, the competition isn’t the same, but there’s no place on Earth where it’s easy to play that well, that consistently. Kim is red-hot, ranked 38th in the world, and poised to out-run his odds.
Shane Ryan’s book, Slaying the Tiger, about life inside the ropes on the PGA Tour,can be found here.