This isn’t Erin Hills or even Pebble Beach. The rough is up this week and while it might not turn out to be the 1974 Massacre at Winged Foot, it will certainly be a return to a more traditional U.S. Open setup, offering the sternest mental test in golf.
“That’s what differentiated the U.S. Open from the other majors,” said sports psychologist Gregg Steinberg. “You’d have to totally switch your expectation and once you do that, you have a totally different game plan.
“The U.S. Open was always set up for the course to beat you up and you take it. And the ones who take it the best are the winners.”
Since 2014 there has been only one winning score over par — Brooks Koepka’s in ‘18 at Shinnecock Hills. The winner has shot one-over or better since 2007, when Angel Cabrera survived Oakmont at plus-five. In other words, these will probably be the toughest conditions that many of the players in the field have ever seen.
So, how to determine who has the mental game to prevail his week?
Steinberg points to the PGA Tour’s bounce back statistic — how often a player makes birdie or better immediately after making bogey or worse — as a good indicator of how they’ll react to the expectedly tough conditions.
“The expectation is that you’re going to make a couple of high scores,” he said. “You’re going to make a lot of bogeys and a few doubles and maybe even a triple and it’s players who can bounce back the quickest who are most likely going to do well.”
Steinberg thinks that a player like the even-keeled Matt Kuchar, who was eighth in the bounce back category last season, sticks out.
“It’s not really a long course. It’s definitely a strategic course,” he said. “Kuchar has always been a person who has the perfect bounce back attitude.”
He also tabs 2012 champ Webb Simpson.
“He seems to me he has a spiritual bent to his mental game and that helps his resilience,” he noted.
As for some other names:
“He has the perfect mentality for a U.S. Open. Of course, he’s already won one and could have won two,” Steinberg said. “He’s got a stoic personality. That’s how he lives. He never gets too excited after making a birdie or upset when making a bogey.
“When he was playing his best golf he played less risky,” Steinberg said. “The biggest problem with Phil is that under pressure, he goes full-on risk. That’s what happened in 2006. He can’t help himself.
“The good news is he won that Champions event so he’s coming in with a lot of confidence which was his plan.”
“He says he’s worked hard on his temper,” Steinberg noted. “He’s definitely gotten better but the question is how good is good enough? Of course, he’s trending because he won the BMW. He’s going to have confidence, but the question is can he hold his emotions in check?”
“The problem is he’s too fascinated with how far he’s hitting it. He likes being the longest hitter on tour, He likes the accolades,” Steinberg said. “If he tones that down and comes in with the right game plan he might be the one to beat.”
Steinberg also suggests that DeChambeau could be the most mentally tough player on the PGA Tour.
“His swing is unique and what he does is unique and people are going to look at you strange. You just say, ‘Forget it, I’m going to do what I need to do to win.’ That’s mental toughness.”
“If he gets the mojo working, he can do it,” Steinberg said. “That’s the key — having a good first round where he’s starting to feel it and building on that. His putting is a big factor. Once he starts making a bunch you’ll see a Tiger factor, but if he comes out missing a few and plays a bad front nine it could be trouble.
“He seems to start really slow and he can’t find that mojo. He just gets too far behind. That’s the secret with him. He has to find it quickly.”
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