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U.S. Open rookies face century-long odds

Each April, when the azaleas are in bloom and the Masters is upon us, there is a storyline sure to make an appearance: Fuzzy Zoeller, in 1979, was the last first-time Masters competitor to drive down Magnolia Drive and depart Augusta National that week with the champion’s green jacket. Certainly that will be a significant talking point next April on the 40th anniversary of Zoeller’s accomplishment. 

You don’t hear such talk at a U.S. Open, though you should. The last competitor to capture the U.S. Open on his first attempt? It was Francis Ouimet, the great American amateur, who did so in 1913 at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., right across the street from where he’d grown up. Ouimet, only 20, took down venerable British legends Ted Ray and Harry Vardon in an 18-hole playoff, and a first-timer hasn’t won since – a factoid to perhaps produce a few moments of pause as you crunch your morning cereal.

On the eve of the 118th U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, nearly a third of the 156-man field will mark a maiden start at our national championship – 47 players in all (tee times). The U.S. Open is named for a reason, with about half the field made up of qualifiers, an open door for first-timers to step through. 

At the U.S. Open, fans sometimes will do double- and triple-takes to read the names on golf bags, because so many players and faces are unfamiliar. It can be challenging to tell the difference between a Michael Hebert and a Lucas Herbert. (Each will be competing in his first U.S. Open.) 

Unlike the Masters, the U.S. Open moves around. In two of the past three years, the championship was staged at a venue that never before had played host to an Open (Chambers Bay in 2015 and Erin Hills in ’17). One might think the element of experience might be lessened, but at this championship, it isn’t. Seasoning, and patience, is key to a solid U.S. Open run, especially as the championship returns to time-tested Shinnecock, the only course to host the championship in three centuries. Retief Goosen, winner the last time the U.S. Open was played at Shinny (2004), was one of only two players (with Phil Mickelson) to finish under par that week. And the average age of the 12 players who walked away with top-10 finishes (four tied for ninth) was just shy of 37 years old, with no player in his 20s. 

Why? As much as anything, the U.S. Open is the thinking man’s major, a grueling exam of between-the-ears fortitude. 

“You have to be a mental giant to win a U.S. Open,” said Paul Azinger, who will be calling the action for Fox this week.

Arnold Palmer missed the cut in his first U.S. Open, in 1953, as did Jack Nicklaus four years later. Tiger Woods, then 19, played only 23 holes at Shinnecock in 1995, injuring his left wrist in the gnarly rough and withdrawing. That said, could a first-timer win at the U.S. Open for the first time since Ouimet? It’s highly unlikely. But in this game, never say never. 

Who has the talent and grit to do it? We give you five candidates, from descending order relative to their probability of pulling it off:

Nos. 5/4. Doug Ghim and Braden Thornberry (U.S.): These are two excellent players, and it’s a coin toss as far as giving one the edge over the other. Ghim just finished an outstanding college career at Texas and is No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. He was the 2017 U.S. Amateur runner-up and was low am at this year’s Masters. Thornberry, who plays at Ole Miss, is ranked third in the WAGR. He’s shown that he can handle the big stage, tying for fourth at last year’s FedEx St. Jude Classic. He tied for 26th last week in Memphis, but had his moments, firing 66 to make the cut at TPC Southwind and 65 on Saturday to work his way into the top 10 before dropping back Sunday. The last amateur to capture the U.S. Open? Johnny Goodman, in 1933. So there’s that. But Ghim and Thornberry are primed for success at the next level.     

3. Dean Burmester (South Africa): The 29-year-old son of a cricketer from Zimbabwe continues to build his resume on a world stage. Having finished 42nd on last year’s European Tour Order of Merit, Burmester has had a consistent, if not flashy, season thus far, making the cut in nine of 12 Euro Tour starts. His last few worldwide performances have been solid: a tie for third at the Royal Swazi Open, a tie for 12th at the BMW PGA and a tie for 30th at the Italian Open. 

2. Shubhankar Sharma (India): Only 21, he is India’s great hope. Sharma has shown the ability to go low, shooting rounds of 62 (Maybank Championship) and 61 (Joburg Open) on his way to European Tour victories. He was the youngest player in the field at March’s WGC-Mexico Championship, and took a two-stroke lead into the final round before fading to T-9. Phil Mickelson, upon shaking hands with him on the practice green early in the week at Mexico, thought Sharma was a member of the media; by Sunday, Mickelson, the tournament’s eventual champion, knew who Sharma was. Mickelson wasn’t alone in taking notice. 

Among the first-time players at the U.S. Open, Chesson Hadley stands the best shot at breaking a 105-year streak.

Among the first-time players at the U.S. Open, Chesson Hadley stands the best shot at breaking a 105-year streak.

1. Chesson Hadley (U.S.): This time last year, Hadley, 30, was coming off a playoff loss at the Tour’s Rex Hospital Open, a finish that put him on track to return to the PGA Tour. Having lost his card in 2016, Hadley is a new player this season. He has six top-10 finishes in 20 starts, including T-5 or better in four of his first eight tournaments. (“Playing with freedom out here,” said Hadley’s wife, Amanda, at the recent Players Championship, “is a beautiful thing.”)

At Shinnecock, Hadley needs to hit more fairways than he’s been averaging this season (59.7 percent), but many other numbers bode well. He is top 40 in greens in regulation, ranks 20th in scoring (70.075) and is putting well, ranking sixth in total putting.

First-timer or not, all players at Shinnecock share this: No other tournament on the schedule places a higher emphasis on grinding out a score. Two years ago, first-timer Andrew Landry played in the final group at Oakmont on Sunday, then faded. He left the door open for the next crop of U.S. Open rookies. Who is going to step up and break this astonishing 105-year streak? Will anyone, ever? Or is it one simply to put on the shelf and admire, like Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak? 

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62