Canadian golfer Richard Zokol played in five U.S. Opens, but it will be the one in 2000 at Pebble Beach that will likely remain his favourite.
Not only did that tournament include his best finish at the event – a tie for 32nd – it also featured a 30 on the front nine during the final round. “Yep, I kicked Tiger’s ass by five shots that nine,” Zokol laughs today. He finished shooting 69, one of only a handful of players to break 70 that day.
Except, Tiger bested the field by 15 strokes, a record margin of victory for any of the four majors. That is another reason that Zokol will never forget that Open – a historic performance by arguably the greatest athlete ever to play the game.
Zokol’s playing days on the PGA Tour are long over, but he follows the progress of a handful of Canadians who have followed in his footsteps. He’ll be watching how four of them perform this week at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
The group includes Corey Conners, Mackenzie Hughes, Adam Hadwin and Taylor Pendrith. Conners got in thanks to his Official World Golf Ranking while Hughes gained entry by finishing in the top 30 of last year’s FedEx Cup ranking. Hadwin and Pendrith won spots in qualifiers.
In handicapping the Canadians, Zokol doesn’t exactly go out on a limb: he loves Conners’s game and thinks it’s particularly well suited to a tournament known for chewing up competitors and spitting them out.
“I think Corey has the best chance for sure,” Zokol says. “The U.S. Open puts a premium on ball striking, and keeping the ball in the fairway. Ball striking and demeanour are driving the bus at any U.S. Open and Corey has both in spades.”
Conners, of course, was near the top of the leaderboard at golf’s last major, the PGA Championship, heading into the final round. He ended up in a tie for 17th. While there is little question that Conners is a ball-striking machine, his weakness is definitely the flat stick.
As of Wednesday, Conners was 87th on tour in strokes gained putting. Of the Canadians playing this week, Hughes has the best stats on the greens, and ranks tied for 36th in this category. The Open always puts a premium on putting, with greens that are often treacherously fast.
That does not mean Conners has no shot. The Spaniard Jon Rahm is a favourite and he ranks 83rd in strokes gained putting. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson ranks 92nd. But the winner is unlikely to be someone who only has a mediocre week on the greens.
Zokol also thinks Hughes, Hadwin and Pendrith might surprise people because all three are above-average ball strikers. Pendrith has length that will be an advantage on a long course – especially if he can keep it on the short grass.
“I think Mackenzie could do well,” Zokol said. “He’s a tough customer. He’s been in some pressure situations and didn’t wilt under the glare. It seems when he gets a sniff of victory he comes to life. So look out for Mac if he gets off to a good start this week.”
“Adam [Hadwin] is like a rock star,” Zokol said. “He thrives on the spotlight. When it hits him he shines. And Taylor [Pendrith] has done a lot of work on the mental side of the game that has paid dividends. He’s playing the best golf of his life right now.”
Pendrith had the best finish of all the Canadians – a tie for 23rd – at last fall’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot that was won by Bryson DeChambeau.
The best finish by a Canadian in any U.S. Open was a tie for second by Dave Barr in 1985.
The players who can best handle the adversity they will inevitably face during the tournament, Zokol says, stand the best chance of winning. He favours someone like Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa who has been playing well of late, especially in the majors. He also thinks Phil Mickelson is just too wild off the tee to pull off another major miracle.
Zokol will never forget the first-tee nerves he felt during the final round of the 1992 U.S. Open. He was playing with Paul Azinger in one of the final pairings and the television network carrying the tournament went to a commercial break before they teed off.
“They said we’ll be coming back from commercial in 30 seconds and then you guys will tee off,” Zokol remembers. “And I just sort of panicked. I went to this tent nearby and started hyperventilating. The enormity of it all just hit me.”
That’s what the U.S. Open can do to a golfer.