LITTLE ROCK — Easy to spot, the U.S. Open pairings with a clear-cut connection beg the question whether somebody with a sense of humor and a penchant for the occasional inside joke cobbled together some of the other threesomes.
Beginning with the obvious, labels are provided:
COLOR US GREEN: Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, and Charl Schwartzel have won the last four Masters.
YOUNG GUNS: Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matusyama, and Rickie Fowler are 20, 22, and 25.
STRAIGHT FLUSH: Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy, and Webb Simpson won the U.S. Opens from 2010-2012.
Other labels require interpretation and some include a dollop of cynicism.
ONE AND DONE: Stewart Cink, Y.E. Yang, Justin Leonard. Each has won a major and will never win another.
OLD TIMERS: Kenny Perry, Jeff Maggert, Kevin Sutherland. Perry and Maggert are on the Champions Tour and Sutherland turns 50 on July 4.
DOWN UNDER: Aaron Baddeley, Oliver Goss, Aron Price. Folks in Australia can watch their countrymen right after the 10 p.m. news.
HEAVYWEIGHTS: Kevin Stadler, Brendon de Jonge, Shane Lowry. Each tops 225 pounds in a sport where most participants are flat bellies.
BAD MATH: Henrik Stenson, Lee Westwood, Matt Kuchar. The first two have been No. 1 in the world; Kuchar’s peak was No. 4. None have won a major.
DIFFERENT STROKES: Zach Johnson, David Toms, Angel Cabrera. The first two are major winners who plot their way around the course; Cabrera is the free wheeling winner of two majors.
CONSTANT REMINDER: Justin Rose, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Phil Mickelson. Defending champion Rose is paired with Mickelson to remind Lefty that he finished second for the sixth time in the only major missing from his resume despite sticking with an uncharacteristically conservative approach.
DRIVE FOR SHOW: J.B. Holmes, Gary Woodland, Graham Delaet, three of the longest hitters on a course where there is no rough.
DIVERSIONARY TACTICS: Jason Duffner, Keegan Bradley, Martin Kaymer. Each is a former PGA champion. Pals Duffner and Bradley are paired to see if Duffner’s reputation for being unflappable holds up while alongside the master of the irritating false start.
THANKS PHIL: Retief Goosen, Geoff Ogilvy, Lucas Glover. Ogilvy unexpectedly won the Open in ’06 and Glover did the same in ’09 and both got help from others, including Mickelson. In ’04, Goosen won his second U.S. Open when Mickelson three putted from five feet for a double bogey on the 71st hole.
To that point, pars will be important on Sunday afternoon as always and, as often as not, they will be the one-putt variety on the domed greens at Pinehurst No. 2.
Because of the dramatic runoffs on the greens, the 1999 and 2005 winners at Pinehurst hit less than 60 percent of the greens in regulation, a reminder that shots that miss the target by a a few feet will wander off, coasting downhill for yards and yards. That, in turn, emphasizes short-game creativity, something a weekend hacker can emulate. Watch and learn as the players use everything from hybrids to 64-degree wedges trying to save a stroke.
Normally, aggressive, long-hitting players would not be on my list of potential winners, but missing the fairway at Pinehurst is not as penal as it is on most U.S. Open courses. Instead of wading into 4-inch rough that grabs the clubhead and dictates a hack to the short grass, players will be in pine straw, wire grass, and a variety of native grasses where decent lies are available.
Still, Spieth said this week: “With the pins in the middle of the greens, it’s already hard enough for even-par to win.”
Sans Tiger Woods, handicapping a golf tournament is nigh onto impossible — see Ben Crane’s out-of-nowhere victory at Memphis last week — but I’d take Duffner if I was certain he would be efficient on putts under four feet.
At least, Duffner will not change his putting grip in the middle of a round like Mickelson did in Memphis.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. Email: email@example.com.