Despite being in mid-September of whatever you want to call 2020, just one major has been played. An aggressive reschedule has six more on tap in the next 11 months, with the first of those coming this week, when the world’s best golfers attempt to survive famously-difficult Winged Foot Golf Club, the host site of the 120th U.S. Open.
Unfortunately, Brooks Koepka, who won both the 2017 and 2018 editions, and finished runner-up last year, will not be in the field, as a stubborn knee injury will keep him on the sidelines. Also missing is newly-minted Rookie of the Year Scottie Scheffler, who finished fourth at last month’s PGA Championship, but has to sit out Winged Foot after testing positive for COVID-19.
Everyone else who is anyone in the golf world WILL be in New York though, and as always in majors, there is no shortage of compelling storylines.
The following are the ones that warrant the most attention.
1. Winged Foot vs World’s Best Golfers
It isn’t much of a competition: With the USGA managing the course setup, Winged Foot WILL most certainly win.
The USGA is seemingly run by maniacal sociopaths who appear to take pleasure in watching world-class golfers struggle. They love the U.S. Open to be known as the most difficult challenge in sports.
And Winged Foot Golf Club is their crown jewel. Every course they play is tough, but Winged Foot is on a whole different level, most notably with its rough that is thick and unforgiving. It’s like hitting out of a tar pit.
The last time the USGA held their annual tournament at Winged Foot was in 2006. Geoff Ogilvy’s 5-over par total, which featured zero sub-70 rounds, was the WINNING score. Players at 8-over par still finished in the top 10. David Duval finished +11.
I know what you’re thinking: he always shoots something like that, but consider this: that +11 was still good for a 16th place finish. His second round 68 tied Arron Oberholser’s second round for the low round of the entire tournament. The cut line was +9. It was carnage.
What might be craziest of all is that the 2006 edition was not even the most brutal held at the New York venue. The 1974 edition, dubbed the “Massacre at Winged Foot”. It drew mass complaints from the world’s elite golfers, who were in near agreement that the USGA went too far that year.
Hale Irwin won the massacre with a final score of 7-over. Lou Graham and Bert Yancey shot 10-over… and finished THIRD! Jack Nicklaus was 1-under in the final round, and still finished +14, good for a T10. Six players who made the cut finished 32-over or worse.
2. Phil’s Shot At Redemption?
Hmm… the 2006 U.S. Open. Wasn’t that famous for some reason other than being really, really difficult?
It was the worst day of Phil Mickelson’s golf career. The entire sports world cringed for him that day. In his ESPYs monologue, host Lance Armstrong, who probably will not be invited back in the same role, rattled off a list of great athletes who had retired in the last year, and finished with, “… and Phil Mickelson retired after the 71st hole of the U.S. Open.”
Phil is no stranger to U.S. Open heartbreak. He has won The Masters, the Open Championship, and the PGA Championship. He has not won the U.S. Open.
A win at the U.S. Open would make him just the sixth golfer in history to win the Grand Slam. But not only has he not won, he has repeatedly come agonizingly close, finishing runner-up SIX times, in addition to two other top-5s. Winged Foot in 2006 was easily his most painful collapse to watch.
Then 36 years of age, Mickelson held the 54-hole co-lead with Kenneth Ferrie, who would fade with a final round 76. After carding a par on 17, Mickelson was tied with frequent majors bridesmaid Colin Montgomerie, but after Monty double-bogeyed, Lefty stood on the 18th tee box with a one-stroke lead.
Needing a par to win, Mickelson inexplicably pulled a driver out of his bag, and proceeded to hit the slice of his life. His ball landed near a hospitality tent, and from there the best he could do was manage a double-bogey, handing Geoff Ogilvy the win without even needing a playoff. It was an absolute disaster.
Now, 14 years later, a 50-year-old Phil comes back to Winged Foot, armed with Champions Tour eligibility and still winless at the U.S. Open, with the ultimate shot at redemption. It may be his last decent chance to capture the last leg of the Grand Slam.
Phil did win his Champions Tour debut last month, but against something closer to the field he will see this week, he did not have a great 2020. In 16 starts, he managed just two top 10s, although one of them was at an August WGC event.
He has the game to prevail, but does he have the consistency? He played in last week’s Safeway Open at Silverado, which is most definitely NOT Winged Foot, finishing T44. Most troubling was that he only hit 12 fairways for the entire week, including just one on Saturday and two on Sunday.
If he brings that same lack of accuracy off the tee this week, he will be in enormous trouble.
3. Woodland Defends
In last year’s surprisingly-not-as-diabolical U.S. Open at famed Pebble Beach, a 35-year-old Gary Woodland won his first (and only) career major championship. He surged into the lead with a second-round 65 and a pair of weekend 2-under 69s allowed him to finish three strokes ahead of back-to-back defending champion Brooks Koepka.
It was Woodland’s fourth career victory. Not completely unusual for a player’s breakthrough major, he experienced a considerable hangover afterwards. He missed his next two cuts, followed by two finishes outside the top 50, a T31, and he then finished his season with a solo-15th at the 30-man Tour Championship.
Woodland got hot in the fall, at the beginning of the 2020 wrap-around season, finishing T3 at an event in South Korea, followed by a fifth-place finish in Japan. Since coming back stateside though, he has not seriously contended anywhere.
In 17 starts for the season, he notched six top-10s, but since a T5 at the Workday Charity Open in July, he has made five starts, with nothing better than a T22. He finished T58 at last month’s PGA Championship, and did not qualify for the Tour Championship.
Woodland’s ball-striking was solid most of the year, as he finished 10th on Tour in strokes gained: approach-the-green. He also putted well, but was 160th on Tour in strokes gained: around-the-green. He was especially bad out of the sand.
Not many are giving Woodland a great chance of successfully defending his Pebble Beach triumph. Not many were talking about him going into that U.S. Open either though.
4. Tiger’s Chances?
The chatter around Tiger Woods was much more positive going into last year’s U.S. Open. He had won The Masters two months earlier, added a top 10 at The Memorial Tournament, and the year’s third major was set to be held at Pebble Beach, where Tiger famously won the 2000 US Open by 15 strokes. He was looking very good, and it was difficult to get good odds on him, even with missing the cut at the PGA Championship.
It is a different story this year. Tiger was still looking strong late in the 2019 calendar year, as he won the inaugural ZOZO Championship in Japan in October, and he played a starring role as both a player and captain for the winning American squad at the Presidents Cup.
The big year that many were predicting for Tiger going into the 2020 calendar year has simply just not happened. He had a T9 at January’s Farmers Insurance Open, but since then, Tiger has made just five starts – one before the COVID layoff, four after – with no results of better than a T37, which occurred at the PGA Championship. He was mostly terrible in the first two rounds of the FedExCup playoffs, especially with his putter – finishing T58 at the 125-man The Northern Trust and T51 at the 70-man no-cut BMW Championship.
At 49th in the FedExCup Standings, he did not qualify for the Tour Championship, an event he had won three times, most recently in 2018.
But, we know Tiger is all about the majors, having won 15 of them, and he should not be completely written off in his latest chance to close the gap between himself and Jack Nicklaus (18) on the all-time majors list.
A win at Winged Foot would also break a tie with Sam Snead atop the all-time PGA Tour wins list. Both Snead and Tiger currently have 82 career victories.
There may not be a player in the field more qualified to THINK his way around Winged Foot, which could be an enormous advantage. With that said, Winged Foot (2006 U.S. Open) was also the site of his only missed-cut in a major championship during Tiger’s prime years (1998-2008).
As normal these days, how well Tiger does likely comes down to how well his back holds up. He is fortunate that it is not expected to be unseasonably cold in New York this week. It would also help if he could figure out something with his putter.
5. New Major Winner Morikawa
An unbelievably thrilling PGA Championship last month, boasting a stacked, crowded Sunday leaderboard, ended with 23-year-old Collin Morikawa on top, as the California native won in just his second career major championship start. He finished two spots ahead of seasoned vets Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey.
Now he has the same amount of major titles as those two combined.
Morikawa is far from a one-hit wonder. In just 30 career starts, he has already won three times. Two of those have come since PGA Tour play resumed in June (Workday Charity Open and the PGA Championship). He very nearly had another, losing to Daniel Berger in a playoff at the Charles Schwab Challenge after shockingly missing a 3-foot putt.
Despite the small sample size of qualifying tournaments, he is currently No. 5 in the world rankings.
Can Collin go 2-for-2 in 2020 majors (calendar-wise anyway)? He showed one heck of a mature game at TPC Harding Park, the host site of the PGA Championship. His tee shot on the drive-able par-4 16th was an all-time great, landing just seven feet from the hole, which he sunk for an eagle that more or less closed the door on the rest of the field.
The California native could certainly get in contention if he hits his irons the way he has been; he ranks second on Tour in strokes gained: approach-the-green, and fifth in strokes gained: tee-to-green. He had a tournament-and-a-half hangover after the PGA, but has been tremendous again since the third round of the BMW Championship.
Betting against Morikawa seems foolish at this point.
6. DJ On A Heater
Dustin Johnson played exceptional golf is nothing new. The stoic 36-year-old has won 23 times on the PGA Tour, with at least one win coming in each of his 13 seasons. However, what he has done since the start of August might be the best work of his career.
DJ emerged from what qualifies as a slump for him, by winning the Travelers Championship in late June. He made his next start three weeks later at The Memorial Tournament, and got to go home early after shooting consecutive 80s, something that seemed unthinkable.
A T12 at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational got him going again, and from there, he has been ridiculous: a T2 at the PGA Championship, an 11-stroke obliteration of the field at The Northern Trust, a runner-up at the BMW Championship, where he hit a 43-foot putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff that he lost after Jon Rahm hit an insane 66-foot birdie putt of him own.
DJ’s success landed him in the No. 1 position for the Tour Championship, meaning he got to start the playoff finale at 10-under-par. He ended up winning by three strokes over Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele. Over that time, he has risen to No. 1 in the world rankings, a spot he seems to have a firm grip on. And just this week, he was named PGA Tour Player of the Year for the second time in his career (2016).
Johnson looks unbeatable right now, but he has historically struggled to close majors. He has just one major title, the 2016 U.S. Open at brutally-difficult Oakmont. He has finished runner-up in all four majors, and has 10 career major top-5s.
As talented as he is, and as great as has been, he really needs AT LEAST one more of these titles for his legacy. He arrives in New York as the betting favorite.