Pro Golf Weekly

6 Storylines: U.S. Open

A new week in Memphis brought a new (old) No. 1, but this week, anyone who is anyone in the golf world will be at Shinnecock Hills on New York’s Long Island for the 118th edition of the U.S. Open.

Field headliners include 14-time major champion Tiger Woods, six-time U.S. Open runner-up Phil Mickelson, Masters Champion Patrick Reed, defending U.S. Open Champion Brooks Koepka, World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, an arsenal of young studs such as Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, and Jon Rahm, and many, many others.

It is hands-down the toughest test in golf, and this year promises to be as brutally challenging as anything the USGA has unleased in the past.

In a week where we are more likely to see a final survivor than a course conqueror, these are the storylines deserving of the most attention:

1. KOEPKA RETURNS TO DEFEND

Last year’s U.S. Open was atypical, with 31 players finishing in red numbers; more than double the previous three editions combined (15).

Credit: Getty Images/David Cannon

But even with tournament records being smashed, Brooks Koepka was still a worthy champion, storming ahead down the stretch to win by four strokes over Brian Harman and Hideki Matsuyama.

It was his maiden PGA Tour major victory, and even with the truncated red numbers Shinnecock Hills is certain to yield, Koepka’s chances of a successful defense should in no way be discounted.

The now 28-year-old Koepka has not won on Tour since Erin Hills last year, but stayed hot the rest of the 2017 season, finishing T18 or better in six of his final seven starts, including a T6 at The Open Championship and a T13 at the PGA Championship.

The Florida State product got his 2018 season off to an excellent start with a T2 in October’s WGC-HSBC Champions, but he then seemed to lose his form out of nowhere, finishing DFL in his next two events, the Hero World Challenge (18th among 18 in the field) and the Sentry Tournament of Champions (34th out of 34).

It was then made public that he was dealing with a difficult wrist injury, and he was forced to shut down his game for nearly four months, missing The Masters in the process.

Koepka has now played in five events since his return from injury, and some excellent recent play seems to have shaken off all the rust. He had the low round of THE PLAYERS Championship, a Sunday 63 that moved him more than 50 spots up the final leaderboard, into a tie for 11th.

He then posted two more 63s in a solo-second place finish at the Fort Worth Invitational. He was less impressive at last week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic, but was still in early contention with a 66-69 start before fading on the weekend.

Koepka, currently 9th in the Official World Golf Rankings, has largely made his name as a bomber, but his touch on the greens is incredible for a man of his stature. He has finished inside the top 20 on Tour in strokes gained: putting in each of his past three seasons on Tour.


2. IS IT FINALLY PHIL’S TIME?

The love/hate relationship between Phil Mickelson and the U.S. Open has been well-established. Phil, who will be teeing up in the year’s second major for the 27th this week, has often professed a love of the event, but with an agonizing six runner-up finishes to zero victories, the tournament has become his proverbial white whale.

Credit: Getty Images/Matt Sullivan

Making all the close calls even more frustrating is the fact that he has won the other three majors, meaning he needs just the U.S. Open to become just the sixth player in PGA Tour history to win the Career Grand Slam.

The other five are Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods. That would be some incredible company to keep.

They say that Father Time waits for no one, and despite the Tom Bradyesque longevity that Mickelson has displayed, fact is that he turns 48 on U.S. Open Saturday, and he cannot say for certain how many more chances he will have. Between Shinnecock Hills this year and Pebble Beach next year, these could be Phil’s last good chances.

Phil has fans everywhere, but he is especially loved in New York, and should draw another enormous following this week.

One of Mickelson’s closest calls came at Shinnecock Hills when the U.S. Open was last held here in 2004. He held a late co-lead, but a double-bogey on the 17th hole meant a runner-up to Retief Goosen, who had also won the 2001 edition. This should be a challenge he welcomes. On another note, Goosen did not qualify this year.

Mickelson is a threat in this event every year, but it has been a long time since he has gone into the U.S. Open in better form than he is this year.

In a “turn back the clock” type year, Mickelson has 11 top 25s and 6 top 10s among 15 starts on the season, including a playoff victory at the WGC-Mexico Championship, which snapped a five-year winless drought.

He currently ranks 9th on Tour in scoring average, fourth in birdie average, and has done his best work on the greens, where he ranks second in strokes gained: putting.

For the first two rounds at Shinnecock Hills, he will be paired with Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, the other two golfers who have completed three legs of the Career Grand Slam, although Phil is the only one missing a U.S. Open victory.

Phil wants this win more than anyone. His history suggests that he will have a good shot at it.


3. TIGER’S 10 MAJORLESS YEARS… AND COUNTING

In 117 previous U.S. Opens, there have been countless moments that rated among sports’ all-time most thrilling and unforgettable.

Credit: Getty Images/Icon Sportswire

In recent years, few are recalled and retold more frequently than the story of the 2008 edition at Torrey Pines, where then-World No. 1 Tiger Woods, on a bum knee that would take the rest of his season, outdueled Rocco Mediate, a man who epitomized “scrappy” in an exciting 19-hole Monday playoff.

It was Tiger’s 14th career major championship, and was another chapter in the story of perhaps golf’s all-time most dominant figure.

This year’s U.S. Open marks 10 years since the Tiger v Rocco showdown, and shockingly, is still Tiger’s most recent victory in a major.

Injuries and complex personal issues have largely taken down the previously untamable Tiger, and the major championship broken record that once looked inevitable, the 18 career majors of Jack Nicklaus, now feels like a longshot. Tiger has not won since 2013 and has not as much as factored into a major story in five years.

Yet, not all is lost for the 42-year-old. After missing nearly all of the 2016 and 2017 seasons due to intense recovery, Tiger is finally competing regularly on the PGA Tour again, and even with a re-invented swing and demeanor… he looks pretty good.

In just nine events in the 2018 season, Tiger has made eight cuts, with two of those resulting in top 10 finishes. He finished T2 at the Valspar Championship, and made a heck of a run finishing T5 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He also put together a phenomenal 65-69 weekend at THE PLAYERS Championship, going from barely making the cut to finishing T11.

Statistically, he has played well too. He has not been the greatest at hitting fairways, but his iron game has been much better than expected, and he still mostly looks like Tiger on and around the greens. He ranks fourth on Tour in strokes gained: approach-the-green, fifth in strokes gained: around-the-green, and sixth in strokes gained: tee-to-green.

In his most recent start, a T23 at The Memorial Tournament, Tiger was absolutely abysmal with his putter, particularly on shorter putts (he missed seven putts inside five feet for the week), but had putted mostly well in his other starts, and did not seem especially concerned with his putting stroke going forward. U.S. Open greens are notoriously fast, so his margin of error will be small.


4. BEST POTENTIAL FIRST-TIME MAJOR WINNERS

In recent years, the U.S. Open has been very good to players who had not previously won a major.

Credit: Getty Images/Patrick Smith

In fact, 10 of the last 13 U.S. Open Champions were first-time major winners, with only Jordan Spieth (2015), Martin Kaymer (2014), and Tiger Woods (2008) deviating from the trend. With an excellent crop of majorless stars set to tee off at Shinnecock Hills this week, it would not be surprising if it were to happen again.

Here are five of the more notable players:

1. Rickie Fowler: The 29-year-old Fowler is no longer as young as he used to be, and he is going to need a major in the near future to validate his lofty standing among the general sports-following public.

Fowler ranks No. 7 in the world and has reached as high as No. 4, but just four wins on the PGA Tour is not really commensurate with his reputation. He has, however, been close.

He has eight top-5s in majors and has a finish of third or better in all four. He finished solo-second at The Masters in April, his third major finish of fifth or better in the past 12 months.

2. Paul Casey: Casey had developed quite a reputation for posting high finishes without being able to close the deal, but possibly slayed a mental dragon when he won the Valspar Championship in March, which was his first win on Tour since 2010.

Now, he needs to get the job done in a major, where he has finished in the top 15 in five of his past six starts. He has nine career top-10 finishes, but just one of those (T10, 2007) was at the U.S. Open. At 40 years old, he should be feeling a sense of urgency.

3. Matt Kuchar: Just 11 months younger than Casey, Kuchar, once a highly-touted amateur prospect from Georgia Tech, has seven career PGA Tour victories, and is known as something of a top-10 machine.

That is especially true in the majors, where Kuchar has ten top-10 finishes over the last eight seasons, but without a win. Three of those top-10s came last year, with the closest call being a runner-up to Jordan Spieth at the Open Championship.

Kuchar has been able to consistently get himself in the discussion, but is another player whose legacy demands a win on the biggest stage. Time could be running low for the man who has not seen the winner’s circle in over four years.

4. Hideki Matsuyama: At 26-year-old, Matsuyama is not quite under the pressure to win a major that Fowler, Casey, and Kuchar are, but with the talent he has flashed, including a 2017 season where he had three wins and three runner-ups, a major is badly missing on his resume.

He has finished in the top 20 of his last six majors, with three top-5s, including a runner-up to Brooks Koepka at last year’s U.S. Open. His current season is being dwarfed by his previous season, but he has shown signs of coming back around lately, as his last six Tour rounds have included a 63, a 65, and a 66.

5. Ian Poulter: Many thought that Poulter’s major window had closed when his results saw a big drop-off from 2013-2016, but a career resurgence over the past 13 months has the ostentatious Brit feeling like he is far from done.

He won the Houston Open in impressive, clutch fashion in early April and also had high finishes at the WGC-Match Play (T5) and THE PLAYERS Championship (T11).

Poulter’s career has been largely defined by his incredible Ryder Cup history, but the 42-year-old would like to diversify further. He has eight career top-10s in majors, but none of them have come at the U.S. Open.

Several young stars such as Jon Rahm (23 years old) and Bryson DeChambeau (24) are also looking for major No. 1, but are too early in their careers for anyone to have expected it to already happen.


5. CAN SPIETH SALVAGE HIS SEASON?

Jordan Spieth has set a ridiculously high standard for himself, with 10 career victories, including three majors, despite being just 24 years old.

Credit: Getty Images/Warren Little

The 2015 U.S. Open winner at Whistling Straits is typically among the first few names mentioned as favorites in every tournament he plays, especially when the stakes are highest, but coming into Shinnecock Hills the question is “What has happened to Jordan?”.

That is not to say that Spieth’s career trajectory has suddenly fallen off a cliff.

While he has not yet won in 2018, he has a respectable nine top-25s in 14 starts, and a final-round 64 at The Masters led to a T3 finish that nearly became a Frank Reich-like comeback story.

Jordan Spieth is still Jordan Spieth from tee to green: he ranks second on Tour in greens in regulation, fourth in strokes gained: tee-to-green, and sixth in scoring average.

The problem for the precocious Texan, however, has been with the flatstick, where he has developed one of the strangest cases of the yips in recent memory.

Putting has typically been a considerable strength of Jordan’s game, but this year? Not so much. Spieth ranks a shocking 190th on Tour in strokes gained: putting, 188 spots lower than he finished just two years ago, and his putting has led to an uncharacteristically poor stretch of play, with two missed cuts and three finishes outside the top 20 in his last five starts.

Spieth has shown such skill and mental strength in his young career that it is a question of not if, but when the World No. 4 re-joins the Tour elites, but as for this week at Shinnecock Hills? He is not exuding a tremendous amount of confidence.

Still, he has proven himself time and time again, and if his putting is not TOO much of a liability this week, he could very well contend, and maybe even snag major No. 4.


6. DJ AND JT: THE BATTLE FOR NO. 1

2016 U.S. Open Champion Dustin Johnson elevated his game to No. 1 in the World status in 2017, a position he held for 64 consecutive weeks.

Credit: Getty Images/Stan Badz
In the midst of what had been a mildly underwhelming 2018 season by star standards, Johnson lost his spot atop the OWGR in mid-May to Justin Thomas, who held the spot for the next four weeks.

After an unbelievable showing at last week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic, a six-shot victory capped with a 169-yard hole-out for eagle on the final hole, Johnson is back on top of the world rankings, and is now coming into the U.S. Open scorching hot.

While his 2016 triumph at Oakmont took an enormous amount of the suffocating pressure off DJ’s shoulders, the 33-year-old may be getting to the point where he needs another for legacy’s sake. He has 17 career victories, but only the one major, despite consistently contending on the biggest stages (14 career top-10s in majors).

He now has two wins on the season and ranks second in the FedExCup standings, despite making just 11 starts. He leads the Tour in scoring average, strokes gained: off-the-tee, strokes gained: tee-to-green, and strokes gained: total. He is the current betting favorite this week at Shinnecock Hills and for good reason.

Johnson’s biggest competition this week could very well be Thomas, the man who passed him on the OWGR for four weeks, and the only man currently ahead of him in the FedExCup Standings.

Credit: Getty Images/Andrew Redington

Thomas is the PGA Tour’s reigning Player of the Year after a five-win 2017 season that included his first major championship, a victory in August’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow.

2018 has been more of the same for Thomas. He has two victories, a runner-up, and has yet to finish worse than 22nd in an individual event.

Eight years younger than DJ, Thomas has eight victories over the past two-and-a-half years, just one victory short of half what Johnson has tallied in 11 full-time seasons on Tour. They’re already tied in career major victories.

Both have expressed a desire for that No. 1 spot in the World Rankings, and while major victory No. 2 will be primarily on the minds of both this week at Shinnecock Hills, the better performer is likely to be ranked No. 1 at week’s end.

Joel Cook

Joel Cook is Pro Golf Weekly's Lead Writer. He is a member of the Golf Writer's Association of America.

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