U.S. Open Cham­pi­onship Pre­view

This year’s event at Shin­necock Hills should be much more of an in­ter­na­tional af­fair than last year.

HK Golfer - - Contents - By Mike Wil­son

Last year’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills was very much a cel­e­bra­tion of Amer­i­can golf, with all but two of the top 12 places filled by play­ers wear­ing the Stars & Stripes on their sleeves. But as Mike Wil­son writes, with five over­seas play­ers oc­cu­py­ing the top-10 play­ers on the Of­fi­cial World Golf Rank­ing, this year’s event at Shin­necock Hills could be much more of an in­ter­na­tional af­fair.

Tiger Woods is try­ing to win his first Ma­jor since lift­ing the U.S. Open tro­phy at Tor­rey Pines fully a decade ago. And his arch-ri­val Phil Mick­el­son is also at­tempt­ing to com­plete the ca­reer grand slam by win­ning the only one of the four BIG ti­tles to have eluded him to date. With 20 years elaps­ing since the last suc­cess­ful de­fence of the U.S. Open, the odds must be stacked against Brooks Koepka re­tain­ing the ti­tle he won in such con­vinc­ing style at Erin Hills 12 months ago.

Hold onto your hats for what prom­ises to be a roller­coaster ride up in New York State this month.

Ask your av­er­age Amer­i­can PGA TOUR player at the out­set of his ca­reer which Ma­jor they would covet most were they able to choose, and it would be a toss-up be­tween the Masters and the U.S. Open. Most other in­ter­na­tional play­ers would se­lect the Open Cham­pi­onship, one of the four flag­ship events most steeped in his­tory and her­itage would most prob­a­bly top the poll.

Look­ing back to last year, Brooks Koepka won his first Ma­jor at the U.S. Open Cham­pi­onship, a stun­ning string of birdies down the stretch se­cured him a four-shot vic­tory at Erin Hills last June. Hav­ing en­tered the fi­nal day one shot be­hind overnight leader Brian Har­man, four birdies from the 14th on Sun­day af­ter­noon took the Amer­i­can well clear at 16-un­der-par.

Koepka started his 2017/18 cam­paign where he left off, tied-sec­ond at the HSBC Cham­pi­ons in Shanghai be­hind Justin Rose. But his form in this cal­en­dar year has tailed-off, only one missed cut but cur­rently lan­guish­ing out­side the top-100 on the FedEx Cup rank­ings, re­cently drop­ping out of the top-10 on the OWGR.

The form might sug­gest that the win­ner of the 2018 U.S. Open will come from the top10 of the OWGR. With world num­ber one Dustin John­son and his clos­est ri­val Justin Thomas amongst the favourites, DJ at 10/1, ahead of Thomas at 14/1, Rory McIl­roy and Jor­dan Spi­eth squeezed in be­tween at 12/1. Rickie Fowler, fresh from his run­ner-up fin­ish at the Masters good value at 18/1.

Thomas has two wins un­der his belt al­ready this term. But a lack­lus­tre T-17 at The Masters will do his con­fi­dence no good. How­ever, with eight PGA TOUR wins to his name, in­clud­ing a maiden ‘Ma­jor’ at last year’s U.S. PGA Cham­pi­onship means he goes into his ‘Home’ open as a reign­ing ‘Ma­jor’ cham­pion.

It’s hard to be­lieve that McIl­roy, win­ner at the re­cent Arnold Palmer In­vi­ta­tional, hadn’t won at all since 2016 and hasn’t won a ‘Ma­jor’ for four years. His U.S. Open tri­umph all of

seven-years-ago. But if he can keep the ball in play and get his put­ter work­ing, the Ir­ish­man is capable of any­thing.

Mean­while, Ja­son Day, fresh from his win at the Wells Fargo Cham­pi­onship, another ‘W’ to his name this term at the Farm­ers Cham­pi­onship. And he is al­ready a Ma­jor cham­pion hav­ing won the 2015 U.S. PGA has a fine U.S. Open record, four top-10s in suc­ces­sion from 2013 be­fore miss­ing the cut at Erin Hills last year.

Jor­dan Spi­eth has yet to record a vic­tory on the 2017/18 PGA TOUR, sit­ting down in 30th place on the FedEx Cup Rank­ings. But he’s a big-game player, wit­ness his record of three Ma­jor ti­tles in just five years in the paid ranks, he could con­ceiv­ably be­come the first player since Tiger Woods in 2000 to hold Open Cham­pi­onships on both sides of the At­lantic si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

And then there is Rickie Fowler, cur­rent holder of that least-wanted so­bri­quet in golf The best player never to win a Ma­jor, run­nerup at Au­gusta and the OHL Clas­sic - Can he go one bet­ter at Shin­necock Hills?

That’s an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion. But there is some­thing about Fowler come the fi­nal day on the big­gest stages of all, in or­ange and con­tention, some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pens as it did to Lee West­wood. Per­haps yet to con­vince him­self that when the door opens, he’s big enough and good enough to step through it, flat­ter­ing to de­ceive, per­haps des­tined to be the brides­maid and never the bride?

Of the main­land Euro­pean con­tin­gent, 2017 Masters cham­pion Ser­gio Gar­cía’s U.S. Open record mir­rored his pre-2017 Ma­jor cham­pi­onship his­tory, a case of ‘Close, but no ci­gar’. Five top-10 fin­ishes in 18 out­ings, but, hav­ing re­cently be­come a fa­ther af­ter get­ting the Ma­jor mon­key off his back, he knows how to close out a vic­tory and could fea­ture down the stretch on Sun­day af­ter­noon.

For the first time in many years, Gar­cía is not the best Span­ish bet for a ti­tle that eluded the coun­try’s best. Seve and José María Olazábal were never to win the U.S. Open. But his­tory could well be made by Jon Rahm, who has the look of a man who knows what he wants - big ti­tles - and knows how to get it.

Last year’s Euro­pean Tour Rookie of the Year, re­cent win­ner of his home Span­ish Open and two PGA TOUR ti­tles al­ready to his name, Rahm looks like an un­stop­pable force of na­ture. Ma­jor wins more a ques­tion of ‘how many,’ rather than, ‘when’. And with a Ry­der Cup de­but all-but as­sured in Paris in Septem­ber, Shin­necock Hills could be his com­ing-of-age at just 23-years-old.

If there were to be a ‘Come­back Kid of the Year’ award in golf, that would have to go to English­man Ian Poul­ter. All but shorn of his play­ing rights on the PGA TOUR, re­in­stated fol­low­ing ‘re­cal­cu­la­tion’ of the rank­ings, the man with the Ry­der Cup run­ning through his veins won the pres­ti­gious Hous­ton Open. And a fifth in the WGC Match Play and a 7th in the RBC Her­itage, the man from Woburn could con­ceiv­ably win a Ma­jor in the twi­light of his ca­reer. Fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of com­pa­triot Justin Rose, U.S. Open cham­pion in 2013.

Another English­man, Tommy Fleet­wood, fourth at Erin Hills last year also has the game. And cru­cially, the tem­per­a­ment to win a maiden Ma­jor in New York State this month. Whilst 2013 U.S. Open win­ner Justin Rose has en­joyed some good re­sults of late, in­clud­ing third be­hind Rory McIl­roy in the Arnold Palmer In­vi­ta­tional.

Swedes Hen­rik Sten­son and Alex Norén could also go well, the best prospects for a first-ever Scan­di­na­vian vic­tory at the U.S. Open. But Ger­man Martin Kaymer, cham­pion in 2014 at Pinehurst, looks bang out of form, drop­ping out of the Top-100 on the OWGR for the first time in a decade.

Mean­while, of the Asian con­tin­gent, Hideki Mat­suyama, still in­side the Top-10 on the OWGR, yet again looks the best bet. The 26-year-old fast-ap­proach­ing sport­ing ma­tu­rity, he could go one bet­ter than his tie for sec­ond-place at Erin Hills and be­come the first Ja­panese win­ner of a Ma­jor ti­tle.

Mak­ing the half­way cut on U.S. Open de­but last year, Chi­nese pro­tégé Li Hao­tong served no­tice of his po­ten­tial as a Ma­jor cham­pion-in-wait­ing. Tear­ing up the Royal Birk­dale links with a fi­nal round 63 at the 2017 Open Cham­pi­onship, even­tu­ally

fin­ish­ing third be­hind cham­pion Spi­eth and run­ner-up Matt Kuchar.

South Amer­ica has a sur­pris­ingly good record in Ma­jor cham­pi­onships. Ar­gen­tinean Án­gel Cabr­era won not only the 2007 U.S. Open at Oak­mont but also the Masters two years later. Fol­low­ing on from his com­pa­triot, the great Roberto de Vi­cenzo’s vic­tory in the 1967 Open Cham­pi­onship.

And his­tory could well re­peat it­self. High-fly­ing Ar­gen­tinean Emil­iano Grillo, 2016 PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year al­ready has three top-10 fin­ishes in the U.S. this sea­son. And, at 100/1, he could be worth a small in­vest­ment with your friendly turf ac­coun­tant.

Last time the U.S. Open was held at Shin­necock Hills GC, Southamp­ton, New York State, it was a South African, Retief Goosen who won - his sec­ond U.S. Open ti­tle. Bran­den Grace, who had chances to win the 2015 U.S. Open be­hind Spi­eth, John­son and com­pa­triot Louis Oosthuizen, who, like Grace, is get­ting back to be close to his best. A tie for 12th place at the Masters, the 2010 Open Cham­pi­onship win­ner has been run­ner-up in each of the other three Ma­jors and can­not be counted out to repli­cate Goosen’s feat.

But the in­trigu­ing sub-plot which will be bub­bling un­der in the lead-up to the 118th U.S. Open will cen­tre on those two Amer­i­can idols of golf. Tiger Woods and Phil Mick­el­son, often bit­ter ri­vals, now more ami­able with ma­tu­rity, TV ex­ec­u­tives will for sure be lob­by­ing USGA Tour­na­ment Di­rec­tor Mike Davis for the dy­namic duo to be paired to­gether for the first two rounds, send­ing the TV rat­ings for the Thurs­day and Fri­day off the scale.

It’s hard to be­lieve it’s a decade ago since the once seem­ingly in­vin­ci­ble Woods last won a Ma­jor. That very U.S. Open his third vic­tory in the event - fa­mously at Tor­rey Pines where he won de­spite a bro­ken leg and rup­tured ACL, even go­ing to a fifth day to beat com­pa­triot Rocco Me­di­ate on the first hole of a sud­den-death shoot-out af­ter the 18-hole Mon­day play-off fin­ished all square.

Shin­necock Hills is a linksstyle golf club, lo­cated in the town of Southamp­ton on LongIs­land, east of New York City

Brooks Koepka won his first Ma­jor at the 2017 U.S. Open Cham­pi­onship with a stun­ning string of birdies down the stretch se­cured him a four-shot vic­tory at Erin Hills

Hideki Mat­suyama could go one bet­ter than his tie for sec­ond­place at Erin Hills and be­come the first Ja­panese win­ner of a Ma­jor ti­tle

Shin­necock Hills could be Jon Rahm’s com­ing-ofage at just 23-years-old

2008 U.S. Open Cham­pion Tiger Woods and Rocco Me­di­ate, run­ner-up, share a mo­ment on the 18th green dur­ing the tro­phy pre­sen­ta­tion af­ter the play­off round

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