De­fend­ing cham­pion al­ways plays well at the US Open

New Straits Times - - SPORT -

DUSTIN Johnson is the man to beat and Tiger Woods is all the rage, but de­fend­ing cham­pion Brooks Koepka isn’t at the 118th US Open just to make up the num­bers.

“The only rea­son I’m here is to win,” Koepka said as he pre­pared to tee off in de­fense of his ti­tle at Shin­necock Hills to­day.

“If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have signed up. I feel like I al­ways play well at the US Open. Ma­jor cham­pi­onships are where I shine.”

Koepka has fin­ished 13th or bet­ter in eight of his last nine ma­jor starts, in­clud­ing his record-ty­ing tri­umph at 16-un­der par at Erin Hills last year.

From that career pin­na­cle, Koepka was plunged to the nadir as a par­tially torn ten­don in his left wrist saw him miss al­most four months — in­clud­ing the Masters in April.

Koepka has bounced back nicely with a run­ner-up fin­ish at the Fort Worth In­vi­ta­tional last month.

But there’s no ques­tion Koepka, try­ing to be­come the first player since Cur­tis Strange in 1988-89 to win back-to-back US Open ti­tles, is com­ing late to a 2018 party that has seen a wealth of play­ers pro­duce good golf.

Woods, the 14-time ma­jor cham­pion turned come­back kid, has shown flashes of bril­liance, and plenty of in­con­sis­tency, in nine of­fi­cial starts since his re­turn in the wake of spinal fu­sion surgery.

Whether the 42-year-old great can win his first ma­jor in a decade is just one of the ques­tions re­ver­ber­at­ing around Shin­necock Hills.

Phil Mick­el­son, who turns 48 to­mor­row, vies to put the heart­break of six US Open run­ner-up fin­ishes be­hind him and be­come the sixth player to com­plete the career Grand Slam.

Johnson, how­ever, is in the driver’s seat at Shin­necock, where of­fi­cials said they were de­lighted by gen­tle rain on Wed­nes­day, which would keep the course from be­com­ing too se­vere come Sun­day.

Johnson, 33, re­gained the World No 1 rank­ing with his PGA Tour vic­tory in Mem­phis last week to stamp him­self the fa­vorite to claim a sec­ond US Open crown.

Justin Thomas, who had snatched the top spot from Johnson for three weeks, could re­gain it. Third-ranked Justin Rose is also among five play­ers with a shot at the top spot this week, a group that also in­cludes Jor­dan Spi­eth, Jon Rahm and Rory McIl­roy.

“I’m in the great po­si­tion where be­com­ing World No 1, is go­ing to be a by-prod­uct of win­ning this week,” Rose said. “So I may as well just con­tinue to fo­cus on the win­ning. That’s where the fun is.”

Rose be­came the first English­man in 43 years to win the US Open when he tri­umphed at Me­rion in 2013.

Amer­i­cans have won the last four edi­tions. Rose, Rahm, McIl­roy, Australian Jason Day and Japan’s Hideki Mat­suyama are among the over­seas play­ers out to buck that trend.

Mat­suyama, like Amer­i­can Rickie Fowler and, for that mat­ter, Rahm, is try­ing to join the pa­rade of first-time ma­jor win­ners. Nine of the last 10 Grand Slam tour­na­ments have been won by first-timers — most re­cently Masters cham­pion Pa­trick Reed.

All the el­e­ments of a great cham­pi­onship are in place, Rose said.

“You need some great play­ers in the mix. You need some great story lines,” Rose said. “Let’s say Phil Grand Slam, let’s say Tiger hav­ing a chance to win. And a guy that’s a sur­prise, that’s go­ing to be cool.

“Then, ba­si­cally, just a good test of golf,” Rose added. “I think that’s what peo­ple would like to see in this tour­na­ment is that guys are tested to the ends of their abil­ity.”

Brooks Koepka

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