WHO CAN (AND CAN’T) WIN THE US OPEN

Golf World (UK) - - US OPEN -

SShin­necock Hills is the only course to host the US Open in three dif­fer­ent cen­turies and is rightly re­garded as one of the cham­pi­onship’s great venues. Its first US Open, in 1896, was con­ducted over a course mea­sur­ing just 4,423 yards made up of holes laid out by Wil­lie Davis in 1891 and Tom Dunn in 1895.

Ob­vi­ously, noth­ing can be gleaned from its first US Open as to what type of player Shinnecock might favour to­day, nor does its most re­cent stag­ing of the event tell us much.

Af­ter 36 holes of the 2004 US Open, 11 play­ers were un­der par, with Phil Mick­el­son and Shigeki Maruyama tied for the lead at six­un­der. The USGA prob­a­bly didn’t much care for the fact that many play­ers had shot sub-140 for the first two rounds, so it beefed up the chal­lenge for Satur­day when the 66 play­ers re­main­ing could av­er­age no bet­ter than 74.6.

Satur­day’s test paled against that of Sun­day, how­ever. Warm winds dried out the course to the point where green staff had to re­peat­edly hose the par-3 7th green to pre­vent ev­ery sin­gle tee shot from slid­ing off the putting sur­face. At the end of the day, the best golfers in the world had stum­bled to a scor­ing av­er­age of 78.7, and all bar Retief Goosen, who won his sec­ond US Open in three years, went home curs­ing the USGA and its gran­ite-top greens.

The 2018 ver­sion of Shinnecock Hills will be very dif­fer­ent to that of 14 years ago. For starters, the greens will be green, and the grass on them alive. “We are mind­ful of what hap­pened in 2004,” Mike Davis said dur­ing last year’s cham­pi­onship at Erin Hills. “That will not hap­pen again. If it does, I’m re­tir­ing.”

At 7,445 yards, the course will be also al­most 500 yards longer than in 2004. And, thanks to some tweaks by con­sult­ing ar­chi­tects Bill Coore and Ben Cren­shaw, Shinnecock will play close to ar­chi­tect Wil­liam Flynn’s orig­i­nal in­ten­tions (see main fea­ture).

Work­ing with the membership and the USGA to mod­ernise the course while re­tain­ing the flavour of Flynn’s lay­out, Coore and Cren­shaw added 10 new back tees, widened the fair­ways to 40-45 yards in places, re-edged the bunkers, ex­panded greens that had lost their size and shape over the decades, re­moved trees, and re­placed the thick-bladed rye grass in the rough with fes­cue. They also took out the mass of thick rough to the right of the 6th fair­way where wa­ter tended to col­lect, re­plac­ing the top soil with sand to recre­ate the more nat­u­ral linksy look from Flynn’s era. Which gets us to where we are now and the key ques­tions.

Whose game is best-suited to Shinnecock?

Asked to pre­dict a win­ner, or at least de­scribe the sort of player the new-look Shinnecock might favour, Coore men­tions says Flynn did such a mas­ter­ful job that no one is au­to­mat­i­cally elim­i­nated. “It’s just a great course that sets a stern ex­am­i­na­tion,” he says. “The play­ers will def­i­nitely need to think their way around, and wind will prob­a­bly be a fac­tor. Long hit­ters will have an ad­van­tage cer­tainly, but I don’t think it will be as pro­nounced as at other cour­ses.” Shinnecock Hills, Coore adds, re­ally is a com­plete test that will ex­pose any weak­nesses, and where only the player in to­tal con­trol of all parts of his game can pre­vail.

What does his­tory tell us?

The win­ners of Shinnecock’s three US Opens since 1986 were Ray Floyd, Corey Pavin, and Goosen. Floyd was an all-rounder com­bin­ing both power and touch. His and Pavin’s short games were among the best of their day, while Goosen is/was known pri­mar­ily as a great ball-striker.

It’s hard to iden­tify a com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tic be­sides the fact they were all well above the av­er­age age for a ma­jor win­ner. Be­fore 2015, the av­er­age age for cham­pi­ons of Grand Slam events was 32. From 2015-2017, that dropped to 29.6 thanks largely to Jor­dan Spi­eth’s ex­ploits.

It’s a small sam­ple size, but the fact Floyd, Pavin and Goosen’s av­er­age age was 37.6 hints that Shinnecock Hills de­mands an el­e­vated level of ma­tu­rity, ex­pe­ri­ence, and know-how.

How will the set-up af­fect the leader­board?

While Coore and Cren­shaw ex­panded Shinnecock’s fair­ways for the mem­bers, it’s un­likely the USGA will al­low them to re­main so wide for the US Open, es­pe­cially af­ter they re­ceived crit­i­cism for the width of the fair­ways at Erin Hills in 2017. The word is fair­way land­ing ar­eas will be be­tween 28 and 34 yards wide – more gen­er­ous than in ’86, ’95, and ’04, but not quite as char­i­ta­ble as they were last year when Brooks Koepka bat­tered wind­less Erin Hills into sub­mis­sion. Mike Davis has said he wants ac­cu­racy off the tee to be a big part of the US Open, but it ap­pears he’s still giv­ing the play­ers a lit­tle wig­gle room. If the wind doesn’t blow and there is a lit­tle mois­ture in the ground, ex­pect plenty of rounds in the 60s. If the wind rises, and the same warm winds that im­pacted 2004’s fi­nal round ar­rive, level par will be a good score and pa­tience will be re­warded.

Tak­ing all that into ac­count, over­leaf we nar­row the field down to the 12 men who should be in the con­ver­sa­tion at Shinnecock Hills.

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