There are plenty of reasons why the spotlight will be trained intensely on Dustin Johnson when the US Open, the second major of the year, gets underway at Erin Hills on Thursday.
After all, the American is ranked No1 in the world, is the defending champion, is hungry after missing the Masters with a freak injury, and is in a happy frame of mind after welcoming his second child to the world on Monday.
And while he may have missed the cut in his last outing at The Memorial, let that not overshadow what has been a stunning year for the 32-year-old – one that has already seen him holding aloft the trophy three times on the PGA Tour, including in both the WGC events so far.
It is not just his current form that is red-hot, so is his performances at the US Open. In the past three years, the tournament visited three very different golf courses – the legendary Pinehurst No2 (2014), the much-maligned Chambers Bay (2015) and the demanding Oakmont.
In those three tournaments, Johnson finished tied fourth and tied second before his maiden major last year. So, even though Erin Hills is a big mystery for most players – considering it is not even a decade old and making its championship debut – there is no reason why Johnson should be fazed.
Good golf is going to get you good results, regardless of the golf course you are playing. However, the set-up at Erin Hills should also play straight into Johnson’s hands. It is a massive piece of real estate, stretching over 7,741 yards from the opening tee shot to the 18th green.
That makes it the longest golf course ever used in a major championship, 46 yards more than Chambers Bay. It has a par of 72 and four par-5s. Even the much talked about fescue grass is separated by nearly 60 yards of fairway. For someone who is driving the ball as phenomenally as Johnson, all this is fodder for low score.
Johnson, obviously, isn’t the only interesting storyline going into Thursday’s opening round. There’s always Phil Mickelson, who has the uncanny knack of adding drama to every US Open he plays. The popular American, who celebrates his birthday during the tournament week, has always been a big talking point at the tournament, especially because of his failure to win it despite finishing runner-up six times.
A win now would complete his grand slam and also make him the third oldest ever winner of a major championship. But that is possible only if Mickelson shows up for his tee time. The five-time major winner has everyone on the tenterhooks, having decided to attend the graduation ceremony of his daughter on Thursday.
He hasn’t pulled out of the tournament either, hoping that the thunderstorms predicted in the region would delay his tee time by four hours, enough for him to make a dash back from California in his private jet. So, the fans really won’t have to wait for the 72nd hole on Sunday for a thriller to unfold. There is one waiting to take place on the first tee itself on Thursday.
Then there is Rory McIlroy, coming back to competitive golf after another injury break. If his ribs are all right, he is another player who has the power and the finesse to bring Erin Hills to its knees. In fact, given how much rain the course has experienced over the last few days, long-hitters will have an advantage if they can keep it to the fairways.
That should also bring someone like Jason Day into focus. The Aussie has lost his world No1 ranking, partly because of his own personal issues with his mother’s llness, and partly because of Johnson’s brilliance, and he’d be eager to get back into the winner’s circle.
Young Jon Rahm is also getting a lot of attention, which is not surprising given how he has been performing in his first full season as a professional. The strongly-built Spaniard plays golf in the Johnson style, and he must be so motivated after watching compatriot Sergio Garcia win at Augusta National.
The odd man out is Jordan Spieth, who makes the list of favourites because of his strong short game. If the Texan gets his flat club warmed up, he’d definitely not need all the muscle power from the tee to win his second US Open title.