Who will reign at Erin Hills this weekend?
World Ranking: 1
After his breakthrough US Open win, the big-hitting American seemed poised to take a stranglehold on the men’s game this season after scoring three PGA Tour victories and two top-10 finishes. A freak back injury on the eve of the opening round of the Masters derailed his progress and he will be keen to get back to his winning ways on the longest major championship course in history.
World Ranking: 5
Last 5 tournaments: T13-T2-MC-MC-T11
Best US Open finish: Winner (2015)
Last 5 US Opens: T37-W-T17-MC-T21-T11
Spieth became the youngest US Open winner in 92 years at Chambers Bay in 2015, just two months after claiming the Masters. However, he could not replicate his form last year, even though he came close to retaining his Masters crown before that 12th hole meltdown on Sunday. Has been solid again in 2017, and two recent missed cuts shouldn’t matter much when he regains his focus in a major.
World Ranking: 2
Last 5 tournaments: T35-T7-T30-T4-T7
Best US Open finish: Winner (2011)
Last 5 US Opens: MC-T9-T23-T41-MC
The 28-year-old’s preparations for Erin Hills have been interrupted by niggling rib and back injuries which have curtailed his appearances on the tour. McIlroy however is looking forward to returning to the Open, which was the scene of his first major championship triumph in 2011. What’s more important is that he seems to have loved the challenge that Erin Hills offers during his prep visit.
World Ranking: 9
Last 5 tournaments: MC-T2-T60-T11-T3
Best US Open finish: T2 (2014)
Last 5 US Opens: MC-MC-T2-T10-T41
One of the most consistent performers in 2017 along with Johnson and Jon Rahm. Won the Honda Classic and was second at The Memorial. Missed the cut at FedEx St Jude Classic last week, which would have been a good thing as it gives him some extra rest in a three-week stretch. Very solid off the tee, Fowler is excellent on the greens – a mix that could win him his maiden major.
World Ranking: 11
Last 5 tournaments: T12-T65-2-T15-T13
Best US Open finish: Winner (2013)
Last 5 US Opens: MC-T27-T12-W-T21
The 36-year-old seems to have the uncanny knack of bringing his best game to major championships. Runner-up earlier this year at the Masters, where he lost a play-off to Sergio Garcia, Rose is more than likely to be in contention. He missed the cut at Oakmont last year, but his immense patience and his strong overall game makes him an enticing proposition on this golf course.
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.
What Billy Horschel did on Sunday at the AT&T Byron Nelson was amazing, but what his wife Brittany did the next day was even more astonishing.
The American, who won the 2014 FedEx Cup Playoffs ahead of Rory McIlroy in sensational fashion – he missed the cut at The Barclays, finished second at the Deutsche Bank Championship and then won the BMW Championship and the Tour Championship in a fourweek stretch – turned around his wretched form that saw him miss three straight cuts immediately before the tournament.
The American can at times be highly-strung but is generally a happy-go-lucky character. And he is someone who is outspoken about any issue bothering him – remember how he took on the USGA on using Chambers Bay as a venue?
So, his emotional reaction when he beat Jason Day in the first playoff hole on Sunday came as a bit of surprise. Perhaps it was because of how he struggled on the Tour for two years since winning the FedEx Cup.
For someone who seemed to be on the verge of making a massive impact in the game, just three top-five results in the past two years was unusual.
Horschel refused to divulge any details later in the press conference, saying: “Life gets in the way sometimes. I’m not able to talk about it right now. But it’s just a lot of stuff happened in the last year and this is just – this is nice.”
It was only after Brittany posted on Twitter that one came to know what the player and his family have been going through lately. Brittany revealed she was a recovering alcoholic, who has been sober for the past year.
She also said she spent more than two months last summer in a treatment facility, leaving her husband to take care of their 18-month-old daughter while playing full-time on the Tour. It was a brave revelation; one that Brittany hopes will raise awareness on the issue and help other families going through a similar situation.
It is often said that golf is played on a five-inch course – the distance between your ears. Horschel is just one of the many players we have seen on Tours recently who have struggled when they have other things on their mind.
In 2014, Rory McIlroy was unable to get a win until the time he decided to call off his wedding plans. That week itself, at the BMW PGA Championship on a Wentworth course he is not very comfortable on, he triumphed.
That led to the incredible summer when he won the Open Championship, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship back-to-back, followed by consecutive runners-up finishes in the Tour Championship, Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and the DP World Tour Championship.
Or, take the example of Day this year. The world No1 has fallen to No3, but for someone who dominated world golf from the Open Championship in 2015 until his injury at the 2016 Deutsche Bank Championship, 2017 was proving a comparative struggle.
Day finally revealed during the WGC-Dell Match Play about his mother’s illness. Now that it is off his chest, and she is getting good care, the Aussie is showing signs of his best form again and finished runner-up in last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson.
Of course, there are times when the opposite holds true as well. Henrik Stenson’s win last year at the Open Championship is a good case. On the eve of the tournament, the Swede came to know about the death of his good friend Mike Gerbich.
Even though he thought of Gerbich throughout the 72 holes, those memories seemed to galvanise Stenson as he became the first male Swedish major champion. India’s Jeev Milkha Singh showed terrific grit when he won the Japan Golf Tour’s season-ending JT Cup the same week he and wife Kudrat lost their baby in the seventh month of pregnancy.
And then there was the stoic Darren Clarke, who played exceptionally well to help Europe win the Ryder Cup in 2006 at K-Club just weeks after the death of his wife Heather. The mind works in unique ways and experts believe that the greatest athletes are the ones who can harness its power the best.
The Australian has endured a tough start to the year, distracted following the news of his mother battling with terminal cancer.
He has dropped from world No1 to four, so a play-oﬀ loss at Byron Nelson to someone who wasn’t even ranked inside the top-75, would surely hurt. But he had a great week with the putter – except for the three-putt in the play-oﬀ hole – and that would lift his morale.
Things are definitely not all right in the Spieth world. The Texan missed the cut at the Byron Nelson, following a round on Friday in which he hit two balls out of bounds and posted a nine on the hole.
Everyone is entitled a bad week here and there, but the American has now missed three cuts in last four starts. That’s a bit of worry, but he reckons he is not very far oﬀ from his best form. So, let’s wait and watch.
WHAT’S IN THE BAG
Winner, AT&T Byron Nelson Driver: PXG 0811X (9 degrees) 3-wood: PXG 0341X (15 degrees)
5-wood: PXG 0341 (18 degrees)
Irons: PXG 0311T (3, 5-PW)
Wedges: PXG 0311T Milled (52-, 56- and 60-degrees)
Putter: PXG Bat Attack
Ball: Titleist Pro V1x
EVENTS THIS WEEK
Dean & Deluca Invitational Course: Colonial Country Club Fort Worth, Texas
Purse: $6.9 million
Defending champ: Jordan Spieth
European Tour BMW PGA Championship Course: Wentworth Club Virginia Water, England
Purse: $7 million
Defending champ: Chris Wood