SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Entering the 118th U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, there are two prevailing storylines: Phil Mickelson chasing the career grand slam, and Tiger Woods trying for his 15th major title and first in 10 years.
Which one would leave the biggest impression on this championship? A six-time U.S. Open runner-up finally finding his missing piece to the grand-slam puzzle? Or one of golf’s all-time greats proving once again, after four back surgeries, that he can achieve major glory?
“Now you’re just comparing Cadillacs,” said Justin Thomas.
Well, if that’s the case, there appears to be a row of them parked along Highway 27, just south of the classic Williams Flynn masterpiece, waiting to drive into the winner’s circle on Sunday. (And no, we’re not talking about the heavy traffic heading east to Shinnecock every morning.)
Dustin Johnson, back in his No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking, is coming off a victory at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis. He’s trying to capture his second U.S. Open title in three years after winning at Oakmont Country Club in 2016.
Justin Thomas, the man who Johnson dethroned in the world rankings, already has one major (2017 PGA Championship), but would love to add another. With two wins this season and a seat atop the FedEx Cup standings, it’s very possible he does that this week.
Justin Rose, winner at Merion in 2013, is one of the favorites, as is Jason Day and his sweet short game. Don’t count out Rory McIlroy, or the defending champ, Brooks Koepka. Or even Jordan Spieth, who says he’s close to heating up his cold putter.
Rickie Fowler is ready to win his first major, as is Hideki Matsuyama and Jon Rahm. And how about a Cinderella story? Maybe NHL referee Garrett Rank, firefighter Matt Parziale or another of the 20 amateurs in the field lifting up the trophy.
“Those types of story lines are going to captivate people,” Rose said. “… And then basically just a good test of golf, where people think, wow, they’ve really stepped up and played great golf under pressure. I think that’s what people would like to see in this tournament is that guys are tested to the ends of their ability, to whether they can cope or not, and I think that’s part of the allure of this tournament.”
A fitting stage
Shinnecock Hills, ranked third on Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses list, should be a fitting stage. Renovated in 2014, Shinnecock had about 500 trees removed and 450 yards of length added. Ten new tee boxes were built, original green sizes were restored, areas around the greens were shaved and the fairways are now an average of 41 yards wide with thick fescue lining them.
In many ways, Shinnecock Hills got much of its greatness back, and it should provide a proper U.S. Open test, a year after Koepka shot 16 under at Erin Hills. Players will not only have to be on their games, but they will have to play smart golf and carefully study the multitude of options that a new Shinnecock provides.
Strategy is back in the forefront, especially on shots into and around the greens.
“You have to think about, when you miss, where the ball may bounce and roll to,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “It certainly gives players more options, whether they want to try to recover with a putter, a bump and run, or a pitch.”
That’s why many players believe those who find success around Shinnecock will have not only avoided trouble off the tee but more importantly showcased creativity and skill with the short game. Especially since hitting a high number of greens will be difficult considering the small landing areas required to keep approach shots on the putting surfaces.
“The reason why I’m excited about the setup is short game is going to be a huge factor,” Mickelson said. “If you do miss a green, it will stay in fairway. It will stay where touch will be a factor.”
Mother Nature has seat at table
Weather could also be a factor. Strong winds, including afternoon gusts of 30 mph, are expected for Thursday. Luckily, the course received heavy rain on Wednesday and Davis said the USGA will try to keep the greens at a proper speed as the course firms up throughout the championship.
Back in 2004, the par-3 seventh green had to be watered in between groups because balls weren’t staying on the putting surface. Davis doesn’t expect anything quite as severe this time around.
“We’re confident this should be a marvelous test,” Davis said. “… As we say, get all 14 clubs dirty to make sure that these players are tested to the nth degree.”
Rose doesn’t mind testing the limits of the golf course and its competitors.
“I think in life, the closer you get to the edges, that’s where the excitement is,” Rose said.
One caddie said he expects every player in the field to make at least one double bogey this week. Who doesn’t love a little misfortune – especially at a U.S. Open?
Besides, stunning Shinnecock Hills and a star-studded field rich with scintillating storylines are poised to leave the biggest impression come Sunday evening.
Gas up the Cadillacs. It’s going to be a fun ride.