Wednesday, June 13, 2018

PGA Tour Preview: The 118th U.S. Open Championship

By Kevin Krest

Last Week

Dustin Johnson already had the FedEx St. Jude Classic wrapped up by the time he stood over his second shot on the final hole. He didn't seem the least bit fazed or even aware that no player has ever won the week before the U.S. Open and followed it up with a victory seven days later. A few seconds later, Johnson's pitching wedge shot jumped out of the rough, bounced twice on the green, and rolled into the hole for a walk-off eagle two and a 6-shot win over Andrew Putnam in Memphis. Putnam was the only player within 9 shots of the 18-time PGA Tour winner and 2016 U.S. Open champion.

Even though history might not be on Johnson's side, his golf game certainly is. He's already won a major tournament on one of the great classic courses at Oakmont, so I have to give him a good chance to contend at Shinnecock Hills, which will be hosting its fourth U.S. Open Championship since 1986. It's important to note that during a week when the PGA European Tour instituted a shot clock, Andrew Putnam was clearly playing at a pace that had Dustin Johnson off his game early in the round. It's time to get slow play out of golf at every level.

This Week

The U.S. Open Championship
Southampton, New York
Shinnecock Hills Golf Club - Par 70
Defending Champion: Brooks Koepka (Erin Hills) - 16 under par 272

History

This is the 118th edition of the U.S. Open Championship, the premier event on the USGA's schedule. The tournament began in 1895, but because professional golf didn't take hold in the United States until several years later, an American didn't win the U.S. Open until 1911. But the tournament that put the U.S. Open into the public consciousness was when 20-year-old American amateur Francis Ouimet defeated the famous English professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff in 1913.

Personally, one of my earliest memories of the U.S. Open was in 1964, when Ken Venturi endured incredible heat and humidity over the final 36 holes played on Saturday at Congressional Country Club outside Washington, DC. My parents were at the tournament that day and I watched with keen interest as Venturi struggled to complete the victory by four shots over Tommy Jacobs. The following year, they changed the format to play 18 holes Thursday through Sunday and forever altered Father's Day for golf fans everywhere.

But my favorite two years of U.S. Open action involved Curtis Strange, for whom I shagged balls and caddied in high school. In 1988 and 1989, Strange was the top player in golf and was the only player since Ben Hogan in 1951 to win consecutive U.S. Open titles. Not even Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods can make that claim.

For his first title, Curtis had to defeat Nick Faldo in a Monday playoff and I had the misfortune of having a job interview that afternoon. I remember watching the television over the shoulder of my interviewer while trying to sell myself to the recruiter. I made it to the next step, but more importantly, Curtis won his first major tournament at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. He followed it up the next year at Oak Hill with a one-shot win over Ian Woosnam, Chip Beck, and Mark McCumber.

More importantly for most golf fans, this marks the 10th anniversary of the last of Tiger Woods' 14 major championships, the classic 19-hole playoff when he bested Rocco Mediate. It's hard to believe that Tiger is still waiting for his 15th.

2018 Field

There were 8,537 entries for U.S. Open qualifying with 78 players advancing to the field. The other 78 spots were filled by players receiving exemptions from qualifying.

* Nine of the top 10, 18 of the top 20, and 41 of the top 50 in FedEx Cup points

* All of the top 50 and 75 of the top 100 in the World Golf ranking

* Twenty-seven countries represented

* Eleven colleges have three or more former players represented: Arizona State (7), Florida State (3), Georgia (4). Georgia Tech (6), LSU (3), Oklahoma State (4), Stanford (4), Texas (3), UNLV (3), Vanderbilt (3), Wake Forest (3)

* Oldest player: Kenny Perry (57)

* Youngest Player: Noah Goodwin (17)

* Major Champions (27): Tiger Woods (14), Phil Mickelson (5), Rory McIlroy (4), Ernie Els (4), Jordan Spieth (3), Bubba Watson (2), Zach Johnson (2), Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed, Jason Day, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, Danny Willett, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, Lucas Glover, Graeme McDowell, Jimmy Walker, Jason Dufner, Jim Furyk

* Total Tour Victories: 457 (Tiger Woods, 79)

* Total Major Victories: 54 (Tiger Woods, 14)

What to Look For

There is talk of a kinder, gentler USGA in setting up Shinnecock Hills for the U.S. Open. In 2004, the last time the Open was held at this same venue, the ruling body of American golf was highly criticized for the setup, even having to halt play on the seventh green in order to put enough water on it to prevent balls from moving in the gusty winds. No one broke par in the final round.

With the state of technology and the talent of the current players, it's almost impossible for the USGA to manipulate the course setup to maintain the sanctity of par, especially on a course as old as Shinnecock Hills.

Over the past several years under Chief Executive Officer Mike Davis, the USGA seems to have slowly moved away from the punishing course setups that established the U.S. Open as the most difficult major tournament from a scoring perspective. In the last four Opens, the winners are a cumulative 34-under par. Brooks Koepka matched the scoring record for most strokes under par at 16 last year at Erin Hills, so it will be interesting to see how low the best players in the world can go on a historic U.S. Open venue.

The field, with 23 amateurs and 78 entrants who had to survive one or two qualifying events, isn't as deep as that at The Players, but it's extremely tough at the top, with virtually all of the best players in the world at Shinnecock Hills. I expect scoring to be pretty good, with a winning score somewhere around 8-under par.

As far as favorites, Dustin Johnson has to be in the conversation, especially coming off his performance in Memphis. If you're looking for a dark-horse for someone to break through, I would look at Luke List, who reminds me a lot of last year's champion, Brooks Koepka.

But there are other story lines, with Patrick Reed the only player that can still win a calendar year Grand Slam. Tiger Woods is playing in his first U.S. Open since 2015, still looking for No. 15. Phil Mickelson needs this title to complete the career Grand Slam. Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Justin Rose, Ricky Fowler, Bubba Watson, and Jon Rahm are all in the conversation.

There are some interesting pairings for the first two rounds: the bombers Bubba Watson, Jason Day, and Brooks Koepka; the multiple majors of Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, and Phil Mickelson; the all Spaniard group of Sergio Garcia, Jon Rahm, and Rafa Cabrera Bello; the grizzled veterans group of Ernie Els, Steve Stricker, and Jim Furyk; and finally the glamour pairing of Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, and Tiger Woods.

All I really know is there are so many players capable of winning the 118th U.S. Open Championship, and I'll be very interested in who rises to the top of the leaderboard on the weekend. On a side note, the USGA has changed the playoff format to a two-hole aggregate format, which was used for the first time at the U.S. Women's Open earlier this month.

Kevin Krest is the author of the entertaining PK Frazier series of sports suspense novels and the co-host of the weekly "The Cold Hard Truth: On Sports" broadcast. His books can be found on Amazon.com.

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