The U.S. Open is going old school this week at Winged Foot: Narrow fairways, thick rough, slippery undulating greens. The 156 golfers shalt not fake their way around the course. Mystifying recovery shots and a hot putter may carry a man through a round or two, but come Sunday the best golfers shall be identified.
I was fortunate to caddie in three U.S. Opens: Pinehurst ‘99, Pebble Beach ‘00 and Southern Hills ‘01. They were the most demanding tournaments, terrifying even. Because plodding oneself’s way around a U.S. Open course means always contemplating the next shot. Miss the green in the wrong spot at Winged Foot and par is a dream. Hit the green in the wrong spot at Winged Foot and par is a dream. Miss the fairways too frequently at Winged Foot and a Friday night spent at home becomes reality.
This U.S. Open will punish a golfer who isn’t sharp. Pro golfers hate to make a five on a hole. Sometimes a five will be a great score. I’ve witnessed fine 6s. Bogeys shall come, and in bunches. But it’s worth the struggle. The gentlemen are battling for $12.5 million this week with $2.5 awarded to the champion.
This is the sixth U.S. Open at Winged Foot – only Oakmont and Baltusrol can claim more – and most remember Colin Montgomerie and Phil Mickelson making a mess of the 72nd hole in 2006, enabling Geoff Ogilvy to win the championship with a 5-over par (285) total. Hale Irwin was 7-over en route to the first of his three U.S. Open titles in 1974. They called that one a massacre. The golf course is a monster, playing to an average score of 76.5 in its Open history. Only 77 of the 2,115 recorded rounds are under par, per golfstats.com.
Expect another over-par winning total. Not that par really means anything anyway. But that’s a discussion for another day. 280-anything is a fine total for 72 holes around this beautiful beast, designed by A.W. Tillinghast and renovated in recent years by Gil Hanse.
The rough at Winged Foot is nasty. There are scary photographs and videos circulating on the interwebs. Balls sink to the bottom, covered in matted grass that measures damn near half a foot in spots. With that line of reasoning, it would be easy to focus on the fairway finders, and they will certainly have a less stressful experience if they can consistently land in the short grass. But, as we saw at Harding Park last month, the elite usually rise over the course of four rounds.
There are 37 first-time U.S. Open participants. I’ve ruled most of them out. People can describe the difficulty of a U.S. Open but it must be experienced. There are only 15 players from the 2006 field competing this year. Most are ghosts from the past: Woods, Mickelson, Kuchar.
In keeping with the times, Hanse lengthened the course by 213 yards, stretching the par-70 Tillinghast layout to 7,477 yards. Still, patience may be a greater asset than power this week.
Say a prayer for the loopers, if you’re so inclined. They’ll never work harder as strategists or psychiatrists.
Corey Conners – The lush northern grass should suit the Canadian, who finished 20th on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy last season and is top 10 in the field over the last 36 rounds in the significant ballstriking categories. His short game and putter remain the soft spots (120th or worse in the field in each category SG). Missed the cut in previous U.S. Open (2017).
Mackenzie Hughes – One of the best putters on Tour thrives on poa annua and is looking to build on a career season that landed him 14th in the final FedEx Cup standings. Prefers difficult conditions. Driving accuracy is not his forte (he’s lost strokes off the tee each of the last five weeks) but has atoned for the errant tee balls with the sharpest short game in the field.
Brian Harman – Tied for second in the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills. Leads the field in strokes gained around-the-green over the last 50 rounds. Poa annua is his best putting surface. Closed last season with consecutive top-12 finishes.
Chez Reavie – He’s a sneaky U.S. Open success story with a T-3 last year and T-16 in 2018. Coming in hot after gaining 7.4 shots on approach last week and finishing third at the Safeway. Playing from the fairway is imperative and Reavie hit 72 percent last week and finished seventh on Tour in driving accuracy in the 2019-20 season.
Louis Oosthuizen – Comes in hot with three top 25s in his last four starts and relishes the USGA setup. Has posted five consecutive top 25s in the U.S. Open and three career top 10s. On a course where premium ballstriking will be rewarded, it’s easy to love the sweet- swinging South African.
Golfer power rankings
20. Paul Casey – Arrives with major confidence after his runner-up effort at the PGA Championship in August and his solid, steady game is an ideal fit for a U.S. Open. He’s making his 17th appearance in this major and has finished 26th or better each of the last three years.
19. Justin Rose – His recent record is uninspiring, although he did muster a top 10 at Harding Park. Always seems to find a way to climb a U.S. Open leaderboard – six top 25s, three top 10s and a win, in 2013 at Merion, in his last eight starts. High ball hitter (25th on Tour in average apex last season).
18. Patrick Cantlay – He’s disappointed me more often than not over the last six months, however, a season reset might be the tonic for him after narrowly missing a trip to Atlanta. It’s not as if he’s far off. He’s 10th in the field in SG:Total over the last 36 rounds and inside the top 40 in every meaningful category. Seeking first top 10 since a T-7 at the Workday in July.
17. Sungjae Im – Hooked up with veteran Tour caddie Bobby Brown at the FedEx finale in Atlanta and parlayed the partnership into an 11th-place finish. His baby fade and precision iron play should make him as comfortable as a man can be in a U.S. Open at Winged Foot West.
16. Harris English – He was a moneymaking machine in his 2019-20 season, which started in the 126-150 category and ended in the Tour Championship. Outside the top 25 just twice in his last four starts, he’s also third in the field in SG: Short Game over the last 36 rounds.
15. Matthew Fitzpatrick – Another short game wizard, he’s been on a hot streak on the greens of late as well (first in field in SG: Putting), producing three top-6 finishes in his last five starts. Loves the challenge: finished T-12 in the last two U.S. Opens.
14. Matthew Wolff – The only first-timer to crack the top 20, I loved his poise and performance down the stretch at Harding Park. He’s unafraid of the biggest stages and the only weak link in his skill set at this early stage of his career is chipping and pitching.
13. Justin Thomas – The wand has been wicked to JT in recent weeks (100th in the field in SG:Putting) and his U.S. Open record is pedestrian (one top 10 in five U.S. Open appearances). Still, has the ability to dominate the course from tee-to-green and at the very worst his talent should surface on the leaderboard by week’s end. Longtime caddie Jimmy Johnson returns to the bag this week.
12. Daniel Berger – Over the last 36 rounds, compared to every golfer in the U.S. Open field, he ranks top 20 in every significant strokes gained category and first in SG: Total. Would be higher but I’m concerned about his lower ball flight – he ranked 172nd on the PGA Tour last season in average apex height. Still, he’s sizzling and confidence trumps all.
11. Tommy Fleetwood – Finished top 5 in the U.S. Open in 2017 and 2018 although his performance fell well short of his lofty standards in six tournaments since the restart (two missed cuts, zero top 25s). It’s easy to spot the culprit – he lost strokes on approach in five of those events. He did finish T-3 last week in the European Tour’s Portugal Masters.
10. Hideki Matsuyama – Has five top 25s in seven career U.S. Open starts and put his impressive touch on display on a tough course three weeks ago at Olympia Fields. At his best when conditions are difficult and is putting reasonably well, gaining 0.7 strokes on the greens in the last five tournaments.
9. Viktor Hovland – Not a great chipper, but he’s always around on the weekend, playing four rounds in his last 12 tournaments. Has the ballstriking acumen to dissect Winged Foot and keep it around 1 or 2 over par each day. Finished T-12 in last year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
8. Tyrrell Hatton – Tied for 21st in the U.S. Open last year and T-6 in 2018. Other than a missed cut at the PGA has been on a torrid tear since he returned to competition in February, posting five top 10s in his last nine starts. Has gained strokes Off-the-Tee and on Approach Shots in each of the last four tournaments.
7. Jason Day – Hits some of the highest irons on the PGA Tour, which should come in handy approaching the elevated greens at Winged Foot. He’s also second in the field in SG: Around-the-Green in the last 36 rounds. From 2011-to-2016 finished outside the top 10 in the U.S. Open only once. Putts his best on poa annua greens.
6. Tony Finau – Played in the final pairing on Sunday at Shinnecock Hills two years ago and witnessed Tiger Woods’ dramatic Masters victory up close last spring. Trending nicely with the putter, in the positive strokes gained on the greens in six of the last seven weeks. Hits it high enough and is one of the few strong enough to excavate from the rough.
5. Xander Schauffele – A fixture on U.S. Open leaderboards with three consecutive top-6 finishes and one of the PGA Tour’s most consistent players in 2020, seeking a ninth top 25 in row and 14th in his last 15 starts. Not as accurate with the driver as it may seem (98th last season in accuracy) but his game is void of holes. He’s due.
4. Webb Simpson -He’s 21st in the field in ballstriking and eighth in short game over last 50 rounds. Putted poorly at East Lake and while the stats are impressive, what I like most about Simpson is his moxie, patience and experience on difficult courses. The 2011 U.S. Open champ at Olympic finished in the top 20 at Pebble Beach and Shinnecock.
3. Jon Rahm – If not for DJ’s spectacular summer, more attention might be focused on Rahm. The big question mark is his temperament. Can the young Spaniard remain calm enough over four days to claim the title? He’s made strides in this area in the last year and while still emotional, is showing less outward negative emotion. Lost strokes on approach and on the greens in Atlanta and still finished T-4.
2. Dustin Johnson – The favorite in Vegas (8-1) is playing the best golf of his career. As you might imagine, his strokes gained numbers over the last five tournaments are ridiculous. It’s not often a Tour player reels off four consecutive top-2 finishes, all against the strongest fields in the game. Claimed his only major at the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont and has three other top-4 finishes.
1. Collin Morikawa – Let’s go back-to-back and start talking about a 2020 Slam. He’s poised beyond his years and precise from tee-to-green. At the Tour Championship appeared to be free of the PGA after effects and tied for sixth. A third victory in two months is imminent.