The 118 U.S. Open is less than a month away and returns to Shinnecock Hills, the fifth U.S. Open to be played at the historic course on Long Island. And it promises to be far different from a year ago at Erin Hills, a long, wide-open venue that produced record scoring.
Shinnecock figures to be a much sterner test, the 7,445-yard, par-70 layout yielding just two sub-par 72-hole scores in 2004, the last time the U.S. Open was staged at the course. Retief Goosen won at 276, 4 under par, and Phil Mickelson at 2 under was the only other player in red numbers.
The two other previous U.S. Opens at Shinnecock in modern times (the first was the second U.S. Open played, in 1896), also meant tough scoring conditions. Corey Pavin was even par in his 1995 victory, while Raymond Floyd was 1 under in 1986.
So players can expect a more traditional U.S. Open setup, with narrow fairways, difficult rough and unrelenting greens.
With that in mind, we attempt to assess where several of the main contenders stand, and what they could use before the year’s second major opens on June 14.
The defending champ: Brooks Koepka
Getting (and staying) healthy
The winner by four strokes at Erin Hills, Koepka only recently returned to competition after a wrist injury kept him out since the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January. A recurrence nearly caused him to withdraw at the Players Championship, but Koepka persevered and ended up tying for 11th. He is confident his game is in good shape, but a suspect wrist in deep rough at Shinnecock is no guarantee for success.
The Masters champ: Patrick Reed
Even though he hadn’t finished among the top 10 in a major before last year’s PGA Championship, Reed has never lacked confidence. The win in April at Augusta validated his stature as a top player. Now ranked 13th, he followed up with an eighth-place finish at the Wells Fargo Championship. But he has not fared that well at U.S. Opens, and he has never really driven the ball well enough to give himself a realistic chance. Hitting fairways will be his big goal.
The PGA champ: Justin Thomas
Now ranked No. 1 in the world, Thomas will be a heavy favorite at Shinnecock, simply because he has been playing some of the best golf over the past six months. He has four top-10 finishes in 2018 and hasn’t missed a cut going back to last year’s Open. He shot 63 in the third round last year at Erin Hills, getting a taste of major championship nerves before tying for ninth. There he could hit his driver more often, but at Shinnecock he’ll need to be more strategic.
The Open champ: Jordan Spieth
It’s as simple as that. Spieth has had a strange year. Most of his struggles have been attributed to some poor putting, especially a knack for missing short ones. Ranking 183rd in strokes gained putting is hard to comprehend for the three-time major champion. Aside from the U.S. Open he won at Chambers Bay in 2015, Spieth has not been a contender in the others. His best when he hasn’t won was a tie for 17th at Pinehurst in 2014. He needs to get the putter dialed in to have a chance.
The Players champ: Webb Simpson
It’s really the only thing missing from Simpson’s game. He proved at TPC Sawgrass that being a long hitter is not necessarily vital to winning — nor should it be at a U.S. Open venue where accuracy will matter. Simpson, who won the 2012 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, is strong in nearly every statistical category, including fifth in strokes gained putting and 23rd in strokes gained around the green. That will be a huge help at the U.S. Open, but giving himself more chances from the fairway is imperative.
The most recent No. 1: Dustin Johnson
There might not have been a more quiet No. 1 who held the ranking for as long as Johnson. He won earlier this year in Hawaii, finished second at Pebble Beach, then went missing — nothing bad but nothing great, either. Famed instructor Butch Harmon, whose son, Claude, works with Johnson, wondered if the 2016 U.S. Open champion was putting in the work. If he can win at Oakmont, he can win at Shinnecock.
A would-be No. 1: Jon Rahm
The Spaniard already has five worldwide victories, including a win at the Spanish Open the week after finishing fourth at the Masters. Rahm clearly has the game, but can he keep his emotions in check? He has shown a propensity for a hot temper, and that won’t work at the U.S. Open, where plenty is bound to go wrong. Rahm missed the cut at Erin Hills a year ago and seems to get streaky. Nobody would be surprised to see him in the mix on Long Island.
A former champ: Justin Rose
The 2013 U.S. Open champ is solid in nearly every statistical category on the PGA Tour, lacking only slightly in greens hit in regulation, where he ranks 75th. That is obviously key at a U.S. Open, where missing greens is inevitable but keeping that to a minimum is highly advisable. Rose won three times late last year and has added four more top-12 finishes in 2018. But he has missed his last two cuts at the U.S. Open.
The major-less one: Rickie Fowler
Fowler can’t escape his own fame, perhaps the biggest obstacle for him in crossing the line at a major. With just four PGA Tour victories (he also has three international wins), Fowler’s résumé comes up short of all the fanfare. But he’s an excellent player, borne out by all the U.S. teams he has been on as well as his No. 6 ranking. And he made a great run at the Masters, coming up one shot short of Reed.
The guy with five top-10s: Jason Day
Sickness and injury have kept Day from further greatness, and that is saying something for a guy who has a major championship and has been No. 1 in the world. After a lackluster 2017, Day is back on form, winning twice this year and seemingly determined to get back to the top spot after back problems and illnesses — not to mention personal family matters — derailed him. Day missed the cut last year, but in six other U.S. Open appearances he has five top-10s, including two runner-ups.
The one stalled on four majors: Rory McIlroy
It really is this simple: When McIlroy is average on the greens, he has a chance to contend every time. Such is the strength of his long game. McIlroy putted beautifully at Bay Hill and won. Still, he sees far too few of those weeks. Now into his fourth year since winning his last major, he is also seven years removed from his lone U.S. Open title — at soft Congressional, which is a far cry from what is expected to be firm, fast Shinnecock. But hole a few putts? Don’t discount McIlroy.
The Japanese star: Hideki Matsuyama
In position to become the first Japanese men’s player to win a major championship last year at the PGA Championship, Matsuyama ended up tying for fifth and has had sporadic success since. He has been dealing with a wrist injury. Putting typically holds him back, and Matsuyama — who ranks 147 in strokes gained putting — obviously needs a few more to drop. He tied for second last year at Erin Hills, but was four strokes behind Koepka.
The six-time runner-up: Phil Mickelson
Lefty will turn 48 during U.S. Open week. He is stretching the boundaries for winning a major. Only Julius Boros, who won the PGA Championship at age 48, was older than Mickelson at this point. Shinnecock is the site of one of his six second-place finishes at the U.S. Open — in 2004. And he was tied for fourth at the same venue in 1995. Mickelson has shown flashes this year, winning in Mexico, contending at Quail Hollow. Getting into contention is the trick. If he can do that, perhaps it is a matter of some good fortune that carries him to completing the career Grand Slam.
The nine-time USGA champ: Tiger Woods
For all the talk about Woods’ erratic driving, what has let him down the most is his irons, specifically short irons. In approaches from 100 to 125 yards, Woods ranks 91st on the PGA Tour, with an average proximity of 20 feet. From 125 to 150, he ranks 136th. These are typically wedges that he is not getting close enough to take advantage of long driving. We saw it at the Players where over the final few holes he misfired twice with a sand wedge. Woods is 10 years removed from his last major and his third U.S. Open. In 2004, he tied for 17th at Shinnecock when he was in the midst of a swing change and a 10-major stretch without a victory. The U.S. Open might be the toughest of the majors for him to win at this point.