If the 2018 Masters was the most anticipated version we've seen in over 30 years, it does not feel like the 118th United States Open is that far off the pace. First, there is the field. It is better and deeper than the Masters and is the best we've seen since the Players Championship just over a month ago. Secondly, there is the course. The USGA has had some hiccups in recent years with its choice of U.S. Open venues. The weather did not cooperate in the Seattle area in 2015 and the greens at Chambers Bay were a brutal mess. Last year at Erin Hills, the wind never blew and Brooks Koepka raced to a winning score of 16-under par, way too low for USGA standards. This year, we return to Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, New York for the first time since 2004. It is regarded as a Top 5 U.S. Open course of all time. The test will be extreme and the look is unique but tweaks have been made to accommodate the modern game and the players feel it is a perfect blend. Phil Mickelson had this to say about Shinnecock earlier this week.
"It's a very difficult job to find the line of testing the best players to the greatest degree and then making it carnival golf," said Mickelson. "I think it's a very fine line, and it's not a job I would want. And I know that the USGA is doing the best they can to find that line, and a lot of times they do. Sometimes they cross over it, but it's not an easy job. It's easy for all of us to criticize."
Phil went on to say that he loves this year's setup.
"This is certainly my favorite course. It's the best setup, in my opinion, that we've seen, and the reason I say that is all areas of your game are being tested. There are some birdie holes. There's some really hard pars. There's some fairways that are easy to hit, fairways that are tough to hit." Speaking of Mickelson, two more reasons this year's Open is buzzing as we approach Thursday's opening round, are the "Tiger and Phil" factors. Woods is back on the world stage and playing very competitively. This marks the ten year anniversary of his last major victory, a U.S. Open win at Torrey Pines in 2008. He has also won this Major in New York before at Bethpage. It was back at Bethpage that New Yorkers fell in love with Phil. In 2004 at Shinnecock, he treated them to a second-place finish, of which is now his sixth runner-up finish in a U.S. Open. He will try to better that once again this week and cap off his career grand slam in major championships in what ought to be a raucous, very pro-Phil crowd.
Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who made tweaks to Pinehurst before the 2014 U.S. Open, and designed Trinity Forest, the site of this year's AT&T Byron Nelson, were brought in to make some adjustments to Shinnecock before this year's championship. Nearly 500 yards in length were added to this now 7,445-yard Par 70 course. The fairways were widened, and then narrowed again by the USGA, but still the average width will be more than half again of what the players faced in 2004. Many trees were removed to allow the wind to come in off of the coast and add more of this element to the test. The course has a beautiful contrast look to it, with bright green strips of fairway, bordered by wispy, wind-blown, British Open-like fescue, and a heavy, sandy-beach dose of bunkering. The greens are smaller, Poa Annua surfaces, which is often the turf of choice at seaside venues. It has similarities aesthetically to Pinehurst #2 and in the run-off areas around the greens but without the forest and more of a links, coastal look. I'm buying what Mickelson is selling in that I believe this will combine a classic, tight, U.S. Open test with some length and width thrown in to balance things out. The USGA aims to provide the very toughest test in golf for its national championship, and it seems that they may have found exactly what they want in 2018.
MY FAVORITES, MY CONTENDERS AND MY LONG SHOTS
Dustin Johnson (9-1), Rickie Fowler (14-1), Justin Rose (14-1):
DJ is back atop the world rankings after winning last week in Memphis at The FedEx St. Jude Classic. No player has ever won the U.S. Open after winning the week prior, but Johnson appears to be built for this particular major with a win, a second and a fourth place in three of his last four Open starts. It is certainly a positive week for Rickie Fowler as he got engaged last week and he claims Shinnecock to be one of his favorite courses in the world. He ranks seventh on Tour in Scrambling and Par 4 Scoring. He has three top-10 finishes in his last five U.S. Opens, including a second at Pinehurst in 2014. Statistically, Rose tops the charts coming into Shinnecock. To go along with his ball striking and accuracy and length off of the tee, his putting has improved to such that he ranks fifth on Tour in Putting Average. Despite winning at Merion in 2013, Rose has missed the cut at the U.S. Open that last two years.
Brooks Koepka (25-1), Henrik Stenson (30-1), Branden Grace (30-1): Since sitting out the first half of this season with injury, Koepka has been playing very well with an 11th at the Players, a second at Colonial and a 30th last week in Memphis. We haven't had a back-to-back U.S. Open winner since Curtis Strange did it in 1988-1989. Stenson is arguably the best ball striker in the world. He is No. 1 on Tour in Greens in Regulation, Driving Accuracy, Strokes Gained: Approach, and Par 4 Scoring. He was fourth at Pinehurst in 2014, but will have to have a hot week with the putter to prevail. Grace looks to become the second straight South African to win at Shinnecock as Retief Goosen was your last winner here in 2004. Grace has an affinity for links style golf, hasn't missed a cut anywhere in the world since last August, and has finished top 5 in two of the last three U.S. Opens.
Adam Scott (50-1), Emiliano Grillo (125-1), Steve Stricker (150-1): Scott owns the second-longest streak of consecutive majors played with 67-in a row, and he got here this week by playing in a qualifier. The Aussie plays excellent links golf, was ninth at Pinehurst in 2014, and while his putter continues to be an issue, he remains one of the finest ball strikers on the planet. In 2013, playing a casual round at Shinnecock from the championship tees, Scott shot what was at the time, a course-record 63. Grillo does everything efficiently. He does not have massive length off of the tee, but is a tremendous ball striker, scrambler, and putter. He lacks experience as this is only his third time playing a U.S. Open. Grillo's shortcoming on experience is Striker's advantage. This will be the 51-year old's 21st U.S. Open. His stats match up with some of the best on Tour. He has three top-25 finishes this season along with two wins on the Champions Tour, two seconds and a fifth. He has finished top 25 in his last five U.S. Open appearances.