Do the strange times never stop? The PGA Tour kicked off its 2021 schedule in California at the Safeway Open over the weekend and yet over on America’s east coast we have a US Open to look forward to, just the second of last season’s majors.
For the players flying back to the future this week en route to New York’s Winged Foot Golf Club, there may not be too many looking forward to the prospect, mind, but at least with no spectators permitted on-site due to the ongoing pandemic, we should be able to hear them scream in frustration. This is a US Open after all and the winner often proves to the golfer who best conquers their emotions. This is the major designed to reward the survival of the fittest and it will make for conclusive viewing at one of the toughest tracks in the rotation.
Here are five things to consider when picking the golfer who will finish top of the food chain.
1 – We’re Still In A Pandemic
Golf is still scrambling to get back to normality, the same as every other walk of life and the 120th US Open is no exception. So this year it will be the US Not Quite Open, with no spectators and smaller field of 144 exempt-only players once the USGA decided not to stage it’s usual qualifying rounds. So no Tin Cup in 2020.
Not having spectators will mean players have to generate their own energy and that has not been easy for some, particularly Rory McIlroy, who has admitted he has been “going through the motions” since competitive golf restarted earlier this summer.
Taking the PGA Tour’s Strokes Gained metrics as a guide, McIlroy has fallen from second place on the SG: Total rankings, averaging 2.537 strokes gained per round after the last tournament before lockdown, the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, to 12th, with an average of 1.243, while the pre-shutdown leader and Bay Hill winner Tyrrell Hatton (35/1) has slipped to eighth, dropping his average SG: Total from 3.078 to 1.431.
In fairness to McIlroy, even some of the climbers in the current SG: Total chart, now topped by Jon Rahm (9/1) on 1.823, have dropped their averages from pre-lockdown heights but the biggest movers are still worthy of consideration of recent good form.
Daniel Berger (25/1) won the first title back at the Charles Schwab Challenge and has raised his SG: Total average from 1.344 to 1.560 to rise from 14th to sixth place. Harris English (66/1) has jumped from 11th to seventh but his average has risen marginally from 1.507 to 1.467.
Matt Fitzpatrick (40/1) has been enjoying himself Stateside, jumping 64th to 16th and from 0.569 to 1.067 while newly crowned FedEx Cup champion Dustin Johnson (15/2) is the highest climber into the top 20, from 63rd to 11th, his strokes gained per round average improving from 0.592 to 1.409, a rise of 0.817.
2 – US Open Set-Up
Championship organiser the United States Golf Association do not like competitors making their courses look too easy, a claim borne out by the fact that when last year’s champion Gary Woodland’s 30-foot birdie putt at Pebble Beach sealed a three-shot win over hat-trick-seeking Brooks Koepka, he became only the fourth US Open champion to win with four rounds under 70.
His 13-under 271 even bettered Tiger Woods’ 2000-winning total of 272 at the same course when the margin of victory was a stunning record 15 strokes.
Do not expect such leniency this time around. It may be later in the year than the normal June date but you will not see too much variation on the classic US Open set-up: thick rough, fast and firm fairways, and slick greens.
Need a recent comparison? The FedEx Cup play-offs provided one a couple of weeks ago in Chicago at the BMW Championship, which saw Olympia Fields present firm greens, penal rough and a fair but gruelling week’s golf that produced a modest low score of four under par and brought the cream to the top with world numbers one and two Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm duking it out in a play-off, a monster putt from the Spaniard providing the point of difference between the two. It is no coincidence that Olympia Fields has hosted the US Open, most recently in 2003 when Jim Furyk was the champion at eight under.
Five players under par at the BMW Championship:
1 Jon Rahm -4
2 Dustin Johnson -4
T3 Joaquin Niemann -2
T3 Hideki Matsuyama -2
5 Tony Finau -1
3 – Winged Foot
The West Course, host to five US Opens, will be set up to at a maximum 7,477 yards and play to par 70.
Its champions have been Bobby Jones in 1929, Billy Casper in 1959, Hale Irwin in 1974, Fuzzy Zoeller in 1984 and Geoff Ogilvy in 2006. Of the quintet only Zoeller won with a score under par, his play-off victory over Greg Norman also an under-par 67 to the Australian’s 75.
Irwin won at seven over, Ogilvy most recently at five over par, when he really did feel like the last man standing, closing out with pars on 17 and 18 as rivals Furyk, Colin Montgomerie and Phil Mickelson each failed to make par at the 72nd with bogey, double bogey, double bogey respectively.
Reports from golfers playing practice rounds at the Westchester County classic layout are that level par would be quite the achievement so it’s not for the faint-hearted. Unwavering concentration, the ability to accept and recover from bogey and all round mental strength are paramount. So too accuracy off the tee, given the narrow fairways that if missed will require an extremely tough up and down, particularly with the rough outside the ropes untrampled by spectators. Winning at Winged Foot will require great course management and a clear head.
Best in field on PGA Tour driving accuracy (+65%):
Brendon Todd 71.36% (4th on PGA Tour)
Tyler Duncan 69.87% (6th)
Chez Reavie 69.73% (7th)
Jim Herman 69.28 (10th)
Webb Simpson 67.31% (18th)
Corey Connors 67.08% (20th)
Chesson Hadley 66.71 (22nd)
Kevin Streelman 65.88 (26th)
Matt Kuchar 65.82 (27th)
Collin Morikawa 65.54 (31st)
Michael Thompson 65.40 (32nd)
Kevin Kisner 65.23 (33rd)
4 – Flying The Flag
This is the US Open and the home players have ruled the roost for the past five years, with no international winner since Germany’s Martin Kaymer triumphed at Pinehurst in 2014.
A glance at the five golfers nominated for the 2020 PGA Tour Player of the Year Award suggests the wait for an overseas winner is set to continue with Jon Rahm the only foreign interloper to a quintet also containing Dustin Johnson, PGA Championship winner Collin Morikawa, Webb Simpson and Justin Thomas.
The American majors in general have proven fallow ground of late – the last overseas Masters champion was Spain’s Sergio Garcia in 2017 while you have to go back to 2015 for a foreign PGA Championship winner in Australia’s Jason Day.
Rahm’s claim to break the stranglehold is strongest. He is the only non-American to win on US soil since the restart, winning both the Memorial and the BMW Championship but otherwise it has been homegrown talent excelling in their own backyard, none more so than Dustin Johnson.
Three victories in 14 starts in a year that saw him make 11 cuts and claim seven top-10 finishes.His wins have all come since the PGA Tour restart included two FedEx Series victories at The Northern Trust and Tour Championship where he scooped the $10 million jackpot by landing the FedEx Cup. This is Dustin’s world now and he will justly start 15/2 favourite at Winged Foot in a week that sees McIlroy coasting in the afterglow of the birth of his first child, and two-time champion Brooks Koepka absent through injury.
Which poses the final question….
5 – Who Can Stop DJ?
The Spaniard, 25, claimed his first US Open top-10 finish at Pebble Beach last year, finishing tied for third six behind Woodland, his best major return to date. In much better nick this time round and a 66-64 on the weekend at Olympia Fields en route to the BMW Championship is an excellent form line.
It is surely only a matter of when not if the 2017 PGA champion returns to the winner’s circle at a major. Three rounds of 66 at the Tour Championship last time out to tie for second in the tournament and the FedEx Cup suggest he is ready to go again.
It was not just the PGA Championship victory at Harding Park that was impressive about the 23-year-old’s maiden major win but the nervelessly calm manner of it, his driving of the 17th green marking the American out for greatness. T6 at the Tour Championship was a solid tee-up.
The former US Open champion has been in rich form, winning the RBC Heritage post-restart and leading the PGA Tour in Scoring Average (68.978). Has the temperament and accuracy off the tee to do well at Winged Foot.
Straight and long and ready to cast off his reputation for being a brittle closer. His fifth-place finish at the BMW at a brutal Olympia Fields was all the more impressive for a closing 65 in Chicago.
The US Open’s last international winner when he became a two-time major champion with his wire-to-wire victory at Pinehurst six years ago, Germany’s Kaymer is an infrequent visitor to the US and has a second-round 82 at last month’s PGA Championship to forget. Yet he finished runner-up at Valderrama in a tough scoring week at the Andalucia Masters on September 6 and leads the European Tour for Strokes Gained: Total with an average of 2.14. Could be time for a surprise.
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