Credit where credit is due. The first to step into the major spotlight in the post- Covid era, the PGA of America did a brilliant job in helping deliver a fantastic sporting spectacle in the shape of an enthralling US PGA Championship at Harding Park in San Francisco last month.
It was both exciting and exhilarating as Collin Morikawa emerged from a bunched leaderboard to become a first-time major champion, his title-winning eagle-2 at the driveable 16th proving the talk of the steamie in the game for a good time afterwards as the dust settled on the first major in 2020.
More of the same would be great for golf in the remaining two on the revamped schedule, but don’t bank on it because it’s the United States Golf Association (USGA) next up, and fun and enjoyment never seem to be factors when it’s their turn in the spotlight.
All the talk in the build-up to this week’s 120th US Open has been about Winged Foot being a beast and players bracing themselves as they prepare to take their annual dose of major “medicine”.
“The golf course is big. It’s hard,” reported Gary Woodland, the defending champion, in delivering a message echoed by many in the 144-strong field at the Mamaroneck venue, which is located about an hour north-east from the heart of New York. “But I think that’s what you expect when you come to a major championship and especially a US Open.”
In all fairness, the USGA didn’t cock up last year’s set-up at Pebble Beach, having stopped the rot, so to speak, after developing an unwelcome reputation for incompetence during a run of US Opens that apparently left some of the game’s leading lights threatening to boycott it at one point. Woodland won fair and square on the California coast and now we’ve just got to wait and see if lessons have indeed been learned by the R&A’s equivalent body across the pond.
“I don’t think the USGA is going to get too crazy. The golf course is hard enough,” said Woodland of a venue where the winning scores at past US Opens back that up. In 1974, not a single player broke par in the first round and 44 carded 80 or worse in a so-called “massacre” while Australian Geoff Ogilvy triumphed with a five-over total on the event’s last visit in 2006.
“The golf course is in front of you,” added Woodland of the famed A W Tillinghast-designed layout that was renovated by Gil Hanse, in recent years. “There’s no tricks to it. You’ve just got to step up and hit good shots.”
No-one has been hitting better shots in the build-up to this tournament than Dustin Johnson. His hopes of adding to a 2016 success at Oakmont, another tough course, looked to be slim when he was hacking his way to back-to-back 80s in the Memorial Tournament in July, but talk about turning things around.
Johnson has won two of his last five events, finished second in two others and is a combined 74-under for 20 rounds. That blistering run of form saw him lift the FedEx Cup for the first time, took him back to world No 1 and he’s also heading into this week’s event as the newly-announced PGA Tour Player of the Year.
“He has been unbelievable,” observed Bob MacIntyre, one of three Scots in the field, of the American. “Since the start of August, after the Memorial where he had a nightmare, he has just flicked a switch and he’s gone from one DJ to another. He’s been unstoppable. Nothing fazes him. I watched the highlight reel of all his hole-outs on social media, and how he reacts. If I’m holing out to win a golf tournament, I’m going to be going mental. He just waves his hand and then saunters up and picks the ball out of the hole as if it’s what he does.”
The trophy has not been out of American hands since Martin Kaymer’s win at Pinehurst in 2014, but, if that run can be ended this weekend, then Jon Rahm could be the man to do it and claim his major breakthrough at the same time.
“I’ve always thought the US Open is the type of golf course I can win on,” said the Spaniard, who won on two tough courses in Muirfield Village and Olympia Fields to claim victories in the Memorial Tournament and BMW Championship respectively since the PGA Tour came out of lockdown in June.
“I know my game can win on any golf course, but when you’re playing good, it becomes a mental challenge and I welcome those. Winning on two of the toughest set-ups since the return to golf is going to give me confidence knowing that I can get it done. It just comes to mental strength and who can endure the most and who can endure until the end. It’s that simple.
“Plus, there’s always something extra special to be possibly the first Spanish player to win a US Open. That would be amazing. So it’s a bit of an extra motivation there to play good this week and do what I have to do.”
Fifty years after Tony Jacklin won his US Open at Hazeltine, Tommy Fleetwood spearheads a strong English contingent. The 29-year-old was fourth at Erin Hills in 2017 and second the following year at Shinnecock Hills, where his closing 63 equalled the championship record and left him just a shot behind Brooks Koepka, an absentee this week due to injury.
“You know what is coming,” said Fleetwood of the US Open. “You are not going to go there wondering ‘what am I going to need this week?’ and what the course is going to be like – which is a good thing –and I have always enjoyed the odd week a year to have an absolute grind out there.”
Fourteen years after making a mess of the 72nd hole along with Colin Montgomerie to open the door for Ogilvy, this could be one of Phil Mickelson’s best chances to finally add the missing piece in his Grand Slam jigsaw. If Lefty can pull it off on Sunday, he’ll land one punter the biggest winning bet in golf history after William Hill US accepted a $45,000 wager at 75/1, meaning he’s in line to scoop $3.375 million. It could be fun, after all!
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