Whereas everything seemed so clear a few weeks ago heading into the Masters – before Dustin Johnson slipped and hurt his back, that is – it is difficult to say with any real certainty that we know how things might unfold over the next four days in the season’s second major.
Part of that, of course, is down to the venue. Erin Hills, which lies to the north-west of Milwaukee, staging the event for the first time – the second venue to be in that position with this tournament in just three years after the USGA took it to Chambers Bay in 2015. The only other time Erin Hills has been in the spotlight was when it staged the US Amateur in 2011, when Kelly Kraft beat Patrick Cantlay in the final to earn a trip to Royal Aberdeen for the Walker Cup later that year.
That means the vast majority of the field, including those at the top of the betting lists, are starting out this week with blank pieces of paper as far as this venue is concerned. There is no previous Erin Hills form on which to base predictions, which is a rare position for a major. Using Chambers Bay as a test case, that might not be such a big factor. Jordan Spieth, after all, was hardly a surprise winner on that occasion and, of course, it could easily have been Johnson in that position a year earlier than when he finally made that big breakthrough.
Another reason that things now seem far less clear heading into this event than Augusta National is that it is difficult to know what we are going to get this week from some of the leading contenders. World No 1 Johnson, for instance, has lost his red-hot form from earlier in the season. The defending champion was also a late arrival at the Wisconsin venue, having delayed his journey until his partner, Paula Gretzky, gave birth to the couple’s second son on Tuesday.
And what about Rory McIlroy? This is his first event in more than a month, having been forced to take his second enforced break of the season due to a niggling rib injury. Having now got his head around how he has to try to “manage” that, the 2011 champion is a man desperate to make up for lost time. He has rust to try to shake off, though, to get that started this week and get back to winning ways in the majors.
The 2014 US PGA was the most recent of his four career-defining victories and, though he is certainly capable of getting in the mix this week if everything clicks into place with his new equipment, especially the putter, next month’s Open Championship at Royal Birkdale seems a more realistic opportunity for the 28-year-old. He now has both Portstewart (Irish Open) and Dundonald Links (Scottish Open) to prepare for that, giving him a better opportunity to claim a second Claret Jug than a second US Open trophy.
Jason Day, the world No 3, has done little this year to suggest he is the man to beat this week, while fourth-ranked Hideki Matsuyama has gone off the boil a bit since he was winning titles for fun a few months back. Which, working our way down the rankings, brings us to the aforementioned Spieth. Can he do it again at a new venue? Quite possibly, though it was concerning to see him dabbling with a different putter earlier this season when you felt that was a part of his game that he wouldn’t have to ever worry about.
In short, there are slight question-marks against the top five, so, for me anyway, that pinsticking could be narrowed down to the players in the next 20 spots. That, of course, takes in Open champion Henrik Stenson and Masters winner Sergio Garcia, as well as the likes of Justin Rose, Alex Noren, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Daniel Berger and Justin Thomas.
Having won this event at Merion in 2013 and come close to adding a second major when losing to Garcia in a play-off in this year’s Masters, Rose definitely looks a decent bet, as does Rahm. He finished as leading amateur behind Johnson at Oakmont 12 months ago and has taken the pro game by storm since then.
As for Noren, the next step in his spectacular rise since winning the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart is to make his presence felt in a major, and this could well be the Swede’s opportunity, the same, of course, applying to Pieters, the hugely-talented young Belgian.
Could this, though, be the year when another American, on the back of Spieth and Johnson, makes that major breakthrough? Fowler, for example. He has won already this season and looks back to his form in 2014, when he finished runner-up in this event, runner-up in the Open Championship, third in the US PGA and fifth in The Masters. Or the likes of Thomas, Koepka or Berger, equally talented players.
It will be interesting to see how Korean Siwoo Kim fares in his first major since announcing his arrival in the world’s top 50 with the polished performance that won him the Players Championship, while you certainly can’t discount those talented South Africans in any event. Twenty years after Ernie Els claimed the title for a second time, it would be no surprise to see Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen or Branden Grace going close this weekend. For Russell Knox, Martin Laird and Richie Ramsay, meanwhile, a top-20 finish at best is probably realistic.
In truth, we really need to get the first round out of the way to get a better picture of what difficulties Erin Hills will provide in the major that takes pride in being the toughest test in golf. A decision to cut some of the knee-high fescue grass in the rough on four holes may have diluted that test a bit, but it will still be sufficiently stern and, in a sense, that feeling of this being a pin-sticker’s US Open actually adds a healthy measure of intrigue.