From left, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth

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Liguori: Tough To Predict US Open Winner As 1st Round Begins

McIlroy, Johnson, Spieth Among Those To Watch

Ann Liguori
June 14, 2018 - 8:52 am
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The 118th U.S. Open starts Thursday morning, and trying to pick a winner seems more difficult for this major than most due to the number of players who are playing so well coming into this championship and the probability that the conditions will be so varying with the changing wind and challenging layout.

Perhaps Justin Rose said it best when he was asked if the U.S. Open was more about hanging around in contention to be there on the last nine holes on Sunday..

“I think so. I think that’s what it’s about,” he said. “I think it’s about who can last and who can handle the continual pressure and the stress this championship puts on your game.”

Having said that, Rose is certainly playing well enough to hoist his second U.S. Open trophy come Sunday. The 2013 U.S. Open winner at Merion has that experience to draw from. The 38-year-old is ranked third in the world, won the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions and the Fort Worth Invitational this year. He has six top-10 finishes. He’s putting better than ever and driving the ball longer. He’s very confident now, and rightly so.

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Meanwhile, who wouldn’t want Phil Mickelson to complete the career grand slam this week? The soon-to-be 48-year-old — his birthday is Saturday — finished second here in 2004 after three-putting on the 17th from 5 feet for a double bogey. Ratief Goosen won by two shots after parring both the 17th and 18th. It was surely a heartbreaker for Michelson. Lefty has six runner-up finishes, four of them at U.S. Opens in New York.

What a story it would be if Mickelson could round out his legend with a U.S. Open title in New York, where he loves the fans who have been so supportive of him through the years. He’s been practicing at Friar’s Head, an incredible about 40 minutes northwest of Shinnecock. And the winner here this week will certainly need to have a flawless short game. Facing many of the new runoff areas from the greens and the tight lies at Shinnecock, Mickelson could benefit from his brilliant short game and creativity, which are unmatched at times.

Rory McIlroy is due to win another major. The four-time major champion won the U.S. Open in 2011 at Congressional, where he set all kinds of scoring records. His last major title was the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla, a few weeks after he won the British Open. The 29-year-old has way too much talent not to win more majors — and soon. He won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill this year and was fifth at the Masters. He loves Shinnecock and calls this area one of “the best places in the world.” He’s been on Long Island enjoying some of the other fine golf courses, including National Golf Links, Friar’s Head and Garden City.

“It’s primarily a second-shot golf course,” McIlroy said of Shinnecock. “Obviously, it’s generous off the tee for the most part, but if you miss the fairways, you’re going to get punished heavily. So it’s just about making sure you put your ball in the right place off the tee and then just really putting your ball in the right place on the greens.” 

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He went on to say that he’ll “adopt quite a conservative strategy off the tee” rather than “hacking my way out of the rough.”   

Jordan Spieth’s short game is certainly good enough to win here. But oddly enough, the 24-year-old has been winless this year. The three-time major champ won the 2015 Masters, 2015 U.S. Open and 2017 British Open. He’s more than ready to taste the fruits of his labor yet again despite struggling with his putter this season. 

Spieth says his “game feels like it’s in really good shape right now, as good as it has this yer. ... Anything similar to the second half of what I did last year would make 2018 an amazing year.”  

Of course, Tiger Woods just being here competing pain-free in a U.S. Open is very significant. His last major win was 10 years ago at Torrey Pines. The last time he played in the U.S. Open was in 2015 at Chambers Bay, but he missed the cut. The wider fairways at Shinnecock should be kind to Tiger from the tee box. And if he can bring a hot putter to Shinnecock all four days, you can never count out the 14-time major champion.

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Justin Thomas has the all-around game to win here. The 2017 PGA champ, FedEx title holder and 2017 Player of the Year won the Honda Classic this year and has the length off the tee, has a razor-sharp iron game and can be a putting machine when he gets on a roll.

Dustin Johnson would be the most likely pick to win this year’s Open after his dominating win last week at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, but in his news conference Tuesday, Johnson said that Monday was the first day he’d ever played Shinnecock. I believe you need experience on this course, particularly with the ever-changing wind directions. But if he drives the ball like he did when he won the U.S. Open at Oakmont and putts like he did there, no one will beat him.

Jason Day and Bubba Watson could also win this week. Day has so much talent. Once he decides he’s ready to be the best in the world, he can win a lot more majors. 

When Day was asked if he thinks he can get back to the point he was at three years ago when he won so many tournaments, he replied: “Yeah, definitely. It’s more of a mindset, I think, more so than anything else. I think if I want to be the best player in the world, I’ll be the best player in the world. And that’s more of the mindset that I have to have.

“I know how hard it is to climb that mountain, how hard it is to do the things that I did do and how much work that you had to actually put into your game to get to that point. ... I’ve just got to keep working. I’ve won twice already this year, and I think if I can keep pushing, keep grinding. I’ve got the second half of the season to go. I’ve got three majors left.”

And finally, Watson has been cruising under the radar this week in terms of pretournament hype. The 39-year-old has the length off the tee and the creative short game to do well on Shinnecock. And like Day and several others, Watson is enjoying the convenience of staying in a recreational  vehicle, which he parked just minutes from the golf course. It’s really made a difference in his life, he told me recently,  as an added convenience for him and his family. The two-time Masters champ won two tournaments this year and is focused on adding another major title to his collection.

Any number of these players and many more can win. Let the games begin and let the seasonal winds howl at Shinnecock.

Follow Ann on Twitter at @AnnLiguori