By Tom LaMarre
The best golfers in the world know that par is a good score when it comes to most majors championships, but that should be especially true this week in the 120th United States Open on the famous West Course at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y.
If we know anything about the way courses have been set up for our national championship under Chief Executive Officer Mike Davis of the United States Golf Association in recent years, the fairways will look like hallways, the rough will be thick and the greens will be lightning fast.
As if Winged Foot, designed by A.W. Tillinghast and opened in 1923 before being reworked by Gil Hanse in 2017, wasn’t already tough enough.
“I expect a lot of whining,” television analyst David Feherty told NBC Sports last week. “There will be whining, no question about that. There always is when you got a golf course that’s so penal off the tee.
“ … I’m looking forward to seeing the golf course. I’m a huge A.W. Tillinghast fan. He was bipolar, so that’s one thing we have in common. I mean, I heard a story that he climbed a tree and had a couple of whiskies before he got to work in the morning, so that’s another thing we have in common.”
The U.S. Open champion has finished over par several times, including Brooks Koepka at Shinnecock Hills two years ago, Justin Rose at Merion in 2013, Webb Simpson at the Olympic Club in 2012 and Angel Cabrera at Oakmont in 2007.
And then there was Geoff Ogilvy, who was 5-over-par when he won the last time the U.S. Open was played at Winged Foot in 2006, and Hale Irwin, who won at 7-over in what became known as the “Massacre at Winged Foot” when he claimed the title on the West Course in 1974.
Perhaps that figured into Koepka’s decision to withdraw from what will be the second major of this strange season shaped by the Coronavirus when he announced last week that he will not play because of knee and hip injuries that have plagued him since late last year.
Koepka won two straight U.S. Opens before finishing second to Gary Woodland last year at Pebble Beach, but there will be several former winners of the tournament field.
Tiger Woods has won three Opens, the last in 2008, and 15 major championships in his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18.
Top-ranked Dustin Johnson (pictured), who won the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont and is fresh off his victory in the Tour Championship that gave him the FedEx Cup, is the favorite, and other U.S. Open winners from the last decade in the field include Rory McIlroy (2011), Webb Simpson (2012), Justin Rose (2013), Jordan Speith (2015), Martin Kaymer (2014) and Graeme McDowell (2010).
Second-ranked Jon Rahm probably is the best player never to win a major title, and that list also includes Xander Schauffle, Bryson DeChambeau, Tommy Fleetwood, Rickie Fowler, Patrick Cantlay and Hideki Matsuyama.
And Phil Mickelson, now 50 and winner of five majors, will make his sixth attempt to complete the Career Grand Slam by winning the U.S. Open, in which he has finished second six times.
In 2006, Lefty took a one-stroke lead to the 72nd hole in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot and promptly made a double-bogey 6 to finish one stroke behind Ogilvy.
“I am more than excited to see Winged Foot next week,” TV analyst Roger Maltbie said. “It’s provided some of the sternest tests ever in USGA history and I would expect nothing less than that this coming week.
“It’s kind of widely assumed, and this comes from many different sources and guys that have gone to Winged Foot, players that have gone to Winged Foot in advance, that they’re fully expecting over par to win the championship.”
So there are plenty of intriguing angles, but once the 120th U.S. Open begins, much of the story figures to be about Winged Foot.
- Dustin Johnson, United States – DJ was voted PGA Tour Player of Year by his peers after winning the Tour Championship to claim the FedEx Cup. In last four starts, he tied for second in PGA Championship, won The Northern Trust, lost in a playoff at the BMW Championship and won the season finale. His only major title came in 2016 U.S. Open.
- Jon Rahm, Spain – The second-ranked Rahm probably is the best player in the game without a major title, but he is getting close with four top-10 finishes in the Grand Slam events in the last two years and a tie for 13th in the PGA last month. Rahm, who claimed two victories in the 2020-21 season, tied for third in U.S. Open last year at Pebble Beach.
- Justin Thomas, United States – Claimed his only major title in the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, and his best result in the U.S. Open was a tie for ninth that same year at Erin Hills. Thomas is coming off a season in which he collected three of his 13 PGA Tour victories and recorded 10 other top-10 finishes, including a playoff loss.
- Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland – His four major victories include the 2011 U.S. Open by eight strokes at Congressional in 2011, but he has not won in the Grand Slam events since the 2015 PGA at Valhalla. Rory has three other top-10 results in the U.S. Open. He won the WGC-HSBC Champions among seven top-10 finishes last season.
- Xander Schauffele, United States – Another guy on the list of best players never to win a major, Schauffele posted six top-10 finishes in the Grand Slam events the last four years. His best finish in the U.S. Open was a tie for third last year at Pebble Beach. His best result last season among seven top-10s was a tie for second in Tour Championship.
- Webb Simpson, United States – Captured the 2012 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club for his only victory in the majors, but has only two other top-10 finishes in the Grand Slam events, including a tie for fifth in the 2019 Masters. After winning only once since 2013, Simpson recorded two victories last season among his eight finishes in the top 10.
- Justin Rose, England – Became the first Englishman to win the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970 with his only major victory in 2013 at Merion. Rose has 17 top-10 finishes in the Grand Slam events, including a tie for third in the U.S. Open last year at Pebble Beach and solo ninth in the PGA Championship last month at TPC Harding Park.
- Collin Morikawa, United States – Earned his first major victory last month in the PGA Championship at the age of 23 in only his second start in the Grand Slam events after tying for 35th in the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Morikawa won twice last season among his seven top-10 finishes, and has three wins in little more than a year.
- Bryson DeChambeau, United States – Another player who has put his name on the list of best players without a major title, DeChambeau posted his first top-10 finish in the Grand Slam events when he tied for fourth last month in the PGA Championship. He won the Rocket Mortgage for his eighth victory and had nine other top-10 results last season.
- Tiger Woods, United States – Tiger has not played very often or very well since his 82nd PGA Tour victory in the Zozo Championship late last year, but that showed he can find his game at any time. He has 15 major titles, including the U.S. Open in 2000, 2002 and 2008. He shot 76-76 and missed the cut in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006.
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH: Adam Scott, Australia; Patrick Cantlay, United States; Phil Mickelson, United States; Tommy Fleetwood, England; Jason Day, Australia; Hideki Matsuyama, Japan; Daniel Berger, United States; Shane Lowry, Ireland; Gary Woodland, United States; Patrick Reed, United States.
- Joaquin Niemann, Chile – The 21-year-old won the Greenbrier and was T-3 in BMW among four top-10s last season, and was one of two rookies to make Tour Championship.
- Mackenzie Hughes, United States – Finished T-13, T-10 and T-14 in the three playoff events after finishing solo second in the Honda and T-3 in Travelers earlier last season.
- Cameron Smith, Australia – Won Sony Open in Hawaii and had eight finishes in top 25 last season to reach Tour Championship, where he started 68-68 but faded to a T-24.
- Rasmus Hojgaard, Denmark – The 19-year-old has won on the European Tour in each of the last two years and is making his first appearance in a major championship.
- Will Zalatoris, United States – Posted 10 top-10 finishes on Korn Ferry Tour in the just completed season, winning the TPC Colorado Championship, to lead point standings.