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188th US Open: Johnson's the man to beat

 

With a field that reads like a who's who of 21st Century golf and a mouth-watering first prize again of $2.16 million, the defending US Open champion, Brooks Koepke, faces a huge challenge in this week's 118th edition of the US's oldest major at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island in New York.

And barely a month after his return from a 15-week wrist-injury layoff, the big-hitting American will also be pitting his skills against what might well be the toughest and most unforgiving courses he has played in a while.

However, while it could be up there with the best when it comes to toughness, it certainly won't be anything like the farcical brute it was when the US Open was last played there in 2004.

Due to the lack of moisture and a bone-hard, tee-to-green track, the average score in the final round soared to a highest-ever US Open average of 78.73, South Africa's Retief Goosen best surviving the woeful conditions to capture the title with Phil Mickelson in second place.

You can be sure the USGA won't let that happen again. In fact, they have already taken steps to prevent it. Some time ago they hired course architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the men responsible for upgrading Pinehurst No. 2 for the US Open in 2014, and measures have been taken to ensure that while Shinnecock Hills's links-type course remains a stern challenge, it will be a fair one.

Set on the East End of Long Island, century-old Shinnecock Hills is now a long 7,440-yard par 70 course with just two par 5s measuring 589 yards (the 5th) and 616 yards (the 16th) and that is certainly no pushover - especially if the wind gets up as it can quite easily do here without any warning forecast.

Mickelson, who will turn 48 on Saturday and who is seeking to win the only major title he does not already own despite finishing second on six occasions, recently played the course and this is what he had to say: "I think it’s the greatest setup I’ve seen in a US Open.

"I think that the fairways are a very fair width; the rough is brutal, it will be as penalizing as a hazard, trying to just get it back to the fairway. But the fairways are so wide that a well-struck shot ends up in the fairway. It’s not like in the past where you could hit a great drive, get a bad bounce, and you have no lie."

The course has water on only one hole, the 6th, but it is not in play, and with far fewer trees than it has had in the past, Shinnecock Hills relies heavily for its defence on the prevailing sea breezes and numerous false fronts and run-off areas around the greens which is going to heighten the importance of accurately targeting the greens, slick scrambling from the shaved areas around the greens and a liking for poa annua putting surfaces.

Our Golfweather.com forecast sees the wind gusting at between 20 and 3Okm/h on Thursday, calming down into the mid teens and low 20s on Friday and Saturday and then stiffening again late on Sunday when the front runners should be coming down the final stretch.

So who best in the elite field has the skill and the form to exploit the conditions?

The British bookmakers fancy Sunday's runaway winner at TPC Southwind, the 2016 US Open champion Dustin Johnson, whose victory there returned him to the top of the World Rankings list on Monday.

On Tuesday morning the towering US banger was the bookie's favourite at 8/1 followed (a little surprisingly, perhaps) by Northern Irelands Rory McIlroy at 14/1, English form horse Justin Rose and the American World No 2 Justin Thomas, both at 16/1, Australia's Jason Day, a two-time winner this year, and Jordan Spieth, like Day a former World No 1, at 18/1.

Tiger Woods, who on recent form, probably has a better chance of finally increasing his major tally to 15 than he has had in any of his last few years of trial and tribulation, is listed at 22/1 and Koepke, who might find this championship coming up a wee bit too soon after his return from injury, at 25/1.

Mickelson and another of the game's most skilled and dangerous veterans, Henrik Stenson, are close behind at 30/1.

If Johnson is not everybody's favourite, it is for one reason only. No golfer has ever won the US Open in the week after a Tour victory. Right now with his confidence sky high again and his game in great shape and a good fit for Shinnecock Hills, he seems to have everything else going for him.

I also see him as being the man to beat this week and feel that if anyone is going to do it, it most likely will be, Thomas, Rose or Day, all men who right now seem to be able to turn up the heat when the going gets tough and the moment is important enough.

Spieth and McIlroy have possessed this quality in the past, but until the young Texan can find an answer to his putting woes, and the Northern Irishman can rediscover the consistency and the focus that have deserted him for too long, I don't see either of them winning any more majors.

Woods and Mickelson? I wouldn't count them out and certainly, see them as the championship's dark horses.

As always the 2018 US Open is full of exciting possibilities that this time will lead to a new playoff format should there be a tie after 72 holes.

For the first time in its history, a two-hole aggregate playoff will decide who is to be the new champion - and if this is still not enough, the standard sudden-death, playoff will come into play.

LEADING ODDS
(Tuesday a.m. June 12, 2018)

Dustin Johnson 8/1
Rory McIlroy 14/1
Justin Rose 16/1
Justin Thomas 16/1
Jason Day 18/1
Jordan Spieth 18/1
Rickie Fowler 20/1
Jon Rahm 20/1
Tiger Woods 22/1
Brooks Koepka 25/1
Phil Mickelson 30/1
Henrik Stenson 30/1
Hideki Matsuyama 28/1
Branden Grace 35/1
Bryson Dechambeau 40/1
Patrick Reed 40/1
Tommy Fleetwood 45/1
Sergio Garcia 50/1
Paul Casey 45/1
Louis Oosthuizen 55/1
Marc Leishman 50/1
Alex Noren 55/1.

NOTE: For all the latest odds, go to. www.oddschecker.com/golf/us-open/2018-us-open/winner.

To place a bet visit BetWay.  

Neville Leck

Written by neville@golfweather.com.