U.S. Open Round Table
12 JUN 2018
By Peter Mumford
The 118th United States Open Championship is being held this week at the venerable Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island, NY. We asked a number of ClubLink pros for their thoughts on the course set-up for this major, the potential for long shot contenders and ultimately who will win the trophy on Sunday evening.
In the past, the USGA has set up the U.S. Open course to supposedly test every facet of a player’s game with narrow fairways, deep penal rough and super fast greens. At Chambers Bay (2015) and Erin Hills (2017), fairways were very generous and scores reflected the softer conditions. Do you prefer a set-up where par means something and the player with the fewest mistakes wins or would you like to see a course where lots of birdies and eagles are possible? Which type of course set-up is a better test for a national championship?
Matthew Belacca, PGA, Director of Operations, Glendale GC: I have always been a fan of the US Open being the hardest test of golf for the players. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want it to get out of hand but I do like seeing guys grinding it out to make par and really put a premium on hitting fairways and the proper spots on the green. I don’t think the winner has to be over par as those conditions would be almost unfair but a winning score of around five under is fine by me.
Scott Johnson, PGA, Director of Operations, Kanata G&CC: I prefer the old style golf courses like Winged Foot, Merion, Olympic Club and Shinnecock Hills, where there is a premium on all aspects of the game. I prefer a set up where everything is tested, and par does mean something. I don’t need 8” rough where your only option is to pitch out back to the fairway, but rather something that has a ½ shot penalty for inaccurate drives – sometimes you can gamble and take on a challenging shot, and sometimes you have to pitch out. I think a better test for a national championship is one where par is the benchmark, but still fair in the set up; I don’t think anyone wants to see a repeat of the pin position on #18 in the 3rd round of the ’98 Open at Olympic Club. The other majors have the excitement of birdies and eagles, and that is what makes them great in their own way. Imagine The Masters without a back nine where you can shoot 30 and come from many strokes back? It wouldn’t be the same event. Each major has its own identity and I think the US Open should be the event where par is still considered a great score.
Ken Lane, PGA, Director of Operations, Caledon Woods: I’m a big fan of the US Open and that is based upon the difficulty surrounding golf course setup. Not only does it prove challenging to ball striking ability, but the best putters are challenged by tricky reads and putts that require feel. In my opinion, the best players in the world always challenge for this title, not because of their name and wins over the past season, but because they can prove their talent with challenging conditions. My experience in a couple of PGA events weighs heavily upon my influence, as for the first time, I witnessed drastic changes from the Pro Am on Wednesday to first round on Thursday. Hard greens made for difficult approaches and green speed challenged a two putt. Friday, the conditions changed again and I never did get to experience the weekend, but can only imagine.
Mark Napier, PGA, Director of Operations, Heron Point Golf Links: I definitely prefer the traditional U.S. Open type set-ups where par has a chance to win at the end of 72 holes. The U.S. Open is usually more of a test of consistency, course management and patience, where almost every other event on tour is a birdie barrage, I find the U.S. Open to be a refreshing change as a fan and viewer, where scrambling is so important.
Brad Sewards, PGA, Director of Operations, Wyndance GC: I believe in the USGA long standing theory of par being a winning score or close to it. We see every week on the PGA tour 20 under wins. I like to see a real test of skill on and around the greens to see who wins. Not the guy who makes the most birdies.
Andrew George, PGA, Director of Operations, King's Riding: I think we are all drawn to watch how a difficult course can be challenging to all golfers in the U.S. Open field, especially the best players in the world. The tight fairways, punishing rough, and length. These guys hit it fair, but the ones that hit it far and straight will win. Obviously a hot putter goes a long way too. The USGA has gone a bit over board with the green speeds throughout the years. Fair greens with trouble everywhere and tight fairways is a recipe for a great national championship.
Many analysts are suggesting that this U.S. Open doesn’t have a favourite and anybody can win. They point to the fact that U.S. Opens are usually won by driving accuracy and a hot putter and heading into this year’s Open most of the top ranked players are struggling in one category or another. Shinnecock Hills will definitely put a premium on accuracy off the tee. In your mind does that eliminate some of the world’s best players and make this a wide open Open or do you subscribe to the theory that everything up to now is immaterial and the cream will rise to the top when it matters most?
Belacca: The cream will always rise to the top and therefore the top ten in the world will always be the favorites and I don’t think Shinnecock will be any different.
Johnson: I am not convinced you need a hot putter to win the US Open. Dustin Johnson won in 2016 at Oakmont and he was T49 in putting average that week, but he was #1 in driving distance and GIR. I think those who are among the leaders in Strokes Gained tee to green will be up at the top of the leaderboard, and even with a mediocre putting week you can still remain in contention. As far as being wide open, I think you always have to favor the best players in the world, they are the best players for a reason, so I think at the end of the day the best players will occupy the top of the leaderboard.
Lane: The cream will rise to the top. While accurate drivers and some of the best putters will hang around the cut, it will take a complete game to compete on Sunday. In the end, experience with winning will provide the formula for success, which means that the top 20 players will be right there.
Napier: I would consider this a wide-open event, with many in the field having a chance to win, if all goes right. As usual, there will be a few unlikely names on the leaderboard throughout the week, but almost assuredly come Sunday night, many of the biggest names will have had a chance to win.
Sewards: How someone is playing or who is hot coming into a test like the US open is a small factor in my opinion. I do believe that the best will always rise to the top in a major and/or a real difficult test of golf.
George: The US Open is essentially survival golf. Keep it in play, roll the ball in to the hole in the least amount of strokes. The best players in the world are on that list for a reason. They generally play good golf when the stakes are at their highest. Someone from the top 10 in the world will win the US Open.
Who is your pick to win the U.S. Open? And who might be a long shot or dark horse to sneak in with the victory?
Belacca: I always root for Rory McIlroy but this U.S Open I am picking Rickie Fowler to win. I think he is due. My dark horse is Kyle Stanley; he is coming in pretty hot right now.
Johnson: As for my pick to win the open…International players have won 8 out of the last 14 US Open Championships, so I do like an international player winning. As far as picking a winner, I like Henrik Stenson. This season he is #1 in Driving Accuracy and GIR, while 33rd in putting, which is good enough to win if his ball striking holds up. As far as an American player goes, if he used the past two weeks to figure out his putting, I like Tiger. He is 5th in SG tee – green and if he can put together a good putting week he will be right there. Sentimental favourite has to be Phil Mickelson, I think this is his last/best chance to win the US Open. Phil always plays well in NY and I think having some familiarity with Shinnecock in a US Open setting will help him, and the NY fans will be rooting hard for him which always allows him to play his best. He’s already finished 2nd at Shinnecock, 2nd at Bethpage, 2nd at Winged Foot, won the PGA at Baltusrol, so NY has been good to him. My Dark Horse would have to be Francesco Molinari. He has been playing great in Europe ( a win at the BMW PGA and a 2nd in the Italian Open) and while his season long putting stats aren’t great, the last two weeks have been good putting weeks, which coupled with his ball striking I think make him a contender.
Lane: A “twenty something” like Justin Thomas will battle along with the other young crew of up and comers, but I like the length and historic success of Dustin Johnson to find his way around Shinnecock to take the U.S. Open in 2018. He may not be a dark horse, but watch out for Ricky Fowler.
Napier: This year I’m going with Justin Rose. He’s so consistent week-to-week, and with his putting stats improving of late, he’s hard to bet against. Coming in under the radar, I like Jason Dufner who’s been lurking on a few leaderboards but hasn’t won in a while.
Sewards: My pick for the V on Sunday is Justin Rose, I think he is playing great this year and I really like the Rose/Foley combination. I also like Patrick Cantlay as a dark horse.
George: Fresh off his dominating win at last week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic, my pick is Dustin Johnson. He’s not really a dark horse but I’m rooting for Phil Mickelson to complete the career grand slam.
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @FairwaysMag