December 18, 2017
Friday, June 16, 2017

All eyes on Erin Hills

Graeme McDowell heads over to the range during a practice round of the US Open golf tournament at Erin Hills.
By David Mackintosh / Golfing Traveller

Will there be a surprise winner at the US Open?

The Herald’s decision to publishweekly on Fridays means that by the time this column hits the street, the 2017 US Open will already be underway. A harsh light under which to review a win-guess scribed earlier in the week. Nevertheless, here we go.

Naturally, pre tee-up favourites are those on whom, if the odds offered were longer, bookmakers would lose money. And that dear reader, explicitly is not the nature of that particular business.

So a line that starts with defending champion Dustin Johnson (6-1) is an indication of little other than bookmakers covering their position. Similarly Rory McIlroy (9-1), Jordan Spieth (10-1), Jason Day (11-1), Jon Rahm (16-1) Hideki Matsuyama (20-1), Justin Rose (20-1), Masters winner Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler 22-1, with 2016 British Open champ Henrik Stenson 25-1, beyond which it’s pretty much pin-sticking.

While Johnson has slipped from dominant early season form, history’s the reason I don’t like his chances. History, as in the last person to win back to back US Opens was Curtis Strange, 1988-89, and before that Ben Hogan, 1950-51. So if Jack couldn’t do it, nor Tiger, nor Tom, nor Lee, nor Billy, I’m inclined to think a slightly off-form Johnson won’t lift the trophy come Sunday.

Logically that might clear the way for McIlroy, Day or Spieth, but if we overview potential performance on the past few weeks results (or lack of them in the case of McIlroy who has been resting a rib injury), although Spieth and Day showed some signs of better form in Texas, neither has won recently and both have been showing signs of putter stress.

Notably, Spieth recently “tested” another putter before quickly reverting to his old faithful while Day, in his most recent outing, looked totally out of touch with the weapon he wielded with such deadly accuracy last season. Of that named list, I tend to favour rookie Rahm, but his seemingly hot-headed response to any unforced error may be his Achilles Heel.

Erin Hills is a new golf course on the US Open list and as such we don’t have past performance statistics to aid us. Officially the course will play to 7,741 yards, with some variance on set-up and conditions, conventional wisdom thus suggesting long sluggers will have a notable advantage. But as Erin Hills is designed to play fast and rolling, with truly punishing fescue rough, accuracy is as likely to pay dividends as length. If that’s a correct assumption, many more seemingly unlikely candidates enter the mix.

First instinct from there takes me to the apparently imperturbable Jason Dufner and a resurgent Webb Simpson. Dufner, the 2013 PGA champion, got too little credit for his recent robust rebound to win the Memorial after an almost ruinous third-round 77, recovering from a self-imposed four-stroke deficit to win by three.

Simpson had been on a long cool spell since his US Open win in 2012 but having cast off his long putter hangover, seemed to have regained a complete game when getting into a title playoff at the Phoenix Open, although losing at the fourth extra hole to Hideki Matsuyama. Both former major championship winners have demonstrated the inner fortitude required to close a major deal.

However, still days away from the actual action, here’s what I believe to be the key. Thanks to a huge financial commitment by course owner Andy Ziegler, a Milwaukee investment-fund manager, the course has been closed to public play since October. Home-state hero Steve Stricker notes the entire golf course is in pristine shape, no old divots, nor any old ball-marks on absolutely perfect, true-rolling greens.

Is it unthinkable that a 50-year old, nowadays playing just part-time on the main Tour, might have any chance at all? On the other hand, if this is a test where the straight hitter and best putter could come out top, Wisconsin’s Stricker is the darkest horse in the barn.

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Edition No. 5055 - This publication is a property of NEFIR S.A. -RNPI Nº 5343955 - Issn 1852 - 9224 - Te. 4349-1500 - San Juan 141 , (C1063ACY) CABA - Director Perdiodístico: Ricardo Daloia