Australian golfers make up nine of the 156-strong field gathered on a crowded Long Island for the 118th US Open at Shinnecock Hills.
It is the fifth time that the storied club – one of the founder members of the United States Golf Association back in the late 19th century – has hosted what Americans grandly call “the National Open.”
The Aussies in question – Jason Day, Jason Scrivener, David Bransdon, Aaron Baddeley, Marc Leishman, Cameron Smith, Matt Jones, Adam Scott and Lucas Herbert – will surely have a range of priorities over the next four days. Some will be happy to play 72-holes in the year’s second major championship. But others will aspire to more lofty goals, Day in particular. Twice a winner on the PGA Tour already this year, the former USPGA champion starts as one of the favourites to lift the strangely nameless trophy come Sunday evening.
Yes, Sunday evening. For sure. At last relinquishing their pedantic grip on the 18-hole Monday play-off so beloved of precisely no one, the blue-blooded USGA have at last given the green light to a more expedient alternative. So it is that, in the event of a tie, a two-hole play-off will decide matters.
Other than Day, all of the usual suspects have gathered in search of major championship glory and the not-yet disclosed (after the halfway cut) first-place cheque. That still secret seven-figure sum, no doubt extravagant, will pale into insignificance beside the off-course income likely to come the way of the man who shoots the lowest score this week.
The new and former World No.1, Dustin Johnson, will start as a slight favourite. Champion two years ago at Oakmont, the big-hitting American won just last week in Memphis. Which sounds good until you realise that no one has ever won the US Open having finished first one week previously.
Elsewhere, the familiar names of Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Jon Rahm will each have their supporters. They are the leading lights in the current generation of stars.
More intriguing, however, are the prospects of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. The latter represents the best story of the week as he attempts to fill in the one blank in his impressive resume. Only five men – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods – have won all four of golf’s most important events. This week Mickleson, six times a runner-up in the US Open has the chance to be the sixth member of the games most exclusive club.
As for Woods, questions remain despite the 14-time major champion’s dramatic progress over the last few months. Ranked 656th at the end of 2017, the 42-year old Californian is now 80th. It is an impressive rise – built on three top-five finishes in nine PGA Tour events – but Woods has yet to win since his return from back surgery and a piece of erratic driving that landed him in jail overnight.
Publicly at least, the likes of McIlroy and Thomas have been making positive noises about Woods’ play. But it has been ten years since his last major victory, a time filled with the emergence of many new stars. All of them younger, stronger and fitter than Woods.
“I don’t think we will ever see that level of play again,” says Mickelson of Woods’ extraordinary 15-shot victory in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach. “It was the most remarkable golf in the history of the game and, I think, unrepeatable. It was that good. I look at 2000 as the benchmark and the greatest golf I have ever witnessed and, I believe, ever has been played.
“It sucked to have to play against him. It really did. I looked at it and wondered how I was ever going to beat that. There was a stretch for a number of years that was so impressive it was hard to imagine that it was actually happening. He was hitting some amazing shots and playing amazingly well.”
Which is not to say that Mickelson, golf’s greatest-ever left-hander, is writing-off Woods’ chances of winning again at the highest level.
“I think once you’ve touched that level of greatness, it has to be easier to get it back than it is to find it for the first time,” he continues. “When you know what it feels like, you know what it takes to get there. You know how to do it. We all love to be challenged and this is a great challenge for Tiger. I don’t think he believes that he can’t get it back.”
So who will win? Predicting the outcome of golf events has forever been a folly. But this column – ever-fearless – has a wee fancy for Henrik Stenson. The Swede’s almost peerless long-game seems made for the intricacies of Shinnecock. And don’t write off at least one of the Aussie contingent. With wind in the forecast, Leishman is worth a sneaky each-way bet. The 34-year old Victorian has come close in majors before – most notably at St. Andrews in 2015 – and will do so again this week. You heard it here first.