2018 U.S. Open preview: 10 players to watch at Shinnecock Hills

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Here are 10 players to watch as contenders at the U.S. Open championship, starting on Thursday, June 14, at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y.

Dustin Johnson

OWGR: 2
Best U.S. Open finish: 1
Last three U.S. Opens: T-2, 1, MC

This year: Lost the top spot in world despite a nice West Coast swing. Has continued to play fine but not up to his abilities. A T-10 at Masters flashed signs of his ability. Johnson finally had a respectable Players Championship (T-17) thanks to a putter switch and use of AimPoint.

Why he could win: Adapts well to any course and should love the links vibe of Shinnecock. If the wind blows, Johnson won’t mind one bit. If it’s softened by rain, the course should be wide enough for him to attack with his driver.

Holding him back: Statistically his worst category this year has been in approaching the greens, and even there he’s 39th in strokes gained.

Justin Rose

OWGR: 3

Best U.S. Open finish: 5 (2013)

Last three U.S. Opens: T-27, MC, MC

This year: Dominating Colonial win was his first since last fall’s WGC-HSBC Shanghai. Had been his usual
consistent self, minus a signature 2018 win, but ballstriking performance at Colonial was best of his career.

Why he could win: The 2013 U.S. Open champion is a much different player
than he was in ’04 (MC at Shinnecock), building his schedule around the majors and playing with a repeating swing
that continues to crank out long, accurate drives. He’s also having a sensational year on the greens.

Holding him back: The surprisingly mediocre season-long approach play headed to Shinnecock Hills’ small, presumably firm greens does not bode well.

Phil Mickelson

OWGR: 20

Best U.S. Open finish: 2

Last three U.S. Opens: T-64, MC, DNP

This year: A win at the WGC-Mexico Championship is among five top-6 finishes in 2018. Before a Players missed cut, a second-round 79 at the Masters was his only real blemish.

Why he could win: Finished second the last time the U.S. Open was here, and at least two strokes were cost by USGA course setup mistakes. A perfect golf course for Mickelson’s game if he isn’t having any of the “energy” issues he faced at Players. Somehow his short game gets better with age.

Holding him back: Bad tee times, residual anger from the 2004 missed opportunity or the energy deficiencies experienced at the Players. Otherwise, only statistical weakness remains off the tee.

Webb Simpson

OWGR: 21

Best U.S. Open finish: 1 (2012)

Last three U.S. Opens: MC, MC, T-35

This year: Players winner hit fairways at over an 80 percent clip, managed the course masterfully and putted better than he ever has thanks to a new hybrid grip.

Why he could win: A classic U.S. Open grinder who already has plodded his way to victory, Simpson seems to have found new levels of confidence and passion. He is playing aggressively to conservative targets, which could work at Shinnecock Hills.

Holding him back: Not much. Simpson’s stats all year have pointed to consistency and few weaknesses. Residual frustration experienced by the anchoring ban is gone, and other than being a relatively shorter hitters – still averaging almost 290 off the tee – Simpson is a long hitter compared to Shinnecock’s 1995 winner, Corey Pavin.

Tiger Woods

OWGR: 80

Best U.S. Open finish: 1 (2000, 2002, 2008)

Last three U.S. Opens

This year: Outside of a Genesis Open MC and lackluster Masters-Wells Fargo stretch, Woods has exceeded expectations in comeback from multiple surgeries. The T-11 at the Players may, oddly, prove to be his best event yet given the Tiger-of-old stretches over the weekend. His Friday-Saturday run at the Memorial also rekindled plenty of old but good memories.

Why he could win: Driving accuracy has been so-so. Any improvement there, or an abundance of his go-to stingers, could be enough to let his iron play, short game and mostly great putting carry him. He should love the course given the design values and his enjoyment of wind-swept landscapes.

Holding him back: Shinnecock memories aren’t great for Woods, who WD’d here as an amateur in 1995 and finished T-17 after weekend rounds of 73-76 in 2004.

Jason Day

OWGR: 8

Best U.S. Open finish: 2 (2011, 2013)

Last three U.S. Opens: T-9, T-8, MC

This year: Two wins at two big, tough golf courses in Torrey Pines and Quail Hollow. Contended at Players, and reduced schedule seems to have one of golf’s big talents showing up ready to play as well as ever.

Why he could win: Should not be fazed by any element of Shinnecock Hills with his driving, chipping and putting prowess. Short game has been
unusually amazing.

Holding him back: Almost shockingly bad with his iron play for someone who has won twice, and Shinnecock is not kind to poor iron misses. Outside the top 150 in strokes gained approach-the-green. Has survived on ability to overpower a course and to score with his wedges.

Jordan Spieth

OWGR: 5

Best U.S. Open finish: 1 (2015)

Last three U.S. Opens: 1, T-37, T-35

This year: Dropped two spots in World Ranking this week. Other than an incredible Masters Round 4 undone by a final-hole tree branch, Spieth has been frustratingly far from greatness.

Why he could win: He has made the case his ballstriking has never been better. He’s second in strokes gained tee-to-green and can get up and down with the best of them. Shinnecock should be right up his alley. The wind, the precision and imagination required – and the sense he’s oh-so-close – places him among the favorites.

Holding him back: There is cause for concern to see a truly great putter fall to below average. To be barely inside the top 200 in strokes gained putting must frustrate someone so used to mastering the greens.

Justin Thomas

OWGR: 1

Best U.S. Open finish: T-9 (2017)

Last three U.S. Opens: DNP, T-32, T-9

This year: Strong play has been anchored by the stretch featuring his Honda Classic win, playoff loss in the WGC-Mexico Championship and a semifinal appearance in the WGC-Dell Match Play. Has not been worse than T-22 in his non-team starts through the Players (T-11).

Why he could win: Has been a picture of consistency while appearing to do nothing exceptionally well, a sign of course management and a knack for scoring. Approach play is his strength, and that should pay off at Shinnecock. Memories of last year’s third-round 63 at Erin Hills should fuel his confidence.

Holding him back: Putting has been below average except when he’s putting for birdie, where he’s one of the Tour’s best.

Brooks Koepka

OWGR: 9

Best U.S. Open finish: 1 (2017)

Last three U.S. Opens: T-18, T-13, 1

This year: Out with a wrist injury since the Sentry Tournament of Champions, Koepka returned at Zurich and missed the cut with partner Marc Turnesa, then finished T-42 at Wells Fargo, T-11 at the Players where he suffered a freak re-injury after holding up a swing to avoid drilling some volunteers and, most impressively, second at Colonial.

Why he could win: When healthy, has all of the skills to deal with a course like Shinnecock Hills. Final-round 63 at
Players tied the course record, and strong play at Colonial suggests he’s knocked off any rust. Has the power to keep the driver in his bag.

Holding him back: Putting hasn’t been particularly great. How he adapts to Shinnecock’s greens will be key.

Rickie Fowler

OWGR: 7

Best U.S. Open finish: T-2 (2014)

Last three U.S. Opens:  MC, MC, T-5

This year: Normally a picture of consistency, results were more mixed until that second-place Masters finish. Finished one behind Patrick Reed thanks to a 65-67 finish.

Why he could win: Reaction to heartbreaking Masters defeat was telling – Fowler said it was the first time he genuinely believed he deserved a major win. Now heads to a course he has proclaimed a favorite and where he shot 65 last summer in a leisurely round. Great wind player and excellent ballstriker.

Holding him back: Mounting pressure of “best to not win a major” label should not wear on him given his repeated ability to get in position to win. If stats are any indication, it all comes down
to putting.

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