2018 US Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
TIGER WOODS is certain to dominate the headlines in the run-up to the 2018 US Open at Shinnecock Hills, New York. Given his incredible comeback from career-threatening back injuries, that is hardly surprising.
The 14-time major champion has rolled back the years with a series of wondrous displays as he continues to defy the critics who had written him off as a spent force. He may now be 42, but Woods is hitting the ball as far as he has ever done, and with every passing week his iron play improves, to such an extent that his game really is not terribly far away from where it was when he was dominating the sport.
The problem for Woods is that the standards he set are now being matched by a clutch of young guns from America and beyond. Justin Thomas, defending champion Brooks Koepka, Masters champion Patrick Reed, Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, Spain’s Jon Rahm, England’s Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton, Jordan Spieth, Daniel Berger, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson. The list goes on and on.
Most of those mentioned above were inspired by watching Woods and they quickly realised that if they were going to have any chance of matching him then they had to do what he was doing. And that meant, with few exceptions, heading for the gym and spending hours every week working out. Everywhere you look on the PGA and European Tour now you will see young men with bulging biceps, capable of propelling the golf ball into the middle of next week.
And then there are Tiger’s contemporaries. England’s Ian Poulter, Paul Casey and Justin Rose have all won on the PGA Tour this season, Phil Mickelson, a six-time runner-up in the US Open, has also won again.
Of all of these men, and the many others who will step onto the first tee on Thursday, the one best equipped to win the US Open is surely Rose. The Englishman is in the form of his life. Not only that, but he has found a way to produce spectacular golf week after week. He has already won twice this season, at the HSBC Champions, where he came from miles behind to overtake a faltering Dustin Johnson, and at the Fort Worth Invitational, where he put on a masterclass, shooting rounds of 66, 64, 66 and 64 at Colonial Country Club. And he followed it with more brilliant golf at The Memorial at Muirfield Village.
The Olympic champion won this tournament at Merion in 2013 and has twice finished runner-up at The Masters. He has already had a look at Shinnecock Hills and will feel that it was made for him. No golfer in the world thinks more about his game and what it takes to negotiate 18 holes than Rose. He will only attack pins if it is the right thing to do, preferring to ensure that he finds the middle of the putting surface and eliminates bogeys from his card.
And the tougher the course, the better he seems to play. Shinnecock Hills will be staging the US Open for the fifth time. It is a par 70 measuring 7,445 yards and it is going to be a huge challenge for the starting field of 156. The rough will be punishing and the greens will be like glass. There is a misconception that Rose is a poor putter - his record at Augusta proves that is simply not the case.
Rose said that his play in winning at Colonial was just about the best he could do - and that is saying something. “My form is as good as it was in 2013. I am back to my very best for sure, especially with my irons.
It is hard to believe that he missed the first 21 cuts of his professional career. That was a tough experience for anybody to take, but it has shaped the athlete he has become. Because he had to work so hard to achieve his success, he has never taken it for granted.
When you look at McIlroy you see a man with a natural golf swing, a man who doesn’t have to think about what he is doing. Rose would be the first to admit that his swing is quite mechanical, that he goes through a specific thought process before every shot he hits. But it works for him, and if he is not in the mix coming down the final stretch on Sunday afternoon it would be a surprise.
Of course, most people would want to see Woods and Mickelson fighting it out over the closing holes. It is a fascinating prospect but it is highly unlikely to happen. Put simply, both men are too wayward from the tee. And you don’t win US Opens unless you find the middle of most fairways. Oh yes, and you also need to be able to putt.
That should play into the hands of Spieth, who, like McIlroy, needs just one more major (the US PGA) to complete the career Grand Slam. He hasn’t had the best of seasons yet he came within a whisker of catching Patrick Reed at The Masters. Like Woods and Jack Nicklaus before him, Spieth is a big-time player, somebody who builds his season around golf’s four majors. He told us before The Masters that his putting stroke would be in fine working order by the time he got to Augusta, and he duly putted the lights out.
And then there is Jason Day. After a miserable time of it in 2017, when he was preoccupied with the ill-health of his mother and parted company with his long-time caddie, Day has rediscovered his very best form. He drives the ball beautifully, is one of the best iron players the game has ever seen and, on his day, is capable of holing every putt he looks at. The Australian has also finished second on two occasions, so he knows how to handle US Open conditions.
Other than Rose, the best chances of a European victory are surely provided by Rahm, Casey and Fleetwood. Rahm is an explosive talent. He also has an explosive temper, which will be tested to the limit by the way the course is set up and, for that reason, he may have to wait a while before claiming his first US Open. Casey has been playing quite beautifully for two or three seasons but this year he finally won again, and it has clearly reignited his hunger for more.
But Fleetwood may be the man to watch. Last year’s winner of the Race to Dubai has become the complete player and contends week after week - in much the way that Rose does. He is deceptively long from the tee and, crucially, more accurate than many of his rivals. He is world-class with a fairway wood in his hands and nobody should be fooled by the claw grip he applies to his putting stroke - this boy can putt. He has contended in both the US Open and the US PGA, has figured in the shake-up in WGC tournaments and has already won again in 2018. If you are looking for an each-way bet, put your mortgage on Fleetwood. He won’t let you down.ß
Whoever wins at Shinnecock Hills has a hard act to follow. The tournament was won in 2011 by McIlroy, in 2012 by Webb Simpson, in 2013 by Rose, in 2014 by Martin Kaymer, in 2015 by Jordan Spieth, in 2016 by Dustin Johnson and last year by Koepka.
Justin Rose. It feels like his time again
Jason Day. Back to his brilliant best
Tommy Fleetwood. Underrate him at your peril
Justin Rose. In the form of his life
Jason Day. Brilliant ball striker, great putter
Tommy Fleetwood. Ferocious competitor
Jordan Spieth. Sure to figure in the mix
Dustin Johnson. Has a point to prove
Rory McIlroy. Can turn his year around with a win
Tiger Woods. He couldn’t, could he?
Brooks Keopka. Don’t rule out a successful defence
Hideki Matsuyama. Always a danger on tough courses
Paul Casey. Confidence is sky high
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