Dustin Johnson capped off a scorching spell of golf at just the right time. He had at least a share of the 54-hole lead in four consecutive tournaments, turned two of them into wins, rose to world number one and ended the PGA Tour season by winning the FedEx Cup.
It was befitting of a big party and time to relax, except there was no time for it.
The US Open was just around the corner.
Get back to grinding, said Johnson, who was expected at Winged Foot six days later to begin preparing for what would be the toughest test of the year.
The US Open is all about location, and the history of Winged Foot speaks volumes.
Of the 750 players from the previous five US Open at Winged Foot, only two of them completed 72 under par. It was 1984, when Fuzzy Zoeller and Greg Norman each finished 4 under 276, Curtis Strange was five shots behind and Zoeller beat him in the 18 hole playoffs the next day.
The 1974 US Open became known as the Winged Foot Massacre when Hale Irwin won the 7-over par. Geoff Ogilvy won the last US Open on the AW Tillinghast design at 5-over, and most notable is that hardly anyone complained.
This year, however, location has just as much to do with timing.
Evidence of a dead-end year for the COVID-19 pandemic is a US Open moving in September. Golf was closed on March 13 and only resumed a week before the US Open was supposed to be played. Instead, the USGA found a suitable date of September 17-20 in Mamaroneck, New York, about 5 miles from one of the first coronavirus hot spots.
There will be no spectators. Golf is now used to it, although it will be worrying nonetheless. There are US Open fans and US Open fans in New York City. There will be no welcome tents to spare Phil Mickelson a wild tee shot on the 72nd hole.
And for the players, there is no letting go.
Players like Johnson, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas, the world’s three best players for the 120th US Open, will play for the sixth time in eight weeks, all big events, all against the strongest pitches.
It’s weird for all of us, said Tiger Woods, who is at least two weeks off for not making it to the circuit championship.
The last time the US Open was held in September, it turned out to be one of the most defining moments in American golf. Francis Ouimet, a 20-year-old amateur, beat Great Britain’s Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the playoffs and brought golf to the headlines for the first time.
What does this US Open have in store?
Mickelson has the most scar tissue of the 14 players who were at Winged Foot for the 2006 US Open.
He had a one-shot lead playing the last hole when he tried to hit 3-iron over a tree, hit the tree, caught a blocked lie in the bunker and lost a double bogey by one. He was not alone in his troubles. Colin Montgomerie double bogeyed from the fairway and finished second, while Jim Furyk missed a 5-foot putt to also finish a behind.
Mickelson stands out with his six silver medals as a runner-up, while a gold medal is what he needs to complete a career Grand Slam. Now he’s 50, still good enough for William Hill to say that a bettor placed $ 45,000 on Lefty to win at odds of 75-1, a potential payout of $ 3,375,000.
Johnson arrives as the betting favorite based on his recent form and overwhelming talent. His only major was four years ago at the US Open at Oakmont, renowned for being among the toughest courses in America.
These are the classes that I love, says Johnson, already brimming with confidence. The harder the better. All of my wins come on the toughest golf courses I have ever played.
That he only has one major stands out. But despite all of his misadventures, Johnson is in the mix more often than most at the US Open.
He had a three-stroke lead in 2010 at Pebble Beach until it disappeared into a hole and he shot 82. He was a 12-foot eagle away from the win at Chambers Bay in 2015 until ‘He made three putts on the bare green and completed a shot behind Jordan Spieth. And then two years ago at Shinnecock Hills he had a four-shot lead in the weekend until he shot 77 on Saturday to fall in a four-man tie and Brooks Koepka ended up to win.
Koepka won’t be around to extend his incredible wins at Erin Hills in 2017 and Shinnecock Hills in 2018, and pushing Gary Woodland to the finish line at Pebble Beach last year before finishing second. Koepkas’ left knee hasn’t been straight all year, and he ultimately decided to take enough time until he healed. This led him to retire last week.
A US Open without Koepka isn’t as weird as a US Open without qualifications.
Having to move the US Open from Father’s Day to the start of the NFL season was tough enough. The biggest effect of the pandemic on the US Open has been having to eliminate qualifying, a staple of this major for nearly a century. The USGA is proud to say each year that about half of the field had to go through qualifying. Due to over 100 courses involved in two qualifying stages, these were dropped in favor of an entirely exempt field.
There are still 13 amateurs and plenty of non-PGA Tour players typical of any US Open. The field has been reduced from 156 to 144 due to the September date which provides about three hours less daylight.
But the shutdown came a month after the USGA launched a new brand campaign called From Many, One. The idea was for over 9,000 players to enter the US Open, and after local qualifying across the country, world cup qualifying, a 36 hole cup, tremendous pressure on Sunday, a champion emerges.
The last two elements are still in place.
It remains to be determined what type of test the winner will have to pass. Woods and Justin Thomas took a reconnaissance trip to Winged Foot a month ago and although it was mild that day, Woods said he was ready for a US Open. Rahm went there two weeks ago and it didn’t take long to figure out what he would face.
I’m not shocked that the winning score last time was over 5, Rahm said. And if it gets firm like some of the guys in the USGA told me they wanted to, I don’t see how any of us are pulling under par or if we are pulling under par it would be someone. ‘one who would gain a lot.
The comments of Steve Radibeau, director of golf courses at Winged Foot, also drew attention. According to The Journal News, he kept saying, plus 8, plus 8, plus 8, indicating an ideal winning score to top off a very tough summer.
Such a score would match Winged Foot’s reputation. This is where the late Sandy Tatus of the USGA said so well in 1974: “Our intention is not to embarrass the greatest players in the world but to identify them.
At Winged Foot, it’s usually a bit of both.
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