Golf expert Ben Coley is buying into two of the biggest potential storylines at the US Open, including Phil Mickelson's grand slam bid.
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Few things are certain heading into any major championship, let alone this one, but it seems clear that the 118th United States Open Championship will be among the better-received editions in memory. Even for this writer, unable to watch the US Open as a child and instead raised on a diet of Green Jackets and Claret Jugs, it's hard not to consider the 2018 US Open as the most exciting of this year's four, and that's all because of one thing: a long-awaited return to Shinnecock Hills.
Last year's experiment at Erin Hills produced a brilliant and worthy champion, a prototypical modern golfer, but not the test we've come to expect. Fairways made wide enough so as to protect players from the weather in the end protected them from thought and fear, as Brooks Koepka bludgeoned his way to 16-under and his top-level breakthrough.
In 2016, the problem was not the course set-up but those charged with making sure things run smoothly and fairly. Thankfully, Dustin Johnson saved everyone in summoning the quality to rise above the stupidity, not least the rules officials who failed to match the immediacy of their decision-making with the enormity of the situation.
And so it goes on. Chambers Bay, Olympic Club, Merion... all of these venues and others besides have been let down either by luck or, more often, misjudgement. The artificial protection of par has produced some infuriating set-ups which have done their best to undermine winners deserving of better.
Shinnecock should restore order. This is a course considered by many to be if not the finest in the United States, then a fixture inside the top five. It is more than a century old and has been lovingly restored, twice, always with the principles of its founder in mind. Experts in golf architecture consider this page one of the manual, the part of the so-called Golden Era we can learn most from today.
What makes Shinnecock so special is that it demands total focus and execution from a golfer. Holes run this way and that, no two fairways adjacent, and each and every shot requires thought - there are options from tee to green and selecting the right one is almost as important as producing the shot once that part has been completed. And, like many of the great links courses which influenced it, danger lurks everywhere should a player fail on either count.
Since the US Open was last played here, in 2004, when the USGA again conspired to take part in the story by drying out greens to the extent that in-play watering was required, the course has undergone remedial work from Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, which you can read about at Golf Digest or the Fried Egg, but perhaps the most significant event in terms of how it will play came after that when Raymond Floyd, a winner here in 1986, called USGA director Mike Davis following last year's US Open.
Floyd was concerned. He'd seen what these young bucks could do when presented with wide fairways and calm conditions, and baulked at the idea that Shinnecock could be left behind by the sport it has helped to build. Coore and Crenshaw's widening of fairways had been necessary but needed to be trimmed back, he said, and Davis was wise enough to listen.
What we're left with is a monster of a par 70, which weighs in at 7,440 yards, and fairway widths are still up on 2004, when Retief Goosen won in four-under. It's hard therefore to predict a winning score some 14 years on: on the one hand it's reasonable to suggest that the near 500 yards added onto the length of the course outweighs the increase in driving distances; on the other, the depth of the highest level has increased and these players will not have to putt on glass.
Fortunately, we don't have to work out what number will be required to know what it's going to take to win. At 7,440 yards, there can be little doubt that power will be an enormous advantage, especially as it increases the options available from the tee. Players have largely been coy on that notion so far, but the next circle of insiders reveal plenty. Ted Scott, caddie for Bubba Watson, said with confidence that a "long hitter will hoist the trophy" and he's not alone. He may also be right.
We can say with some certainty that a sharp short-game is going to be required. The green complexes at Shinnecock are one of its great defences and when they get firm, which tends to be the case on this sand-based course which really does play like a links granted dry weather, only those with the deftest of touches can survive. Famously, one player intentionally hit his tee-shot into a bunker at the par-three seventh in 2004, deciding that was his best route to par, and so it proved.
That man was Phil Mickelson, and he rates the best bet in his quest for a career grand slam.
Six-times a US Open runner-up, including here in 2004, Mickelson is an event specialist whose best performances have all come out here in the east. The consistency with which he's contended for this title, over two decades, is both remarkable and significant: it tells us that his skills are suited to USGA set-ups and that his weaknesses tend not to be exposed by them.
Mickelson's waywardness off the tee rails against the archaic notion that accuracy counts most at this major championship. At Merion five years ago, his latest near-miss, the theory was that missing fairways would be the difference yet at the front of the leaderboard on that rain-soaked par 70 were a glut of bombers, the likes of Jason Day and Phil himself proving that it's what you do after the tee-shot which counts.
Seven years earlier was Mickelson's most painful defeat, as he hacked his way to second having led at Winged Foot entering the closing stretch. Again, missing fairways was not a problem, broadly speaking, even at a course whose rough was considered extreme. The left-hander hit little more than 40 per cent and ranked a lowly 51st in driving accuracy.
All of this is old news, but the good news is that Mickelson is just as dangerous as he ever was.
Second on the PGA Tour in putting, Mickelson and Day carrying a significant advantage over the rest, he's also 10th in approach play and it is only the driver which is consistently letting him down. It seems a reasonable working theory that the combination of wider fairways, a focus brought about by the US Open and the likelihood that accuracy is again less significant than power makes Phil an ideal candidate based on a couple of years' statistics which confirm he's one of the best around once tee shots are out of the way.
Shinnecock is also a place he loves, something he confirmed again recently. "I think that this year’s US Open has the greatest setup going that I have seen in my 25 years of playing the US Open," Mickelson said. "I think that it will reward the best player as opposed to having luck be a big element on some of the bounces in the fairway, bounces around the green, how it comes out of the rough, and so forth. Skill is going to be the primary factor."
When it comes to skill with a golf ball, few are better and Mickelson's performance in Memphis, where he finished well for 12th, backed up the promise of 13th place in the Memorial Tournament where for all bar 10 crazy holes in round one he was just about as good as anyone in the field - one of the strongest assembled all season.
Crucially, he's shaken off concerns around a winless run which had dated back to the 2013 Open Championship by securing the WGC-Mexico Championship, taking down the red-hot Justin Thomas for good measure, and the only blot on his copybook since a rusty return in January comes via the PLAYERS Championship. Time and again, Mickelson has reminded us that we should simply ignore how he plays at Sawgrass, and that's precisely what I'll do.
When you back Mickelson, you take certain things on board, among which is his ability to shoot himself out of the tournament in less than an hour. That's the trade off for a player who can equally play his way into a tournament with a devastating run or save par when he looks like making double or worse, undoubtedly one of the qualities which has made him such a consistent threat in the season's second major.
Ultimately, my idea of the winner this week is a player long off the tee, able to control their approach shots and think creatively around the greens, and I worry least about accuracy with driver. That formula puts Mickelson at the top of the list and the icing on the cake is that he continues to be underestimated in the market.
By contrast, Rickie Fowler is usually overrated by the layers but I've warmed to the idea, to say the least, that this could 'finally' be his week, and he's at least in the right position: below the best, ahead of the rest.
A shot-maker who at times looks like the best putter on the planet, Fowler is very much suited to Shinnecock and fired an effortless 65 here in practice last year according to his neighbour Thomas, who matched his score and did warn that it was as good as irrelevant, conditions having been far different from those expected this week.
Fowler has, though, said that Shinnecock is one of his favourite venues in the world and his best US Open effort yet came at the course which may provide the best pointer, with Coore and Crenshaw having been involved in a fabulous restoration of Pinehurst prior to Martin Kaymer's romp there four years ago, when Fowler finished second.
It's true that 2018 hasn't been altogether successful for the Californian and he's failed to add to a fairly modest return of four PGA Tour titles, but the putter warmed up noticeably at Colonial and it strikes me that, since the Masters, his gaze has been fixed on the US Open.
Fowler confirmed as much himself after round one of the Memorial and while I don't agree that it's the best way to prepare - there is no substitute for winning, after all - I do believe it adds a different complexion to form figures of 14th and eighth across these two events.
His more recent PGA Tour wins, plus his career-highlight success in the PLAYERS, have come on the back of top-10 finishes but the reason I'm sweet on him here is more to do with the things we can't see or measure, chiefly the idea that he is ready, just like Johnson was two years ago after his own run of heartbreaks.
Although his efforts at Hoylake and Pinehurst in 2014 were solid enough, especially given that he was chasing those who just would not be caught, it's surely beyond dispute that Fowler's second at Augusta in the spring was his toughest performance yet. The final hole alone confirmed to me that when he next has a chance to land one of these, he won't fail for a lack of belief or inability to execute the shots he needs.
"It was really kind of the first time that I knew I could go get the job done," said the 29-year-old. "We're ready to go do it. It's time to get myself off that list."
It may be significant that this improved attitude came in Fowler's first major start since Thomas won the PGA Championship. While the worn view is of Thomas and Jordan Spieth as best friends, it's actually Thomas and Fowler who spend more time together on tour, sharing houses whenever they play in the same event, and success for one can absolutely rub off on the other.
Less speculatively, Fowler's two best Masters performances prior to this year were followed by contending in the US Open; indeed the only time he'd previously bagged a top-five at Augusta was 2014, the year in which he went on to take second at Pinehurst and again at Hoylake before hitting the front during the back-nine of the PGA Championship at Valhalla, ultimately finishing third.
Throw in the fact that he plays tough courses well, grew up on poa annua greens and will carry huge support among the passionate, noisy New York crowds, and everything is in place for a man who is undoubtedly good enough to get the job done.
I got the distinct impression at Augusta that Fowler had decided enough is enough, and we now head to a course which looks made for his game, one of creativity and curvature, underestimated power and unmistakable touch. His credentials appear rock solid.
Of those at the front of the betting, DJ of course looks a danger but I'm in no rush to take 7/1 in a field like this, when we can't be certain how he'll go at the course - even if it would appear to suit. Don't forget, last week he triumphed in a weak event, one he'd won before on a course he'd taken apart before, and at around the 7/1 mark. Those on at double-figure prices are in excellent shape and may well collect, but the price has gone.
Thomas was favourite heading into the final round of last year's renewal and won his first major under the demanding conditions of Quail Hollow soon after, but it was extremely soft there and I've not seen quite enough from him under these conditions to get involved. Rory McIlroy is another who would be better served by a downpour which doesn't appear likely to come and while both are strong candidates, I have doubts enough to look elsewhere.
That leaves Jason Day and Justin Rose from the remaining market principals, and with Rose's record in the Open Championship a nagging concern when it comes to adapting to firm, fast conditions, it's Day who I found hardest to oppose. The best putter on the planet right now, he'll go really well if tidying up the iron play and five top-10 finishes in seven US Open appearances demonstrate his level of adaptability.
As for Tiger Woods, I am positive on his prospects but not on his price. Weighing up where he should be in the market has been one of the biggest challenges of the season, but if there's genuine value in 20/1 I can't see it, although I appreciate the counter argument when it comes to the second of my selections. For Woods, perhaps the next step on the road to major number 15 is to win somewhere else, perhaps even at Firestone.
Instead of taking another from the top, where Hideki Matsuyama's price did make me think twice, I'll round off a power-packed staking plan with Louis Oosthuizen and Gary Woodland.
The case for Oosthuizen is straightforward: few in his bracket have so consistently threatened to win majors this century, and his victory at St Andrews at the start of it suggests that Shinnecock could well be an ideal place for his second.
Oosthuizen has the grand slam of runner-up finishes in his locker, so we're a shot here or there from talking about a five-time major champion. That's at odds with his record outside of the four events which matter most and it's hard to fathom that he's not won in the United States, nor has he won a high-profile European Tour event since that Open triumph some eight years ago.
We are, however, talking about a major championship here and Oosthuizen has proven time and again that they bring out his best. He was runner-up at Chambers Bay despite an awful start and runner-up again in the PGA Championship late last year, with a top-15 finish at the Masters in the spring further underlining that he's entitled to give us a serious run at the places.
Crucially, Oosthuizen's form has improved this spring with fifth at Fort Worth and 13th in the Memorial and there's real encouragement to be taken from his work around the greens, which currently ranks among the best on the circuit. The chief issue has been his approach play and it will need to improve, but this sweet swinger is far better in that department than his numbers suggest and can turn it on out of nowhere, particularly under firm conditions.
As for Woodland, he is the most powerful of the four selections and there have been noises from within his camp that things are turning in time for this test.
Yet to really make his mark at the business end of a major championship, Woodland undoubtedly has the ability and this is the first year since 2011 that he's been able to attack them buoyed by a win earlier in the campaign.
Back then, he finished between 12th and 30th in all four and while a missed cut at this year's Masters means he can't match that streak, he could certainly bag his first top-10 and contend on a course which will play into the hands of athletes like him who hit the ball high and far.
Woodland's victory this year came in Phoenix and after a spring slump he showed signs of life at the Memorial, where his driving and approach play were both outstanding. He ended last year ranked 15th in the latter category and will soon be heading back towards that mark if building on a bogey-free closing round at Muirfield Village before heading out to Vegas to put the finishing touches on his preparations under the watchful eye of Butch Harmon.
Poa annua greens are fine for a player once runner-up to Rory in the WGC-Match Play in San Francisco and so often flirting with the leaders at Torrey Pines, and providing his short-game is in good enough shape I'm expecting Woodland's best major performance yet. Whether it's enough to win perhaps we'll see, but when looking for someone at a price who hits the ball a long way, he stood out a mile.
Posted at 2030 BST on 11/06/18.