The U.S. Open returns to historic Shinnecock Hills Golf Club this week for the second major of the PGA Tour season. Shinnecock Hills has grown by almost 500 yards since the last time it hosted a national championship in 2004, and today at 7,745 yards, this classic par-70 track is longer than it’s ever been. With its championship length, penal rough, demanding second shots, and relentless greens, Shinnecock will be a psychological test that will frustrate and punish. Here are five things you need to know about the 118th U.S. Open.
Inside the Field
The 156-player field includes 78 fully exempt golfers, 12 of whom are past U.S. Open champions. Twenty amateurs are in the field – the largest number since 1962. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is the odds-on favorite to win and has finished in the top-5 in three of the last four U.S. Opens. World No. 4 Jordan Spieth will try to win his fourth major before the age of 25 but comes in struggling with the putter. Reigning champion Brooks Koepka looks to win back-to-back titles for the first time since Curtis Strange did it in 1989. Rory McIlroy enters in good form with three top-10 finishes this season. Jason Day is a two-time winner this season and has 14 top-10 finishes in major championships. While Tiger Woods will try to duplicate his Torrey Pines magic 10 years after his epic win against Rocco Mediate.
Fighting Father Time?
Phil Mickelson will turn 48 years-old during his 27th U.S. Open appearance this week, and it might be the best chance for Lefty to complete the coveted career Grand Slam. Mickelson has suffered heartbreak more times than any other player - finishing runner-up in the national championship six times. However, Shinnecock is one of Phil’s favorite courses (he finished fourth here in 2004), and this week Shinnecock’s fairways will be even wider than they were in 2004. Give Lefty even more room off the tee, and his short game around the greens could become magical. Nothing would mean more to a graying Mickelson than to cap off his career with a U.S. Open win. Back in 1986, another aging gunslinger considered past his prime was the last man standing at Shinnecock. If Jack can do it, why can’t Phil?
Keys to Contention
The U.S. Open is supposed to test every facet of a players’ game, however, the best historical performers at Shinnecock Hills were solid ball-strikers who displayed great touch around and on the greens. Length off the tee will be an advantage, but green complexes will repel balls not hit perfectly on approach. No one’s going to look at the course and believe they aren’t long enough to win here this week. The key will be disciplined iron play. Factor in that in 2004 additional length was brought in to allow for more creativity around the greens and there are more hazards in play, and the ball-striking and putting combination looks to be a potent formula for success.
Changes Add 446 Yards
When Retief Goosen won the U.S. Open in 2004 at Shinnecock, the course played just under 7,000 yards. This week Shinnecock has stretched to 7,445 yards thanks to new tees on 10 holes, with the most significant coming on hole Nos. 14 and 16. The 14th hole remains a par-4 but now plays at a brutal 519 yards. The winding par-5, 16th hole is even more demanding - now playing at 616 yards. Birdies were easy to come by on these two holes in 2004, but this week will be extremely rare - especially facing the prevailing headwinds.
So Did the Fairways Become Wider or Narrower?
The answer is actually - both. Shinnecock’s fairways averaged 26-yards wide in 2004 for the U.S. Open but afterward went through a restoration project which widened them to approximately 65 yards. The purpose was to restore the angles and shot values architect William Flynn intended. After Erin Hills allowed record scoring last year, however, the USGA decided to bring the fairways back into about 41 yards. The target areas for narrowing are in the 275 to 325-yard range off the tees on longer holes. The USGA believes the added yardage combined with strategic narrowing will prevent long hitters from hammering Shinnecock into submission.
Bryson DeChambeau couldn’t hit the fairway two weeks ago at The Memorial if his life depended on it, yet he still managed to win thanks to a stellar short game. When DeChambeau’s in form, both his driver and irons are clicking for him. Bryson is ranked 11th on Tour in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee, and 14th in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green. DeChambeau can be a dead-eye iron player any given week, and he seems to play his best when the fields are stacked and the courses are tough. If Bryson’s putter can remain steady, he’ll be in a Sunday duel with Phil Mickelson and win his first major championship.