If that sounds like a wildly presumptuous statement, then you obviously missed out on Dustin Johnson’s final round antics at the FedEx St. Jude Classic last week. As did I, only managing to catch the highlights earlier this week. It’s not about the fact that he won by six strokes—there have been many players who’ve won in more dominating fashion—but rather, his demeanour. It’s hard to articulate this just right: let’s say that it was a nonchalant display of superlative golf—dismantling the field and making it look like a regular day in the office. Johnson could have been taking a stroll in the park, that’s how impassive and unflappable he looked. It was, by far, the most commanding performance golf’s most talented athlete has ever given on a final day to wrap up a win; and it was only appropriate that his 171-yard nine-iron on the 72nd hole took one hop and leapt into the cup for an eagle—an incredible exclamation mark as it were.
That was Johnson last Sunday—certain of his own victory well before it was. Today is a different Sunday, a very different golf course, with much more at stake. At the time this column is being written; the first round of the US Open at Shinnecock Hills is underway and Johnson appears to be flirting with red figures—as you’d expect at a US Open—with most of the field struggling to break par. Usually I wait till the culmination of the second round at Major Championships to chime in with my two bits (much to the consternation of the good folk at FE). That would have been the case this week too, if I hadn’t happened to see that replay.
I realise just how lame all of this is going to sound if he doesn’t win, or worse, isn’t even on contention on Sunday; the prudent thing to do would be to talk in odds rather than certainties. But I’m going to go out on a limb here for the man who, this week has regained his spot at the top of the world golf rankings. It’s not about talent anymore: Johnson knew he was going to win last week, and it showed in the way he played, the shots he hit, and the calmness with which he went about sealing up the title. Plus he had all the shots you need at Shinnecock—long curling downhill putts, the 330-yard bombs down the middle, the little spinner chips, you name it. I think Johnson will be untouchable at the US Open. Now no one has ever won a Major Championship after winning an event the preceding week. That’s another curse the world’s top-ranked player is going to break.
In a very half-baked attempt to hedge my bets, let’s spare a thought for who might have a go, in the unlikely event that Johnson backs off. Given the windy conditions, the European players will have the edge—an evinced by the stellar play both Justin Rose and Ian Poulter appear to be putting together on Thursday. It’s too early to say, but if the triple bogey Tiger Woods suffered on the very first hole of the opening round, is any indication, then this may not be TW’s comeback Major win.
Our very own hero, Shubhankar Sharma, is back on track after coming through in a sectional qualifier to get into the field at Shinnecock; he’s shot four-over 75 in his opening round which is perfectly acceptable at this event, and should be able to get into the weekend play at this rate.
The biggest star in the arc lights this week is the golf course. Shinnecock Hills is hallowed a venue as it is possible to find in the game outside of the United Kingdom. It was one of the United States Golf Association’s five founding members, and is hosting the US Open for the fifth time. After hosting the second US Open in 1896, it would be 90 years before the club opened its gates to another. Raymond Floyd captured the 1986 championship, followed by Corey Pavin in 1995 and Retief Goosen in 2004. All three were known for their ball striking and course strategy.
The 2004 edition has unpleasant memories for those who teed it up. The greens, already baked under the sun were rolled twice the night before the first round and deprived of water, which made them so quick that it bordered on the inane.
The green at the 189-yard par 3 seventh slopes heavily from front to back and tilts right to left and became so impossible to hold that the only option was to water it between groups. Just ask Phil Mickelson who’s had the misfortune of being the bridesmaid at the US Open an astonishing six times. In Mickelson’s litany of heart-breaking losses at this tournament, the 2004 edition at Shinnecock must rankle still. Lefty was tied for the lead on the 71st hole when he three-putted from four feet on those glassy greens for a double bogey and lost to Retief Goosen by two strokes.
No two holes at Shinnecock play in the same direction, with the shorter par-4s typically playing into the wind, and the longer ones with it. Another par-3, the 159-yard 11th hole, is the shortest on the course. Its sloping green, which is protected by bunkers, has earned a reputation of being the ‘shortest par-5 in golf’.
For all its history the course is new to the youngest crop of pros in the field who’ve come up the rankings in the last decade and a half. Unlike most courses on tour, Shinnecock rewards precision and deft touches around the greens. In that sense it’s a lot like the Merion Golf Club, where in the 2013 US Open much of the field struggled and the champion, Justin Rose, finished one over par. The winning score tonight is unlikely to be under par, although, given the way Johnson is playing, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility either.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game