Over the next 60 or so days, 13 tournaments will be played including three major championships, a WGC event and the Olympics. Not to mention the Ryder Cup teams will basically be wrapped up at the end of all this madness as well. Golf fans, excited much? We are.
It is near impossible to remotely predict how the rest of this summer’s events will pan out. What we can do is evaluate some outstanding questions as we gear up for the second major of the year, the US Open. As of right now, the so-called ‘Big Three’ in golf will all lay claims to having a fruitful summer. Upon dissection, each have questions that remain unanswered.
In twenty years of going head-to-head in Majors, we never witnessed Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods go at it down the stretch over the past two decades. In Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, we have three incredibly talented golfers dominating the sport. Let’s hope we witness them all contest this summer.
The first port of call in this summer’s carnival of golf is the US Open. Just over a week away now, Oakmont Country Club awaits the world’s elite. Known as perhaps the most difficult course in the US, its greatest feat is its set of greens that test a player's ability to putt, and gives superstars nightmares. The downside of that is it doesn’t usually make for exciting tournament viewing.
Will Putter Hold Rory Back?
On the back of his performance at last week’s at Muirfield Village, no. Despite another recent return to a conventional putting grip ahead of the US Open, onlookers (myself included) wondered if the four-time major winner had hit the panic button.
Despite winning the Irish Open with terrific ball striking, he recorded a meagre 127 putts for the week. However, his change in grip proved fruitful. McIlroy finished tied fourth, thanks mainly to being second in the field in strokes gained: putting (SGP) for the week. And his 1.826 average is the best four-round total of his career. "I've never relied on my putting to play my best golf,'' McIlroy said after finishing at 13 under par. "Obviously, when you're winning tournaments, you need to hole a few putts, but I'd be way more comfortable changing my putting grip week to week than I would trying to tinker with my swing or do something with my long game.''
To win at Oakmont, you must putt exceptionally well. Right now, if Rory can keep it long and straight (as he so often does) and putt as well as he did last week at the Memorial, he won’t be far off winning a tournament he claimed back in 2011. "It looks like an awesome golf course,'' said McIlroy. "It looks unbelievably hard and it will reward very good ball-striking. It's going to be tough. I remember watching a little bit of it back in '07 when [Angel] Cabrera won. I'd say you're probably going to expect a similar score to win this year again if conditions are the way they want them to be.'' Cabrera won at Oakmont nine years ago with a total of 285, five over par.
Will Day Justify Favoritism?
He is the best putter on tour. His driving and accuracy are not far behind. Despite not playing well at the Memorial, he showed some solid form for the first three days of that tournament. On top of that, many critics argued Jason Day never seems to get it right at Muirfield Village (his home course) due to the pressure he exerts on himself. That tournament will shake off any lingering rust internally after THE PLAYERS® Championship.
Day hits the ball a mile. He has so much more experience under his belt compared to last year too (he went out in the last grouping on Sunday despite collapsing at the end of his second round due to vertigo). Is he the best player in the world right now? Well yes, he’s ranked number one and goes into this Major as the man to beat. The guy that putts well usually wins. Oakmont is no average course though; it will make you sweat.
With the long-range forecast for rain, a bit of give in the ground will help his cause massively. If he can stay out of the rough and keep his putting up to his regular high standard, it’s hard to look past Day being in the Top 5 at the very least.
Can Spieth Get Game Together?
Defending US Open champ Spieth has endured some indifferent form to say the least since his Masters® meltdown. Last week at the Memorial, he finished a lowly 57th place after a week where bad ball-striking cost him. While he was able to Houdini his way out of some rough spots with his mid-irons at Colonial (where he won), he has to be worried as he heads to Oakmont.
Oakmont agrees with long hitters, so Spieth needs to rectify his lingering issues if he wants to contend in a week’s time. Quite frankly, that is not a lot of time in the golfing world – and even for the brilliance that Jordan Spieth possesses, a win at the US Open would be remarkable given his form of late. But still, stranger things have happened. The one thing Spieth has that trumps everybody is his ability to make cuts and lead groups even when he’s playing badly. His sheer desire to win and lack of self-doubt can never be underestimated; it’s a feat all great sportspeople live by; Michael Jordan had it, Tom Brady has it.
"Just continued work on my ball striking," explained the Texan. "I drove the ball well at periods of time this week, but for the most part, driving accuracy has got to really improve, especially going into Oakmont. I'll work hard."
And what of perennial underachiever and many people’s fancy Dustin Johnson? Fresh off a disappointing solo third at Jack Nicklaus' tournament, Johnson will enter the US Open as the one to watch. Johnson is still searching for his first win of the season, but he does have three top four finishes in his last five starts. Similar in playing style to Day, he is one of the longest drivers on tour (ranks third overall), and it feels like a win is on the way for DJ.
When push comes to shove, I can’t help but think everything seems to be falling into place for Rory McIlroy specifically at the right time as he goes in search of his fifth major. Though his putting issues have been well documented, his performance at last week’s Memorial proved his ability to get the job done. Nobody's going to be making a ton of putts at Oakmont. The winner just needs to make the big ones.
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