US Open 2017: Erin Hills Preview

US Open 2017: Erin Hills Preview

2017-06-07
A preview of the US Open in Wisconsin.

Former champion Jordan Spieth believes winning means "conquering the hardest test in all of golf".

Ex-world number one Adam Scott has called on tournament organisers, the USGA, to shelve their apparent obsession with making the winning score close to level par, adding: "Let's just have something that's a challenge and interesting, not just playing brutal."

Welcome to the US Open, the second oldest major championship and second in the calendar but number one when it comes to a tough - sometimes borderline unfair - test of golf.

As has become the norm, with the exception of Pinehurst in 2014, videos have appeared on social media with players demonstrating the thickness of the rough by dropping a ball and seeing it disappear, RBC Heritage winner Wesley Bryan entitling his clip "Holy wow! Here's your @usopengolf preview."

Justin Rose admitted he had not heard much positive feedback about the course, which hosted the US Amateur in 2011, but the 2013 champion crucially added: "Even at Chambers Bay someone comes away happy, no matter what happens."

In other words, even if the greens are like "putting on broccoli" - as Henrik Stenson said of Chambers Bay in 2015 - the trophy is still handed out on Sunday and recent trends point to the recipient already holding a lofty position in the world rankings. 

Since Darren Clarke and Keegan Bradley won the last two majors of 2011 when ranked 111th and 108th in the world respectively, the lowest-ranked winner of any major has been Jimmy Walker, who was 48th when he won last year's 2016 US PGA Championship.

Walker's fellow 2016 champions Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson and Stenson were ranked 12th, sixth and sixth respectively while Sergio Garcia was 11th before claiming his overdue maiden major title at Augusta in April.

Curtis Strange was the last player to successfully defend the US Open, following his play-off victory over Nick Faldo in 1988 with a one-shot win 12 months later. 

Since 1991, only five champions have finished better than 15th in defence of the title while eight champions missed the cut in the same period, including Martin Kaymer in 2015.

But while history is against Johnson, the world number one remains a worthy 7/1 favourite given his performances this season.

The 32-year-old won the Genesis Open to move to the top of the rankings for the first time in his career and followed that a fortnight later by claiming the WGC-Mexico Championship on a course which did not appear to be totally suited to his game.

Not satisfied with that, Johnson completed the full set of WGC titles - something even Tiger Woods has failed to do - with a dominant performance in the Match Play in Austin before injuring his back on the eve of the Masters and withdrawing just minutes before his first round tee time.

Johnson finished second in the Wells Fargo Championship on his return six weeks later and was also 12th in the Players Championship at Sawgrass before surprisingly missing the cut in the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village.

The biggest concern about Johnson used to be how he handled pressure in the closing stages of major championships, having squandered several opportunities and also being rather unfortunate to be penalised for grounding his club in a "bunker" on the 72nd hole of the 2010 US PGA.

Those doubts were erased by the manner in which he handled another ruling fiasco during the final round of last year's US Open when he was told on the 12th tee that officials would review an incident on the fifth hole after the round.

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Johnson was eventually penalised for causing his ball to move as he lined up a par putt but only after a stunning birdie on the 18th at Oakmont had ensured the result was not in jeopardy.

Behind Johnson in the betting, former champions Spieth and Rory McIlroy are available at 10/1 but both have something to prove for different reasons this season.

Spieth, who beat Johnson to the title when the latter three-putted the 72nd hole at Chambers Bay in 2015, has been inconsistent in 2017, recording a victory at Pebble Beach but missing three cuts in four events before finishing second in the defence of his Dean & Deluca Invitational title. 

The 23-year-old will at least be one of a handful of players in the field to have previous experience of Erin Hills, however, after reaching the quarter-finals of the US Amateur in 2011.

McIlroy's season has been thrown into disarray by the rib injury suffered during extensive club testing over the winter, which kept him sidelined for six weeks after losing a play-off in the South African Open. 

The world number two finished seventh, fourth and seventh in his first three strokeplay events on his return but a recurrence of the problem during the Players Championship saw him withdraw from the BMW PGA Championship and Memorial Tournament. 

That means the four-time major winner will have played just six events before the US Open, an event he won in record-breaking style in 2011 but one in which he has since missed the cut twice and recorded a solitary top-10 finish.

At more than double the price of Spieth and McIlroy, Spain's Sergio Garcia (25/1) offers far more appeal as he tries to become only the seventh player after Craig Wood (1941), Ben Hogan (1951 and 1953)

Arnold Palmer (1960), Jack Nicklaus (1972), Tiger Woods (2002) and Spieth (2015) to win the Masters and US Open in the same year.

Garcia was fifth behind Johnson at Oakmont and the traditionally penal course set-up should suit such a quality ball-striker.

Length off the tee will also be an advantage on a course measuring 7,693 yards, although the winner of the 2011 US Amateur, Kelly Kraft, believes that yardage can be deceptive.

"It doesn't play nearly as long as it looks," Kraft said. "The ball can really run and get moving out there."

Even so, big-hitting American Brooks Koepka warrants attention at 40/1 after overcoming a slow start to the season to finish second in the Valero Texas Open and 16th in the Players Championship. 

Koepka has been tipped for the top since winning three tournaments on the Challenge Tour in 2013 and the Turkish Airlines Open on the European Tour the following year on his way to being named rookie of the year. 

In 2015, he won his maiden PGA Tour title in Phoenix and finished 10th in the Open at St Andrews and fifth in the US PGA at Whistling Straits. Koepka was also fourth in the US Open in 2014 - albeit 10 shots behind runaway winner Kaymer - and shot 71 at Erin Hills in the 2011 US Amateur, although he failed to reach the matchplay stages after carding a 74 at Blue Mound, the other course used for the strokeplay qualifying.

Last but not least, South Africa's Branden Grace (50/1) can contend for his first major title and build on a superb recent record in the event.

Grace was fourth at Chambers Bay in 2015, after driving out of bounds on the 16th hole of the final round, and fifth last year at Oakmont while he has also finished third and fourth in the last two US PGA Championships.

In 2016, he successfully defended his Qatar Masters title and similar windy conditions at Erin Hills would play into his hands.