US Open 2017

Golf: First-timers' trend a factor for US Open

Two-time Major winner Jordan Spieth of the United States plays his shot from the fifth tee during a practice round prior to the US Open at Erin Hills in Hartford, Wisconsin. The former world No. 1 is one of the contenders in a wide-open race for the
Two-time Major winner Jordan Spieth of the United States plays his shot from the fifth tee during a practice round prior to the US Open at Erin Hills in Hartford, Wisconsin. The former world No. 1 is one of the contenders in a wide-open race for the Major title.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

With no single player dominating the Majors, there is no clear favourite to win at Erin Hills

ERIN (Wisconsin) • With the past six Major golf championships won by first-timers, could there be a magnificent seventh at the US Open by the end of this week?

Ever since Jason Day lifted the PGA Championship in 2015, the Majors have been shared by players who had never won a Major before.

Danny Willett's 2016 Masters victory was followed by Dustin Johnson's maiden triumph at the US Open at Oakmont.

Sweden's Henrik Stenson then landed his breakthrough Major at the British Open before Jimmy Walker closed out the year with the PGA Championship.

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The streak continued at the Masters this year, when Sergio Garcia's long wait for a first Major ended with a play-off win over Justin Rose.

Stenson believes the slew of first-time winners reflects the fiercely competitive health of men's golf.

INSPIRING DREAMS OF VICTORY

The competition on a weekly basis is so tight out there and so tough. (There are) so many players in the field that can win.

HENRIK STENSON, on the competitive nature of the current PGA Tour.

"I think the competition on a weekly basis is so tight out there and so tough," Stenson said on Monday after studying the course at Erin Hills, venue for this week's US Open, which tees off on Thursday.

"(There are) so many players in the field that can win," the world No. 6 added.

Stenson is uncertain whether the recent streak will continue, or whether the crop of first-timers will go on to become second- or third-time winners.

But he agreed with the suggestion that first-time winners were inspiring other players to dream.

"There could be something in that," he said. "A lot of times you see that. If I go back to Sweden, I'm sure that success is kind of pushing on more success. We've seen that within countries, for sure.

"It might be the case as well that you say, 'Okay, he won his first Major, why shouldn't I win mine?' "

  • Players to watch

  • The contenders

    DUSTIN JOHNSON (USA)

    •Age: 32

    •World ranking: 1

    After his breakthrough US Open win last year, Johnson seemed poised to take a stranglehold on the men's game this season after scoring three PGA Tour victories and two top-10 finishes in the build-up to the US Masters which helped him ascend to the top of the world rankings.

    But a freak back injury on the eve of the opening round in Augusta derailed his serene progress.

    Nevertheless his big-hitting should ensure he is in contention on Erin Hills' demanding par-72 layout, set to be the longest Major championship course in history.

    RORY MCILROY (NIR)

    •Age: 28

    •World ranking: 2

    The Northern Irishman's preparations for Erin Hills have been interrupted by a niggling rib and back injury which have curtailed his appearances on the PGA Tour.

    McIlroy, however, is looking forward to returning to the Open, which was the scene of his maiden Major championship triumph in 2011, where he posted a tournament low of 16-under 268 for 72 holes.

    The dark horses

    JON RAHM (ESP)

    •Age: 22

    •World ranking: 10

    The big-hitting Spaniard has made a smooth transition to the professional game after an amateur career that included a 60-week spell at world No. 1.

    He signalled his talent at the US Open at Oakmont last year when he tied for 23rd place while still an amateur. His 2017 season began with a superb victory at the Farmers Insurance Open in January. He also finished two behind winner Johnson at the WGC-Mexico Championship, and also pushed the American all the way in the final of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.

    HIDEKI MATSUYAMA (JPN)

    •Age: 25

    •World ranking: 4

    Matsuyama increasingly looks the likeliest bet to join South Korea's Yang Yong Eun as the only Asian-born men to win a Major championship.

    The Japanese had a mixed record in Majors last year, posting a seventh-placed finish at the US Masters before missing the cuts at the US and British Opens. He then earned a fourth-placed finish at the PGA Championship.

    This season, he retained the Phoenix Open with a play-off win over Webb Simpson, and performed solidly at Augusta with an 11th-placed finish.

    AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Making a prediction of who will win the US Open is certainly a difficult one, as most of the favourites have at least a question mark hovering over them, while other players have claimed most of the recent victories on the PGA Tour.

Consider that defending champion and world No. 1 Johnson, who missed the Masters in April after hurting his back, failed to make the cut at the Memorial tournament last week.

Or that world No. 2 Rory McIlroy has not played in nearly a month, since reporting back problems at the Players Championship.

And the next two players in the rankings, Australian Day and Japanese Hideki Matsuyama, have been quiet, which is almost enough to make a professional gambler decide to throw a dart at the entry list to find a prospective winner.

Johnson, however, is confident that he can repeat the run of form that he had hit, prior to injuring his back. The American was on a streak of three PGA Tour victories before pulling out of the tournament in Augusta.

"Before I injured myself, I was playing really well. Everything was just really solid," the 32-year-old said.

"It's getting back to where I'm getting a lot more comfortable and a lot more confident in the game. I feel like the game, as far as from last year to this year, is not really much different."

Day added that his game plan would be the same as ever at the US Open - eliminate single-hole disasters by avoiding unnecessary risks, find the fairway off the tee and stay in emotional control.

"Get your birdies when you can. Always try and stay positive, and never think you're out of it," he said.

Those are hardly state secrets but knowing them and having the discipline to abide by them are two different things.

Patience and shot execution will be key. Those who do best at managing both will at least have a chance among a field where there are no clear favourites.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2017, with the headline 'First-timers' trend a factor for US Open'. Print Edition | Subscribe