Niall Lyons has gone in on five golfers for the second major of the year.
Thursday marks the start of a carnival of sport with nations from far and wide gathering together having successfully negotiated a gruelling qualification process. Yes, The US Open is on our doorstep and the second major of the year promises to be as good as the last with one of America's greatest venues hosting the event. Shinnecock Hills in New York is the second stop on the major tour this season and having hosted the US Open 5 times before there is little we don't know about America's finest links. As ever, it is the course we analyse first in determining who will come out on top.
In 2004 the Shinnecock Open was labelled a farce as green speeds got totally out of control and the USGA having to make the unthinkable decision to water the greens during play thus rendering it unfair for plenty in the field. Retief Goosen came out on top at a magnificent 4 under par to pip Phil Mickelson. The course and conditions have changed since then and this years Shinnecock will play a lot different.
Since 2004 Coore and Crenshaw (the duo behind the Trinity Forest build for this years Byron Nelson) widened the fairways significantly. Mike Davis has since narrowed the fairways for this years championship but this remains the widest the fairways have ever played at Shinnecock Hills. This no doubt plays into the hands of the longer hitters and if they can see the angles well off the tee they should be able to gain significant advantage and be able to fly some trouble that the shorter hitters can not. Greens are bigger than last time also and run off areas will now greet the players if you miss with your approach.
This is a significant change as heavy rough was all around the greens back in 2004 so the challenge is a lot different this time around, although I doubt it will be tougher than the rough we saw last time around. There are plenty of elevation changes and raised greens look at you from the fairways. All the trees have been removed so the course is even more open to wind than it was before.
Even the slightest of breezes can cause havoc around here and although the weather looks relatively calm, maybe Thursday will see the worst of the wind. Overall I am leaning towards the bigger hitters, those who have a high ball flight to land nicely onto raised greens, and potentially those with a little 'American links' form around these tracks we've seen in the last decade.
Dustin Johnson heads the betting and it is no surprise to see him shortening after his heroics on the 18th hole on Sunday in Memphis. He won the St Jude Classic on the bridle despite not playing his 'A' game. The course on paper sets up well for Dustin with driving being a huge advantage around this track. His high ball flight will also allow to him to fire at the pins however I am unconvinced he is at the top of his game.
He was ropey enough on Sunday and a very shaky Putnam stayed close by for the majority of the round only to falter towards the end. DJ's driving wasn't his best and leaky shots around Shinnecock will yield penalties. I see better betting propositions for someone whose best finish in a major is tied 10th since winning this event a few years ago.
McIlroy slots in as second fav and who can deny him a chance given the way he has played this season. He is probably the best of them all at the top of the betting all year despite spurning a handful of opportunities to win. If he turns up with his 'A' game nobody will compete with him. There has been enough evidence this season though of his mental frailties and it remains to be seen if he can get the heights of his last US Open victory.
Newly engaged RICKIE FOWLER (best price 20-1) leads my band of merry men as we seek another profitable Major Championship. Shinnecock has been called America's truest links and there's not many yanks better equipped than Fowler to take on this type of test. Rickie has a runner up and a 5th placed finish at the Open on this side of the water and is now has a myriad of fine finishes in Major Championships.
In 2014 he wasn't outside the top 5 in all four and his last four attempts these big events read 5-22-5-2. Rickie has battled some mental issues in the past on the course and it was interesting to hear Butch Harmon talk about Rickie and his caddie concentrating on one hole at a time at the Masters, something he hadn't done in the past. It was a shift in tactics anyhow and it very nearly resulted in Rickie's first Major.
Hopefully the same mindset is deployed here and Rickie must have every chance. His putter is a big weapon and he isn't too shabby length wise off the tee either. He finished 4 shots off the pace last time out at the Memorial despite going in the water three times that week. Rickie talked about these loose shots in the run up to the Masters where he explained his swing changes felt super although implementation was resulting in the odd wayward swing from time to time.
That was evident in his results, coming up short due to some bogeys and double bogeys at crucial times. Results look ominous though and Rickie could be on the verge of something massive. It took time for him to learn how to win on the tour also, and the same seems to be playing out in the Major category. 8 of the last 9 winners of Majors have been first timers, Rickie looks primed to make that 9 out of the last 10.
With all the trees removed from Shinnecock aesthetically it doesn't look all too dissimilar to Trinity Forest in places. Maybe not around the greens, and the course in Texas is primarily flat, but sight lines off the tee look in the same ball park and of course Coore and Crenshaw had a hand in both designs.
Aaron Wise won there, but it is the runner up MARC LEISHMAN (best price 66-1) who I believe could go a long way towards getting his first major title this week. He is another with a fine links record with three top finishes in the Open including that playoff defeat at Sta Andrews three years ago.
Tied 13th in last years PGA is his worst finish in his last three majors and he is now on an impressive run of eight major cuts made on the trot. Leishman has become a powerhouse in Australian golf and now ranked number 14 in the world must come into the reckoning for this title. The Sentry TOC, Torrey Pines, Arnold Palmer and Augusta have all yielded top tens for the Aussie this season, all venues where length and accuracy off the tee give you a huge advantage. It is a growing trend in the US Open that length off the tee has become more important and Leishman can whack it as good as the rest.
His accuracy with his irons and a very cool putter have all contributed to his rise in the game. A high ball flight will suit Shinnecock also and of those outside the top ten in the world Leishman looks to have all the tools. He is also a cool head when in front, despite being outdone recently by the brilliance of Aaron Wise. Another who hasn't won a major so motivation and desire is at its height.
I will complete my top trio of non winning Major specialists with South African BRANDEN GRACE (best price 40-1). He will be on plenty of punters radar this week with five top 6 finishes in Majors in his last 13 attempts. He is another with front running capabilities who isn't afraid to take charge of an event and win comfortably.
It will never be that easy in a Major Championship, nevertheless Grace holds every chance of getting on the board this week. A record breaking 62 at Birkdale last year was an example of what he can do on links tracks and given his close call at Chambers Bay he has the ability to play the more quirky tracks. A win at Harbour Town and the Dunhill Links is a good marriage of qualities needed to win a US Open at Shinnecock.
It is also worth noting he is a two time winner at Doha, an exposed track in Qatar that Goosen also won in 2007. A 3rd placed finish at Trinity Forest completes this jigsaw that spells Grace is a potential champion this week in New York.
I find it difficult not to make a serious case for PHIL MICKLESON (best price 35-1) this week. He has returned to the serious form of old in 2018 and everything points towards yet another US Open title tilt at Shinnecock Hills.
Forever the bridesmaid in this event with six runner up finishes this may just be the year that he has caught the bouquet to knock down that door. It would be one of golfs greatest stories, but the greats of the game have a habit of writing unforgettable moments and you couldn't put anything past Phil.
Take his Shinnecock record to begin with. 4th to Pavin in 1995 and 2nd to Goosen in 2004. Forget about his age heading towards the big FIVE ZERO, Phil is equipped right now maybe better than he has been in the last five years to win this event. His driving has improved an awful lot down the last few years and his putting has returned to somewhat near his pomp.
The run offs around the greens should hold no problems for Phil if they become a big issue over the week as he still retains all the wizardry in that department. His high ball flight will be ideal to fire at the pins here also. A win earlier in the year in Mexico has been backed up by a top finish at Quail Hollow, and recently two top 15 finishes at the Memorial and last week at the St Jude. Phil must fancy himself here this week.
After an unhappy period in his playing career and blighted by injury and illness, JIMMY WALKER (best price 110-1) is stepping out of the shade and hitting the heights once again that saw him win the PGA a few years ago. Walker won that PGA surprisingly after a run of ordinary results.
Leading into this US Open it is anything but ordinary. His last five events read 20-4-2-6-20. Two of those notably at the Masters and a very impressive runners up finish at Sawgrass. A top ten in the Byron Nelson shouldn't be dismissed lightly either given the Coore/Crenshaw link.
This appears to be a lot easier Shinnecock than usual and birdies will be required to compete over the weekend here. Another exposed track the pros play is the Waialae course in Hawaii. This sees wind play its part but scores upwards of 20 under par needed to win (certainly won't go that far this week).
Corey Pavin won back to back there at Waialae and Walker repeated that feat in 2014 and 2015. Pavin of course won the US Open here in 1995 and I'm prepared to take the chance on an in form Walker mirroring Pavin's success.
He has shot into the limelight this week on social media regarding the marking of balls issue whenever an opponent is playing up towards the hole. Hopefully nothing too much is made of it (i suspect it will) this week and he is allowed to get on with the task at hand. Either way at three figures I think he is a solid punting prospect this week.