With home support, it could be time for Lefty to join the Slam club

The true status of a professional golfer, rightly or wrongly, is most often measured by the amount of professional major championships won.
With home support, it could be time for Lefty to join the Slam club

The retired Jack Nicklaus has 18 and the resurgent Tiger Woods 14 and that’s all you really need to know in terms of garnishing any serious conversation on the matter. But perhaps the most impressive stat is reserved for the grand slam winners, (Masters, US Open, Open Championship, and the USPGA Championship) — a feat only achieved by five players, Nicklaus (3) Woods (3), Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, and Gary Player once each.

Our own Rory McIlroy had an opportunity to join that elite bunch of players, had he won the Masters last April.

This week at the US Open, that opportunity falls to the perennial fan favourite and five-time major champion Phil Mickelson, who also turns 48 on Saturday.

Lefty knows he should have already broken into that elite group of grand slam winners. He chased Retief Goosen home at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, losing by two, and then there was the almost unbelievable collapse two years later on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot.

In all, there have been six near-misses in his national championship and with time prepared to wait for nobody, this week and the next two years at Pebble Beach, where he has captured four of his 43 career PGA Tour titles, and Winged Foot in 2020 may well be his last true opportunities for golfing immortality.

Already a winner this year at the WGC-Mexico Championship, Mickelson is carrying enough momentum into this tournament to know that if he can keep the ball in play, he, more than most, can take advantage of the notoriously difficult Shinnecock greens and the shaved areas around the holes that can take the ball as much as 30 yards away from the green.

He also knows that if he can gain an early foothold into the tournament, he can count on the support from the boisterous, mouthy New York spectators who would love nothing more than to see a US player win their own national championship.

As for the golf course itself, well let’s hope that the USGA have learned from their farcical presentation of Shinnecock Hills for the US Open in 2004, where crusty and inconsistent rock-hard greens made it almost unplayable, as was evidenced by the final-round scoring average of 78.73, some five shots higher than the opening three rounds.

As much as Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA has consistently stated that he wants the US Open to be the ultimate test of a players’ ability, his efforts at producing a recognisable test in the past couple of years have been anything but.

In my opinion, he has been guilty of trying to outwit the players with his set-up rather than allowing great golf courses like Shinnecock Hills create their own apprehension and confusion by playing to their own strengths.

This week, we know that the golf course will play 500 yards longer than it did in 2004 at 7,445 yards.

Key momentum holes on the course will be

- The 4th, Pump House, a 475 yards par-4;

- The 6th, Pond, a 491-yard par-4;

- The 11th, Hill Head, a 159-yard par-3;

- The 18th: Home, a 485-yard par-4.

However, it is the weather forecast at this point which should be the most important barometer in terms of gauging the tournament’s success. With sunny and breezy conditions forecast for the entire tournament, it is now up to the USGA to “stay out of the way” and let the players themselves define the final outcome.

So, what type of player has a chance to win this week?

The beauty of Shinnecock is in its layout. Every hole goes in a different direction which means you have to have the ability to control and shape your shots. You also have to have great feel on the greens and be an exceptional short putter.

The greatest challenge comes from the constantly changing wind directions so you have to have a good game plan and be a good  strategist. You also need a to hit crisp iron shots or have a little luck or a kind bounce on firm greens that have more undulations than you perceive, especially on holes like seven and nine.

It’s a course that will favour serial winners on tour, the long hitters who drive it straight.

Players like the in-form Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, or the defending champion Brooks Koepka come to mind, but picking a winner this week is anyone’s guess, with all of the top players in such good form at the moment. One thing we can guarantee is that on a course as tough as Shinnecock, none will truly relax until the final putt is sunk come Sunday afternoon.

Personally, I can’t see Tiger Woods winning this week for a number of reasons, most notably his accuracy off the tee box and even more crucially his failure in recent times to execute down the closing stretch

As for the foreign contingent, I like Justin Rose’s chances. He has matured into a very strong player with no apparent weaknesses in his game.

As for Rory McIlroy, we know all about his talent, but he needs momentum and infinite patience as well as the best putting performance of his career if he is to stand any chance.

If in contention, they must also be prepared to cope with the negativity that will come out of the crowds supporting their own American players behind the ropes.

That alone will be especially tough if the likes of a Mickelson is in contention come Sunday.

Winning any major championship is never a happy stroll. It can be hell out there so you must win the mental game.

US Open key numbers

Here are 10 figures you need to know about this year’s US Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, New York.

2: Golfers who have made the cut at the last five US Opens — Matt Kuchar and Sergio Garcia. That’s it. There are 17 others who have made the cut at four of them, but Garcia and Kuchar are the only ones who have hit the weekend at all five.

2: Also, golfers with a sub-70 first round scoring average over the last five Opens (minimum three played). This one surprised me a bit. Not because of the number but the names. Dustin Johnson is first at 69.4. The other is reigning Masters champion Patrick Reed at 69.8.

9,049: Entries into this year’s US Open. The eighth-most ever.

4: Golfers with an average finish of 10th or better in the last five US Opens when making the cut (minimum three cuts made). Here they are along with their average finish: Rickie Fowler: 5.7 (three cuts made); Jason Day: 5.8 (four cuts made); Brooks Koepka: 9 (four cuts made); Jason Dufner: 10 (three cuts made).

27: Major champions playing in this year’s US Open, which means 17% of the field has a major championship in their pocket.

10: Golfers who have made 100% of cuts in US Opens they’ve played over the last five years. We’ve already looked at two of them in Garcia and Kuchar, but here are the rest. 5:Sergio Garcia, Matt Kuchar; 4: Brooks Koepka, Kevin Na; 3: Steve Stricker, David Lingmerth, Ian Poulter, Daniel Summerhays, Harris English, Matthew Fitzpatrick.

Interestingly, only Fitzpatrick, Poulter, Stricker, Koepka, Kuchar and Garcia are in the field this year out of the aforementioned group.

7,440: Yards the US Open will play at Shinnecock this year. At that number, it would not be one of the 10 longest setups in US Open history. Erin Hills in all four rounds holds the top four spots on the list with Round 1 tipping out at 7,845, which is the longest in the tournament’s history.

5: Golfers who will have competed in the last three US Opens at Shinnecock (including this one). Kenny Perry, Ernie Els, Steve Stricker, Phil Mickelson, and Tiger Woods are the five.

1: Golfers who have made the cut at at least four of the last five US Opens and played those events under par. The only one is Koepka, who was 16 under at last year’s edition at Erin Hills.

25: Ernis Els has the most current consecutive appearances in this championship; this year will be No. 26. Mickelson has the most appearances overall with 26; this year will be No. 27.

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