Perhaps the biggest shock of the US Open was the non-performances of Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, the world’s two biggest players.
World Number 1, Dustin Johnson, started off the year very well, winning tournament after tournament. However, he stumbled in the first real test, The Players Championship, pulled out of the Masters because of bad luck and then missed the cut at the Memorial Tournament.
Many assumed that was a lack of concentration or having more focus on the US Open, but in hindsight it may have been down to expecting the birth of his second child – which is fair enough. He got a win at the Genesis Open recently, but was a little ring-rusty at the US Open overall.
Another player that looked short of playing time was of course the other heavy favourite pre-tournament, Rory McIlroy. He’d been recovering from a rib injury, gotten married, changed his equipment – all in the last few months. In all, he only had about six starts this year.
No one, not even Rory McIlroy can go into a major, let along the US Open, having played five weeks of golf leading up to it. Far be it for me to tell Rory what to do, but he might have stood a better chance if he’d played in the St Jude Classic earlier this month, get some of the rustiness out of his game. Having not done that, he paid the consequences. As he said himself, it was only the last six holes of the second round where he found his groove.
Image credit: Streeter Lecka / Getty Images
Was Rory McIlroy also a victim of his own mouth?
Players can easily put more pressure on themselves by speaking too frankly. The irony is, Rory came out and spoke about how wide the fairways were. He then got to the first tee, where the fairway is 60-odd yards wide, and hooked it straight in the rough.
Anyone that knows anything about golf, he was odds-on to do that after his comments. The game makes fools of us all, Murphy’s Law you could say.
Plenty of top players have spoken about the need for momentum recently. Was that missing for DJ and Rory?
Every top player needs momentum. For me, momentum simply means confidence, the confidence to play well and know you can keep playing well. Dustin Johnson’s momentum stalled when he had to pull out of the Masters. At the US Open, you could see he was hitting the ball well enough off the tee, but his putting was shot – which is the first part of your game to go when your confidence goes.
Additionally, Rory’s injury also stalled his momentum, and as we mentioned before – the lack of game time after his return blunted any chance of momentum or confidence.
It’s a devastating statistic that 8 of the World’s Top 12 players missed the cut. How did this happen?
Perhaps the biggest reason is that there is no single standout player in the world at the moment – so there is stronger competition between the World’s Top 10, even 20.
However, just as big a reason was the US Open’s own groupings. Rory was paired with Justin Rose and Jason Day, while Dustin Johnson was in a group with Martin Kaymer and Jordan Speith – and plenty of other top players were all bundled together. It wasn’t a blind draw by any means, and I think the players ended up competing against each other rather than the course as a result. If the top players are picking each other off, you’re going to get a lot of good players missing the cut.
Image credit: Matt Sullivan / USGA
Was the bundled draw for the benefit of TV?
It was absolutely for the benefit of the television cameras, and the spectators of course. I think it backfired on them this time, since, as I said, the players ended up competing against each other rather than the course. I mean, Jason Day should never be shooting a 79 in the first round, or Rory McIlroy a 78.
And then, poor Justin Rose got caught up in their poor play. He was going along quite well until the 35th hole. He was 2 under par with 2 to play, but finished double bogey, bogey. Getting caught up by the poor play of your competitors is largely down to poor organization, and I feel sorry for him.
What do you think was the reason for such a difference between some top players shooting such bad scores, and other players shooting such excellent scores?
It’s all about the way the course was set up. Wisconsin is a windy part of the world, and at this time of year – they were absolutely expecting four days of the weather they finally got on the Sunday. 25 mile-an-hour winds and the like. That’s why they cut the fairways very generously off the tee, and the waist height fescue was about 60 yards away at the sides.
With some of the course’s teeth being blunted because of the expectation of the weather, the fact that the winds didn’t appear until Sunday means the field opened right up. It wasn’t really the US Open test we’ve come to expect; 25-yard-wide fairways, fast, undulating greens. It was a great benefit to the rest of the field, not the top players that it played relatively easily. Even Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller came out and said they didn’t recognise it as a US Open championship, as the course was so different.
If you look through the scoring on the last day, when the weather that was expected arrived, the majority of the scores soared. A good score was under 70. Jordan Spieth finished his final round with a 69 early in the day, and plenty of commentators thought that had an outside chance of being the best round of the day – just because of how hard the wind was blowing. That’s what was expected throughout.
Since the conditions had picked up, you would expect the less experienced players at the top of the leaderboard to choke a little. But if you were Brooks Koepka on the final day, and there’s no Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson or Jason Day breathing down your neck – there’s less panic. He probably got up in the morning and said to himself, “Hang on a minute, I’m leading the rest of the field and I’m hitting the ball great”, and the lack of pressure gave him the confidence to go out and do it. But I maintain, for three days, it wasn’t a true US Open.
Image credit: Erin Hills
Will Erin Hills be used for a major again?
It’s unlikely they’ll ever go there again. The USGA have long been wanting to take the US Open round the country to places that have never held it before. That’s why they went to Chambers Bay and Torrey Pines – they’re developing the game by taking it to public courses rather than country clubs. However, with the recent controversies and this year’s course not playing right as I mentioned before – I get the feeling they won’t be going back to a public course any time soon.
They want to get back on safe ground with classic Championship courses, plus there really aren’t that many public courses not visited that can hold a major – even Erin Hills was specifically built for purpose.
There were plenty of good players in contention going into the final round – and none more than Rickie Fowler. What should he have done differently?
Rickie Fowler is probably now the best player not to have won a major. He went out with a winning chance, and the conditions didn’t suit – it just wasn’t his day. You needed something very special, like what we saw from Koepka and Matsuyama, and he fell just short. I don’t think it was a weakness in his game, he played very well all round, there were just a few players who just played better on the day.
One of them being British hopeful Tommy Fleetwood.
Absolutely. Whatever Tommy takes from the US Open, playing the final round with the eventual winner – Brooks Koepka – will have done him an enormous amount of good. Seeing how Koepka coped with the pressure, he will know what to do next time to push his game a fraction higher and take the glory himself.
Going back to his old coach recently was a good move for him to rediscover his form, and he’s improved even further now. He’s been bubbling under for a while, and he seems to be getting better every time – and what’s more, he’s now in a position to pick and choose his Tour events to suit his game. It won’t be long before he gets a major.
Image credit: Fred Vuich / USGA
After the dust settles from the US Open, what needs to change ahead of The Open?
The draw has to change, with the best players spread throughout the draw a little more – to avoid situations like this week. That way, there’s a better chance of the best players facing off on the third and fourth days – rather than not making the cut at all.
Outside of the draw, slow play is becoming more and more of an issue. What’s more of a problem is that no official will enforce a penalty for it. It’s been an issue for as long as I can remember, but going back a long way, I can’t ever remember a player being penalised 2 strokes for slow play. There’s been fines, players can easily accept £500, £1000 but there never seems to be a further penalty of added strokes – despite what is says in the rulebook.
In my mind, the reason why is simple. If they did end up penalising a player two strokes, say in a major, and that player ended up missing out on winning it by two strokes – there would be plenty of lawyers rubbing their hands together. I can’t see it. They’ll give you a warning and the official will be on you for the rest of the round – but nothing more, and that’s simply not good enough.
The bizarrest part is that they give the whole group a warning. If you take the example of Kevin Na, who took almost 2 minutes to hit a pretty easy tee shot in the third round, he ran through about 50 different scenarios with his caddie. It was ridiculous.
But what was worse was that Brandon Stone – who he was playing with – would also have gotten a warning, despite playing perfectly promptly! Not only is that unfair, but it could easily break the other player’s concentration.
The players on Tour all know who the slow players are, and they all try to gee them up if they play together. Perhaps we’ll see new rules about it soon, I hope so.