With the year’s second major upon us, the eyes of the golfing world will be on a sprawling, windswept plot of land in Long Island, New York known as Shinnecock Hills. The historic venue hosts its national open for the fifth time, though first since 2004 when a lack of watering and some misjudgements from the USGA around the course setup created a near impossible test, which led to a number of players expressing their disbelief about the way the course had been presented.
Having taken heed of that feedback, the USGA and course superintendents have made sweeping changes to ensure that the course facing the players this week is vastly removed from that played in 2004.
Clocking in at 7,445 yards, the par 70 has been lengthened significantly since 2004, when it measured a tick under 7,000 yards. The additional length has been facilitated by the removal of almost every tree on the property, allowing for the creation of a number of new tee-boxes, with the resulting open landscape really bringing wind into play as one of the courses main defences.
The course has long prided itself on its billing as America’s first links, and the removal of the trees has certainly created a traditional links visual at the very least.
Another significant change from the 2004 edition is the widening of the fairways, with the average fairway width now measuring 42 yards rather than the 26 yards of 2004’s set up. On top of this, the rough which was formerly dense ryegrass has been replaced with fescue which, whilst unpredictable, tends to be a little more forgiving on those shots straying off course. That should give long hitters a distinct advantage, an opinion supported by Bubba Watson’s long-suffering caddy Ted Scott, who said on Twitter earlier this week, “today was my first walk ever around Shinnecock Hills. I will say this with confidence, long hitters will have the advantage this week and one of them will hoist the trophy”. When a multiple major winning caddy comes out and says something so definitively, I think it pays to take notice.
The wonderful No Laying Up crew – a must follow on Twitter for any golf fan – put up a course walkthrough video which they released last week after playing the course on media day. Having watched the footage it’s impossible not to be taken by how much of a strategic test this will be, with all holes bar the 9th and 10th played in opposing directions, into differing winds and at different elevation levels on the course.
Players who have demonstrated an affinity for the wind should definitely go well in the exposed conditions, particularly those who feel comfortable hitting the ball both ways as each tee shot and approach demands different trajectories and shot shapes.
The green complexes have been significantly altered over the past few years, widening the putting surfaces and bringing them back to somewhere near their original intended designs, which were somewhat lost in the wash of the overhaul prior to the 2004 event. This will serve to create some challenging but fair pin positions which will reward good approach shots but leave difficult lag putts for those who bail out on certain holes. Therefore, players will need to be on point with their approaches and possess a razor-sharp shot game for those times they don’t stick the green or find the correct plateau.
The greens also feature our old friend Poa Annua, the inconsistent and bumpy grass strand that is more typically a feature of West Coast courses. As we have often seen, certain players have a real affinity for Poa Annua greens and some the exact opposite. I certainly put great stock in prior performance on Poa greens and will be looking to side with guys that have shown form on them previously.
So, to recap, we’re looking for someone long, who can hit the ball both ways; someone who doesn’t mind some wind, who has displayed good approach numbers, a sharp short game and has previous on Poa Annua.
Step forward, Dustin Johnson.
The world number 1 is rightly the favourite for this event, coming off the back of a facile victory last week at TPC Southwind – his 8th trophy in 43 starts since his 2016 US Open win at Oakmont. The strength of field is up on that he’d have faced in the majority of those wins but even still getting 11.0 about a man winning 19% of his starts over two years makes him seem somewhat underpriced when you consider he’s off the back of a victory in which he led the field in driving distance, gained 16.9 strokes tee-to-green and ranked fourth in scrambling.
On top of this he is comfortably the leader in Poa Annua performance since 2014, leading his nearest competitor in strokes gained on the surface by over 0.5 strokes, and owning eight career wins on Poa greens.
He’s also got previous in the wind, as his two victories on the Pebble Beach golf links demonstrate, as well as his pair of wins at the gusty Kapalua course in Hawaii. In terms of his US Open record, a missed cut when on the injury comeback trial at Erin Hills last year is very much a blip in an exceptional history, which has seen a win at Oakmont, a heartbreaking runner-up at Chambers Bay when three-putting the 72nd hole and a distant fourth behind Martin Kaymer at Pinehurst.
It’s impossible to see him out of the frame come Sunday and he really is the man to beat.
At double the price, we will also add sports’ biggest hypochondriac to our staking plan – Jason Day.
Providing the Aussie doesn’t get struck down with the hives or a suffer a paper cut when signing his card, he should be bang in contention this weekend.
We can ignore his season-worst finish last time out at Muirfield, given his poor record at that track overall and the fact he’s always said the course doesn’t suit him, and focus instead on his record of two wins, a runner-up and a further fifth-place finish in his other six stroke-play starts this season. One of those wins was at Torrey Pines, a windy, Poa Annua populated track – his fourth career victory on Poa greens. The runner-up the following week was also on another windy, links track at Pebble Beach so clearly the form lines are strong and his love of Poa Annua is evident in the fact he is the man ranked second in strokes gained on those greens behind DJ.
We know the 30-year-old is long, currently averaging 309 yards off the tee but it’s his short game which really wins him events and he currently leads the tour in strokes gained putting, whilst ranking third in strokes gained around the green. His approach play has not quite been up to scratch thus far this season but an average week for him would be enough to see him go very, very close if the rest of his game is firing as it so regularly does.
His US Open record is stellar, with a pair of runner-up finishes amongst 5 top 9 finishes in 7 tries so the more challenging the golf course the better he performs. A very live contender.
Sticking with the theme of big hitting, Poa Annua lovers, I’m finishing my staking plan with a bet on two time Masters champion Bubba Watson. The marmite lefty went off as short as 21.0 for the Augusta showcase, finishing a creditable fifth at a track he adores. Prior to that event, he’d bagged a pair of wins in the fledging part of the season, showing the sort of form which saw him become a fixture of the world’s top 10 for a time. Since The Masters, appearances have been few and far between with just a 55th placed finish at Sawgrass and a 44th placed finish at the Memorial to show for his efforts, yet he goes off here the sort of three-figure price befitting a man who has shown nothing all season.
Granted his US Open record is not good, with just one top five and more missed cuts than makes this decade but the majority of those host courses won’t have played to his strengths in the same way Shinnecock may.
I’m banking on a return to a Poa track sparking the man who ranks 6th in Poa Annua performance (gaining 0.88 strokes on Poa tracks vs his expected performance) and who has four career victories at Torrey Pines and Riviera – both Poa courses that can get windy.
Currently ranked 3rd in strokes gained off the tee, the man from Bagdad, Florida seems more content on tour this year and often brings his best in the biggest tournaments as evidenced by his pair of Green Jackets, his dual WGC victories and his playoff loss at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in 2010.
He looks overpriced and worthy of a bet on a course which should suit.
- Dustin Johnson, 3.5 points @ 11.0 (lay 3.5 points @ 2.0)
- Jason Day, 1.5 points @ 22.0 (lay 1.5 points @ 3.0)
- Bubba Watson, 1 point @ 100.0 (lay 4 points @ 11.0)