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5 storylines for the U.S. Open as ‘brutal’ Shinnecock Hills awaits

Dustin Johnson (right) reclaimed golf’s world No. 1 ranking this week and is a favorite to win the U.S. Open Championship at Shinnecock Hill Golf Club. Tiger Woods (left), healthy for the first time in years, last won the U.S. Open in 2008.
Dustin Johnson (right) reclaimed golf’s world No. 1 ranking this week and is a favorite to win the U.S. Open Championship at Shinnecock Hill Golf Club. Tiger Woods (left), healthy for the first time in years, last won the U.S. Open in 2008. AP

There is a case to be made that the U.S. Open golf championship has misplaced its mojo.

Between the spotty conditions at funky Chambers Bay three years ago and the bombs away set-up at wide open Erin Hills last June, even a side trip to mean old Oakmont two years ago couldn’t quell the feeling that the event that prides itself on being the biggest, baddest championship in the game was suffering an identity crisis.

That’s why returning to Shinnecock Hills this week is exactly what the U.S. Open needs.

If there are better golf courses than Shinnecock Hills, the list is tiny. There’s a purity to Shinnecock Hills, set beside the Peconic Bay and among the old money estates about 100 miles east of Manhattan.

Framed by knee-high fescue and 148 bunkers, Shinnecock Hills is built to test players in every way. Hit it straight and Shinnecock can be generous. Try hiding a weakness and Shinnecock will find it.

The U.S. Open Championship returns this week to Shinnecock Hills Golf Club for a fifth time. It was last played there in 2004, when Retief Goosen held off Phil Mickelson by two strokes. Julie Jacobson AP

In a new age world, there’s an old school ruggedness to Shinnecock that should define this U.S. Open.

“I think it's too bad they can't play the U.S. Open every single year at Shinnecock,” Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said. “It's exactly what you think about when you think about a U.S. Open. It's a very stern test. If there's even a word stronger than stern, it's brutal.”

As play begins, here are five stories to watch:

World’s top player

Columbia native Dustin Johnson punctuated his victory last Sunday at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis and his return to No. 1 in the world rankings by holing a 9-iron on the 18th hole, golf’s version of an exclamation point.

Johnson’s performance stamped him as the pre-tournament favorite this week for a variety of reasons. He won at Oakmont (Pa.) two years ago, ignoring a rules issue in the final round, while handling a tenacious course.

He’s ultra-long, which is always an advantage even if he may have to throttle back in places at Shinnecock. He’s an exceptional wedge player, which can be the secret to winning U.S. Opens, and he’s confident.

Tiger and 10 years later

It’s been a decade since Tiger Woods’ last major championship victory – the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines – when he played with a stress fracture in his leg.

It’s been three years since Woods has played the U.S. Open.

Healthy again at age 42 and having nibbled around the edge of contention in his return this year, Woods has fought an uncooperative putter in recent starts, undercutting his chances of winning for the first time since 2013.

“Golf is always frustrating,” Woods said. “There's always something that isn't quite right, and that's where we, as players, have to make adjustments.

“You've seen the tournaments I've played in this year. There's always something. Hopefully, this is one of those weeks where I put it all together and even it out, and we'll see what happens.”

Mickelson factor

Could 27 be Phil Mickelson’s lucky number?

Phil Mickelson, hitting out of a bunker on Wednesday during a practice round at Shinnecock Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., has finished runner-up six times in the U.S. Open Championship. Seth Wenig AP

This is his 27th U.S. Open start and no one has finished second more often than Mickelson, who has done it six times. With his 48th birthday on Saturday, Mickelson needs a U.S. Open victory to become the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam.

He loves the set-up at Shinnecock, which features fairways that average 41 yards in width and expansive run-off areas around the green, which plays to his short-game strengths.

“The last thing I'm thinking about right now is trying to win,” Mickelson said. “I'm trying to get myself in position for the weekend because, when you try to go out and win a U.S. Open, you will lose it quick.

“It's just that I don't want to get ahead of myself, and I don't want to start thinking about results. I just want to go out and play a solid round on Thursday, given the conditions, and shoot a number that's good relative to what the conditions of the course are and worry about trying to close it out on the weekend.”

Weather forecast

It’s always a part of the U.S. Open and could be a huge factor Thursday when the wind is expected to blow 15 to 20 mph with gusts up to 30 mph.

USGA executive director Mike Davis said the forecast has prompted his team to adjust the first-round setup to avoid potential problems on a course that is firm but not yet fiery.

“We want it to be a stern test, but as you sit here today, you say, well, what are we going to get tomorrow? And we've got to make sure that, to the extent we can control it, that we have a setup that actually works,” Davis said.

“Listen, if the wind blows really hard, which could happen, it doesn't matter how you set the course up and the speeds. You get to the point where it's kind of like a lightning storm. You just can't play golf. Hopefully, we won't get to that point, but we're doing everything we can to be cognizant of it.”

Chip-ins ...

▪ Rickie Fowler, chasing his first major championship victory, got engaged last week to Allison Stoke. Might that be the answer to Fowler’s career question?

▪ Will a player miss his tee time because of traffic issues around Shinnecock, where it typically takes up to two hours to go 30 miles in the morning if you’re coming from the west side? It could happen.

▪ Justin Thomas played one tournament as the No. 1-ranked player in the world before losing the top spot to Dustin Johnson? Can he get it back with a win at Shinnecock?

▪ And, what about Jordan Spieth’s recent issues with short putts?

So many questions. It’s time to get answers.

Ron Green Jr. (rongreenjr@gmail.com) is senior writer for Global Golf Post and a contributor to the Charlotte Observer