The 2018 US Open: Fowler fits bill at Shinnecock Hills
The US Open returns to Shinnecock Hills in New York for the first time since 2004. Dave Tindall picks his three best bets for the year's second major.
"If you're backing Fowler each-way, the Californian's last four major finishes read 2-5-22-5 so he's been landing the place money regularly."
*Each-way terms: 1/5 odds, 8 places
Main Bet: Back Rickie Fowler each-way @ 18/1
I have happy memories of Shinnecock Hills after backing 40/1 Retief Goosen to win there when it last staged the US Open in 2004.
The thinking then, besides him being an elite player, was that he'd won it before at Southern Hills just three years earlier and, despite the change in venue, very similar attributes were needed.
In latter years, under the very thinky/overthinky Mike Davis, the US Open has been in large part a big hitter's game.
The thing is, old habits die hard and there are those who, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, still spout the lazy nonsense that you have to be an accurate, steady type, who hits lots of fairways.
Only last week, the Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee decided that the key traits for US Open winners were being conscientious and smart. And this after Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson had won the last two. Let's just say that American duo have other, more prominent qualities.
DJ ranked 1st in Driving Distance (also second in DD at Chambers Bay where he should have won) in 2016 while Koepka was 7th in that category at Erin Hills last year, actually averaging over five yards more than Johnson managed when taking the title at Oakmont.
Martin Kaymer (2014) and Rory McIlroy (2011) also ranked 7th in DD, Lucas Glover 8th in 2009, Tiger Woods 2nd in 2008, Angel Cabrera 2nd in 2007 and Geoff Ogilvy 6th in 2006.
Sum that all up and eight of the last 12 US Open winners have ranked in the top eight for Driving Distance.
The key question this week, therefore, is this: is Shinnecock being set up more akin to Pebble Beach in 2010, Olympic Club in 2012 and Merion in 2013 when shorter hitters either won (Graeme McDowell, Webb Simpson) or, at least, were given every chance to?
The answer initially was no. As revealed in a superb piece by Guy Yocom in Golfdigest.com, the USGA had initially planned to let Shinnecock play wide open until receiving a phone call from former Ray Floyd (the 1986 winner at Shinnecock) that he may wish to have a rethink.
Mike Davis took the advice but didn't go crazy. In fact, the average fairway width this year will still be 41.6 yards compared to 26.6 yards in 2004. In other words, power hitters will still be able to make hay.
What else? Shinnecock plays naturally firm and fast, will be more exposed to wind due to the removal of trees and bushes and can be fairly considered as America's truest links.
The run-off areas are natural rather than artificially manufactured like Chambers Bay for example and, as usual in this tournament, a cool head is required.
A shortlist of traits then: Big hitter, can shape shots in wind, doesn't get fazed, has hot short game.
If we want the winner, I don't think he'll be hiding too far down the world rankings either given that the last seven US Open winners were ranked between 2nd and 28th.
One other thing. The majors are shared around these days. Nine of the last 12 went to a first-timer.
Put in all the mix and the name that leaps out to me is Rickie Fowler.
The World No. 7 was runner-up at Augusta National earlier this year and has a T2 (Pinehurst), T5 (Erin Hills) and T10 (Merion) in three of the last five US Opens.
He's excellent in the wind (also a runner-up in the Open Championship) and it's notable that his second place in the US Open came at Pinehurst No.2 where the run-off areas nod to Shinnecock.
I can hear the "but he's a nearly-man" reaction but DJ had that same criticism levelled at him and if you're backing Fowler each-way, the Californian's last four major finishes read 2-5-22-5 so he's been landing the place money regularly.
Since his close-up second at The Masters - where Patrick Reed won rather than Fowler folded - the 29-year-old has finished T21 at Wells Fargo, missed the cut at Sawgrass but stepped up his build towards the year's second major with T14 at Colonial and T8 at Memorial.
"Shinnecock is one of my favourite courses in the U.S.," he said ahead of The Masters and he absolutely has the form, game and class to get it done.
Fowler has gained over 8.5 strokes against the field with the putter in his last two events and, in that sort of form, few knock them in with such confidence.
Let's have some 18/1.
Main Bet: Back Branden Grace each-way @ 33/1
If it's a new major champion we're looking for, another player towards the front of the queue has to be Branden Grace.
To be honest, I thought he'd have won one by now as it's something the elite South Africans do early in their careers.
However, Grace has only just hit 30 so he's not far behind and, up to this point, he's built a good mix of experience while not building up much majors scar tissue.
The sole obvious 'one that got away' moment was at Chambers Bay when he had every chance before driving out of bounds at 16 on Sunday but since then he's had another four top six finishes at this level and, of course, there's the little matter of him shooting the lowest round in the history of the majors!
That 62 at Royal Birkdale last time obviously showed his ability to play links courses and he's highlighted his aptitude for firm, exposed layouts by winning back-to-back editions of the Qatar Masters at Doha GC.
Grace, ranked 34th in the world, will head to Shinnecock with two top fives in his last three starts - tied third at the Byron Nelson (played on another exposed track this year) and T5 in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.
At the Byron Nelson in Dallas he ranked 1st for Strokes Gained: Around-The-Green and 5th for SG: Putting and ultra-sharp short games are huge in US Opens. Phil Mickelson hasn't finished runner-up six times because he kept finding fairways.
As for Grace's US Open record, following his near-miss T4 at Chambers Bay, he added T5 at Oakmont 12 months later so this has been his best major.
As well as Goosen winning, Ernie Els was T9 and Tim Clark T13 at Shinnecock in 2004 so it's a course that certainly seems to suit the South Africans.
Add in Grace's tournament form and current form and his chance really does look strong.
Back him at 33/1.
Main Bet: Back Tony Finau each-way @ 80/1
Looking at the market leaders, it's hard to rule any out with any confidence as, unlike the last few US Opens, this one doesn't have that same Marmite feel. Merion took away the power of some while Chambers Bay and Erin Hills were very easy to have little love for.
If we regard Pinehurst No.2 as the last genuine classic venue, take a look at the top dozen from 2014 as it's littered with big names/major winners - Kaymer, Fowler, Bradley, Day, DJ, Koepka, Stenson, Scott, Walker, Furyk, Rose.
I expect something similar here. Justin Rose, a 16/1 shot, must have a great chance although, if this is a true links test, is his Open record (one top 10 since 1998) a negative? Shooting 77-78 at Shinnecock in 2004 isn't ideal either.
Shinnecock was just 6,996 yards in 2004 but has been stretched to 7,445 yards this year so there's enough length and width off the tee to bash away which again suits many of the leading lights.
DJ will be full of beans after dominant victory at St. Jude while Rory McIlroy has certainly put in the prep after renting a house nearby over the last fortnight and playing other courses in the area.
As with England in the World Cup, I'd be thrilled enough with Tiger Woods winning not to have needed a bet and 16s does seem short enough.
Phil Mickelson at 30/1 is definitely interesting and it shouldn't be overlooked that all six of his second places in this event have come over on the East coast. He loves playing in the New York area and a closing 65 at the St. Jude Classic on Sunday was an ideal send-off.
Lefty will turn 48 on Saturday of this US Open so chances of finally landing the missing piece of his majors collection are running out.
Even if a few of the big guns fight it out, there are still eight each-way places to fill and, at the prices, I like the look of Tony Finau at 80/1.
Only one previous win is a little troubling but that came in the windy Puerto Rico Open so he's good when the elements add to the test.
He also showed that when tied 10th on his US PGA debut at Whistling Straits in 2015 while Finau has also had two solid Open Championships with T18 at Royal Troon and T27 at Royal Birkdale.
At the US Open, his first start in 2015 saw Finau open 69-68 to sit tied fifth after 36 holes at Chambers Bay before he posted T14. He didn't fathom out Erin Hills last year but was in good company.
Finau's best performance in a major, for several reasons, is surely his latest one though.
Despite dislocating his ankle when celebrating a hole-in-one in the par-3 contest at The Masters, he simply popped it back in and finished tied 10th. Most were presuming a WD.
Runner-up at Riviera early this year, Finau should love this ball-striking test and he's kept his form well since Augusta, taking T6 in the pairs event at New Orleans, T21 at the Wells Fargo and T13 at Memorial last time when firing a Sunday 67.
His huge length off the tee definitely gives him an advantage on certain holes as long as he's not too wild and with predominantly Poa greens this week, Finau's chances take an extra step forward.
Future of Fantasy have a list of best performances on Poa/Bent (i.e. non-grainy greens) and Fowler is ranked 8th, Finau 17th and Grace 24th so that adds a touch of confidence to my three selections this week.
One final big plus for Finau is his laid-back nature. It worked wonders for Goosen here 14 years ago and big Tony is as chilled as they come.
Dave's 2017/18 PGA Tour P/L (based on £5 ew per selection outrights, £10 win top 5s/10s)
(After the St. Jude Classic)