Southampton (United Kingdom) (AFP) – Dustin Johnson is the man to beat and Tiger Woods is all the rage, but defending champion Brooks Koepka isn’t at the 118th US Open just to make up the numbers.
“The only reason I’m here is to win,” Koepka said as he prepared to tee off in defense of his title at Shinnecock Hills on Thursday.
“If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have signed up. I feel like I always play well at the US Open. Major championships are where I shine.”
Koepka has finished 13th or better in eight of his last nine major starts, including his record-tying triumph at 16-under par at Erin Hills last year.
From that career pinnacle, Koepka was plunged to the nadir as a partially torn tendon in his left wrist saw him miss almost four months — including the Masters in April.
Koepka has bounced back nicely with a runner-up finish at the Fort Worth Invitational last month.
But there’s no question Koepka, trying to become the first player since Curtis Strange in 1988-89 to win back-to-back US Open titles, is coming late to a 2018 party that has seen a wealth of players produce good golf.
Woods, the 14-time major champion turned comeback kid, has shown flashes of brilliance, and plenty of inconsistency, in nine official starts since his return in the wake of spinal fusion surgery.
Whether the 42-year-old great can win his first major in a decade is just one of the questions reverberating around Shinnecock Hills.
Phil Mickelson, who turns 48 on Saturday, vies to put the heartbreak of six US Open runner-up finishes behind him and become the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam.
Johnson, however, is in the driver’s seat at Shinnecock, where officials said they were delighted by gentle rain on Wednesday, which would keep the course from becoming too severe come Sunday.
Johnson, 33, regained the world number one ranking with his PGA Tour victory in Memphis last week to stamp himself the favorite to claim a second US Open crown.
– Winning where the fun is –
Justin Thomas, who had snatched the top spot from Johnson for three weeks, could regain it. Third-ranked Justin Rose is also among five players with a shot at the top spot this week, a group that also includes Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy.
“I’m in the great position where becoming world number one, is going to be a by-product of winning this week,” Rose said. “So I may as well just continue to focus on the winning. That’s where the fun is.”
Rose became the first Englishman in 43 years to win the US Open when he triumphed at Merion in 2013.
Americans have won the last four editions. Rose, Rahm, McIlroy, Australian Jason Day and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama are among the overseas players out to buck that trend.
Matsuyama, like American Rickie Fowler and, for that matter, Rahm, is trying to join the parade of first-time major winners. Nine of the last 10 Grand Slam tournaments have been won by first-timers — most recently Masters champion Patrick Reed.
All the elements of a great championship are in place, Rose said.
“You need some great players in the mix. You need some great story lines,” Rose said. “Let’s say Phil Grand Slam, let’s say Tiger having a chance to win. And a guy that’s a surprise, that’s going to be cool.
“Then, basically, just a good test of golf,” Rose added. “I think that’s what people would like to see in this tournament is that guys are tested to the ends of their ability.”