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What to Watch for at the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot

The second major of the year begins Thursday at Winged Foot Golf Club in New York. Here are the top storylines ahead of the 2020 U.S. Open.

Five months ago, the thought of contesting the U.S. Open at Winged Foot was unimaginable. Originally scheduled for June 18–21 in Mamaroneck, N.Y., the event was set to be played just four miles from the city of New Rochelle, which at the time had developed into one of the first true COVID-19 hotspots. The event in June was of course postponed to September, a date that brought both optimism and skepticism. After a months-long lockdown in New York, the USGA has indeed brought golf’s national championship back to Winged Foot, marking the second major championship that is now sandwiched between the start of the 2020–21 regular season and the Masters. That’s 2020 for you!

This year will mark the sixth U.S. Open played at the iconic Winged Foot Golf Club and the first since 2006. Designed by A.W. Tillinghast, the course dates back to 1921 and has traditionally been exactly what the USGA envisioned for golf courses hosting the championship. An absolute brute. Just Google “The Massacre at Winged Foot” and you’ll quickly get the gist.

The field of 144 players is less than the traditional 156-player field, as the USGA was unable to hold Open qualifying due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the top 70 players in the Official World Golf Rankings will compete, including 10 previous U.S. Open champions. That list includes three-time U.S. Open champion Tiger Woods and defending champion Gary Woodland, but will not include 2017 and ’18 champ Brooks Koepka. The four-time major winner who finished second to Woodland a year ago will not play due to an injury.

A loaded field at a brutal golf course steeped with rich history is the perfect combination for golf’s second major championship of 2020.

Here’s what to keep an eye on this week at Winged Foot.

The difficulty of Winged Foot

Since the PGA Tour resumed back in June, we’ve seen six winners with scores of 20 under par or better, highlighted by Dustin Johnson's 30-under-par masterpiece at the Northern Trust. This week will be the polar opposite.

Winged Foot is a tried and true gem and one that the USGA loves for its proximity to the New York metropolitan area, but also for its sheer brute. Five U.S. Opens have been contested at Winged Foot and only one champion has finished under par. In fact, there have been just two players to ever finish under par for the tournament—Fuzzy Zoeller and Greg Norman—who were 4 under par in 1984, with Zoeller winning in a playoff.

The last time the USGA hosted the U.S. Open at Winged Foot was 2006, when Geoff Ogilvy won at 5 over par. Then there was the “Massacre at Winged Foot” in 1978, which produced Hale Irwin as the champion at 7 over par. Numbers that are unheard of on the modern version of the PGA Tour.

Winged Foot features length, tight fairways and likely some of the lushest rough players that players have seen. Golf courses in the Northeast are at peak condition in September, so expect the penal rough to be green, thick and nasty.

Can Mickelson redeem himself at 50?

Redemption can be a funny thing. Some achieve it without issue and some simply never get a shot at it. For Phil Mickelson, the ultimate chance at redemption will come this week at Winged Foot at age 50.

The 2006 U.S. Open should have been the site of Mickelson’s finest moment. Instead, it was the location of Lefty’s most agonizing defeat. Holding a one-stroke lead on the 72nd hole of the championship, Mickelson needed a par to win his first U.S. Open and third consecutive major title.

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Phil pulled out a driver on the 18th hole at Winged Foot, and promptly deposited his golf ball off a hospitality tent on the left side of the fairway. What ensued was one of the most painful meltdowns in major championship history: a gut-wrenching double bogey that gift-wrapped the U.S. Open to Australian Geoff Ogilvy. The loss gave Mickelson the fourth of his eventual career runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open.

This week, Mickelson returns to the scene of the crime, 14 years later and older, fresh off his first career win on the PGA Tour Champions. The storyline is written. But does Mickelson have the game, at this point in his career, to withstand the brute of Winged Foot and contend for that elusive U.S. Open championships? This may be his last true shot at completing the career grand slam.

Will DJ stay hot and win his second major title?

Heading into golf’s second major of the season, there is simply no one hotter than Dustin Johnson. The World No. 1 just completed a run of four events where he won twice and finished second two other times, racking up the FedEx Cup title as well as the PGA Tour Player of the Year award. His play has been both dominant and consistent with 19 of his last 20 rounds being par or better.

DJ now heads to a championship that he, unlike most of the field, feels more than comfortable at. The U.S. Open is traditionally not a favorite for pros due to the brutal nature of the golf course setup, but Johnson seems to relish the challenge set forth by the USGA. Johnson’s lone major title came at the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, one of four top-five finishes in the national championship over the past six years.

Johnson brings the perfect mindset to deal with the U.S. Open. He’s won (in 2016) and suffered heartache (in ’10 and ’15) in the event but has never seemed to let the U.S. Open conditions bother him. To DJ, the golf course is just another challenge. Look for Johnson to contend again this week.

Picks

Win: Jon Rahm

If it weren’t for Dustin Johnson, Rahm would be the odds-on favorite heading into the week. The World No. 2 has played the best golf of his career since the post-pandemic restart with wins at The Memorial and the BMW Championship, the latter of which was played at Olympia Fields in as close to U.S. Open-like conditions that players have seen all season. Rahm is primed for his major breakthrough.

Value: Tommy Fleetwood

Fleetwood is one of those players who struggled to get the engine started after the season resumed. The Englishman sat out the first six tournaments after the restart and has played in just five events since March. But Fleetwood showed major signs of life last week in a U.S. Open tune-up, finishing T–3 at the European Tour’s Portugal Masters. That combined with top five finishes in two of his last three U.S. Opens makes him a threat this week.

Sleeper: Martin Kaymer

Another European player who hasn’t done much of late. You probably haven’t even heard Kaymer’s name mentioned since he won the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. The two-time major winner has gone six years without a victory but all suddenly has shown good form. A T–3 at the Handa U.K. Championship at the end of August was followed by a runner up finish at the Portugal Masters. Positive signs for the German heading into Winged Foot.