- Is DJ the favorite at Shinnecock? What is backstopping, and why has it been in the news? What should the Tour do about Slow play? What are some offbeat storylines to follow at the U.S. Open?
Every week, SI.com's Daniel Rapaport will be answering four of the biggest questions from the week in golf. To submit questions for the following week's column, simply tweet at @Daniel_Rapaport or @SI_Golf.
Dustin Johnson was dominant in winning his 18th PGA Tour title at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis. Does his performance re-establish him as the favorite heading into the U.S. Open?
Dominant indeed. It's not often you see the pre-tournament betting favorite make good on that status by demonstrating his superiority over the rest of the field basically from round one. And the way he finished the week, with that perfect hole-out that never looked destined for anywhere but the bottom of the cup, was a fitting end to an ideal pre-Shinnecock preparation for the laconic South Carolinian. With the win, he regained his world number one ranking from Justin Thomas just four days before the two will tee it up together for the first two days at Shinnecock.
It feels weird to say this about a player with 18 wins on Tour and a guy who's been in the top five of the world rankings since the 2016 U.S. Open, but doesn't it feel like DJ continues to sort of fly under the radar? Maybe it's because of his low-as-can-be attitude—the guy's expression literally didn't change one iota after he holed out a wedge to retake the world number one ranking—isn't as media-friendly as the blunt honesty of guys like Jordan Spieth or Rory McIlroy. Before Sunday, he also hadn't won since Kapalua, where he re-ignited conversations about rolling back the golf ball when he came one revolution short of acing a 433-yard hole.
Whatever the reason, while McIlroy and Thomas and Reed and Tiger and Mickelson and Spieth hogged the headlines, Dustin just kept going about his business and picking up top-20s with his B- or C- game. He's played in 10 stroke play events on the PGA Tour in 2018 and finished in the top-20 in each and every one of them. We don't view those performances are particularly impressive because once in a while he'll put forth a week like the one he had in Memphis, where he appears to be employing a cheat code that no one else knows exists. The weeks he's flying driving irons 260+ yards, controlling his distances with his wedges (which, in his own words, is anything from 165 yards and in) to the yard and making enough putts to win essent4ially on auto-pilot. I submit Dustin Johnson's highlight reel from Memphis as trial-ready evidence for any debate on which player's A-game is the most unbeatable.
Let's not get too carried away here with extrapolating last week's performance to this week, though. TPC Southwind is a difficult golf course, but Shinnecock Hills it is not. And there were some elite players in the field last week, but eight of the world's top-10 were nowhere to be found. There's also this: No player has ever won the week before the U.S. Open then gone on to win the Open. That's probably more a coincidence than anything, but the general lack of back-to-back winners on Tour in general shows how hard it is to keep the magic going for two weeks straight.
In conclusion: Johnson is a virtual lock to finish in the top-20 this week. The course suits him nicely. As Bubba Watson's caddy Ted Scott noted on Twitter after walking Shinnecock for the first time, bombers will have a big advantage. The course will play considerably longer than it did in 2004, but the USGA has also widened the fairways to entice players to hit a lot of drivers. DJ, conveniently, is the best in the world at hitting driver. And he couldn't have asked for a better week of preparation, a win that was as stress-free as it gets. So yes, on paper, everything points toward DJ having a chance to win on the back nine come Sunday, including the Vegas odds.
He is now, once again, officially the top dog in the world of professional golf and he is your man to beat at Shinnecock.
Jimmy Walker raised some serious eyebrows with his Twitter discussion centering around the practice "backstopping" on the PGA Tour. What is backstopping, why did Jimmy Walker feel the need to chime in, and is this a serious issue for the Tour?
It was one of the weirder Twitter threads you'll ever see—a professional golfer admitting, in e-writing, to wilfully breaking one of the Rules of Golf. Here's the Tweet that sparked a pretty heated back-and-forth:
Usually a guy will ask if he would like to mark it. If you don’t like a guy you will mark anyway. If you like the guy you might leave it to help on a shot. Some guys don’t want to give help at all and rush to mark their ball. To each his own.— Jimmy Walker (@JimmyWalkerPGA) June 9, 2018
Backstopping refers to when one player leaves his ball on the green, generally near the hole, while another player is playing a shot from off the green. The unmarked ball on the green can serve as a backstop for the other player's ball. Say a guy has a plugged lie from a bunker and has no feasible way to stop his ball anywhere close to the hole. If there is a ball close to the hole, however, he can get tremendously lucky if his ball strikes the ball lying on the green and stops dead rather than tumbling across the putting surface. In the event this does happen—and it's quite rare but far from unheard of—the ball that was already on the green gets moved back to its original spot, while the ball that hit the unmarked ball is played wherever it comes to rest.
If this happens in earnest, neither player is assessed a penalty. For example: If one guys approach from 180 yards finishes 15 feet left of a hole, and his playing partner then plays from 170 and strikes the first ball on the green, that's no harm no foul. It is not reasonable to expect players to mark their ball on the green in that instance. However, Rule 22 of the official Rules of Golf states that, "In stroke play, if the Committee determines that competitors have agreed not to lift a ball that might assist any competitor, they are disqualified." Which is exactly what Walker is admitting to. Here's the video that prompted the conversation—Ben An plays a little chip with John Huh's ball about a foot away from the hole, acting as a clear backstop, while Hahn watches from three feet away.
Another more egreious violation from earlier helped Tony Finau get up and down from a plugged lie while he was just two strokes out of the lead.
This is 100% in bad faith. Whether it's a violation that's actionable is a different conversation, as it's really tough to prove that the two guys had some sort of agreement without having heard their entire interaction. And it's such a tough rule to enforce because there's so much grey area when it comes to when someone should be expected to mark their ball. But the videos of An/Hahn and Finau above bring to mind Potter Stewart's endlessly quotable definition of obscenity: "I know it when I see it." Maybe the rules aren't crystal clear, and maybe the rule warrants changing, but that's disingenuous at best and downright cheating at worst. Hahn left that ball there to help out An. This is all good and fine in a friendly game between weekend warriors. This is not okay when millions of dollars are on the line, and when the rest of the field isn't so lucky as to have a backstop just inches away from the hole.
Why did Walker feel the need to chime in on this? I have absolutely no idea. He wasn't the player whose actions were in question, nor was he mentioned in the original tweet. I would guess he never forsaw the response his admission prompted. And I'd also imagine that this will not go over well with other players, because now the Tour has no option put to police this closer. Now that it's out in the open and entered public discourse, it's impossible to ignore. The result of this will be that players will mark their balls with much more frequency, erring on the side of caution rather than risk disqualification or public shame. Thus, in the end, this whole ordeal was probably a good thing. The ends justify the peculiar means, I suppose.
The European Tour played the "Shotclock Masters" week, where players were timed on every shot. With slow play having been an issue for years, notably as the Memorial, should the PGA Tour try something like this?
Yes times one million. The European Tour is, on the whole, much more willing to play with tournament formats and less stubborn about addressing clear issues the tour faces, whether that's lack of interest, a failure to engage younger fans, etc. And the timing of the Shotcklock Masters further underscored the difference between the European Tour and PGA Tour's attitude toward fixing clear problems.
The week before the Shotclock Masters, two of the slowest players on the PGA Tour were in contention at the Memorial. Fans watched in physical discomfort as Bryson DeChambeau consulted his trusty yardage/topography/trigonometry map on every shot, chip and putt. And announcers marveled as Patrick Cantlay looked at the target not once...not twice...not eight times...but 13 times before pulling the trigger. With a wedge. From the middle of the fairway.
It's not the first time this year that slow play has been an issue this side of the pond. Remember in January at Torrey Pines, when J.B. Holmes took four minutes only to lay up on the 72nd hole? After he was asked about tht television nightmare, commissioner Jay Monahan gave a non-answer that would make any politician proud.
“We’re always trying to get better," he said. "When you’re in a situation where your final round is taking the amount of time it took, then yeah, you have to address it. It’s not something that’s going to come overnight. “Pace of play is an important issue in our game. It’s been something that garners a lot of attention inside our offices and in our discussions with our Player Advisory Council.
“We’ve put a lot into our ShotLink technology to be as intelligent as we can possibly be, but this is a sport that has more variables than any other sport. So you’re going to have outliers.”
So, to paraphrase, an important issue but not so important as to actually do something about it. Meanwhile, these were the rules in Austria:
"The official European Tour shot time allowances will be in force: a 50 second allowance for a “first to play approach shot (including a par three tee shot), chip or putt” and a 40-second allowance for a “tee shot on a par four or par five, or second or third to play approach shot, chip or putt...Every player will be timed on every shot, and on each occasion that a player fails to hit his shot within the time limits, a one-shot penalty will be added to his score for that hole. However, each player can call for a “time-extension” up to twice in any one round, allowing a further 40 seconds over and above the above allowances to play the shot in question."
This is essentially a perfect way to combat the issue, because while Holmes' wavering was dull, the issue isn't players grinding over a super important triple-breaker on the 72nd green or deciding whether to go for a green in two on a windy day. Pressure situations call for more attention, and in those scenarios, players could decide to use their an extension. The issue is looking at the hole 13 times before playing a stock wedge from the middle of the fairway.
And the results from Austria were ideal. The winning score was 16-under, proof that if you're ready to hit before it's your turn and do the necessary pre-shot math while others are playing, you can still play fantastic golf in that alotted time. The average pace of play was about 50 minutes faster than normal—average of about four hours and 10 minutes for threesomes—and only four penalties were assessed the entire week. It made for a much more enjoyable and digestible viewing experience for those watching on television and in person. A big success all around.
I understand not implementing this on the PGA Tour immediately, but the PGA Tour also owns the Web.com and Mackenzie and PGA Tour Latinoamerica and PGA Tour China, and plenty of events on those Tours could use the extra attention that a shot clock would bring. If we're serious about combating slow play—to be clear: this is very much an if, as you can see from Monahan's tepid words—we have to take a lesson from our proactive counterparts in Europe.
Give me some offbeat storylines to keep an eye on this week at Shinnecock.
One of the best parts of the U.S. Open is all the...pardon me for using this term...nobodies that play their way into the field. A full half of the field played its way to Shinnecock the old fashioned way: by qualifying. That's the beauty of the U.S. Open, emphasis on "open"—anybody with a few hundred bucks to spare and a low enough handicap can, in theory, earn a spot. What results is a participant list that includes the best players in the world, journeyman pros toiling on mini tours, the best college players in the world, fireman, NHL referees, teaching pros...everybody has their own unique story.
Here are a couple to follow:
• Adam Scott's streak of 67 straight majors played in was in jeopardy after he slipped out of the world top 60 after Augusta. He played his way into the tournament via sectional qualifying, and has shown flashes of the picture-perfect ball striking that saw him reach world No. 1
• Matt Parziale, the U.S Mid-Amateur champion, is a 31-year-old fireman. He'll play in his second consecutive major after badly missing the cut at the Masters.
• Garrett Rank is a full-time NHL referee and a cancer survivor. He played his way into the field via sectional qualying in Georgia.
• Not exactly off-beat, but Phil Mickelson is looking to finally get over the hump after six second-place finishes and win his first U.S. Open. He'd be just the sixth player to complete the modern career Grand Slam, joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
• Current college players/recent graduates who haven't yet turned professional in the field: Braden Thornberry (Ole Miss), Theo Humphrey (Vanderbilt), Ryan Lumsden (Northwestern), Will Grimmer (Ohio State), Timothy Wiseman (Ball State), Luis Gagne (LSU), Jacob Bergeron (LSU), Rhett Rasmussen (BYU), Tyler Strafaci (Georgia Tech), Philip Barbaree (LSU), Chun An Yu (Arizona State), Shintaro Ban (UNLV), Franklin Huang (Stanford), Cole Miller (Penn State), Micky Demorat (Liberty), Sulman Raza (Oregon)
• Oh, and Tiger Woods is playing his first U.S. Open since 2015. A reminder that his last major triumph came 10 years ago at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. How about that—a full 2,000-word golf column that didn't mention Tiger until the very last paragraph!