Ask the casual fan who the top golfers in the world are and they might answer Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and maybe add in Sergio Garcia or even Ernie Els and Paddy Harrington from the European circuit.
That was true — in 2004, the last time Shinnecock Hills Golf Club hosted the U.S. Open. Woods, only 29 at the time, had already stamped himself as the heir apparent to Jack Nicklaus, the greatest golfer of all time.
The Golden Bear won 18 Majors during his illustrious career that spanned four decades. When Woods won his 14th 10 years ago (the U.S. Open), it seemed only a matter of time before he vaulted past Nicklaus to immortality. But Woods found it increasingly difficult to grab another victory in a major tournament (British Open, Professional Golfers’ Association, the Masters) over the next few years, and then endured a fall from power almost unprecedented in the annals of sport.
First, a very public scandal cost him his marriage; a car accident knocked him out of commission; a series of ailments, most notably back injuries that required numerous surgeries, rendered Woods an afterthought on the PGA tour. On the few occasions he even attempted to play, he was terrible.
In May 2017, he suffered the ultimate indignity, an arrest for public intoxication after he was found at the wheel of his car at 3 AM stoned on medication he used to help recover from surgery. Experts and pundits said Woods’ s career was over, that he could not compete with the young Turks who took over the sport after being inspired by Woods when they were just kids.
They’ll be here this week: Justin (JT) Thomas, who is only 25 and is already been the top-rated player in the world. He won the PGA tournament; he won the FedEx title last year and the $10 million that goes with it.
His good friend, Jordan Spieth, won’t turn 25 until July 27; he’s got three Majors under his belt already.
Rory McIlroy, 28, from Northern Island, is considered in many quarters to be the best golfer in the world; he already won four Majors. But the favorite coming into Shinnecock, and the current top-ranked player, is Dustin (DJ) Johnson, 32, who just won the St. Jude Classic, his 18th tour victory.
But never, ever count Tiger out. Somehow, after all the mishaps, he clawed back and stunned the golf world by finishing second in the Valspar Championship earlier this year, and did so looking like the Tiger of old, ripping scorching drives and long irons and displaying a deft (though still inconsistent) putting stroke. He is hungry to take on the Turks in search of Major #15.
And then there is Phil Mickelson. He’s won five majors, but never the Open. He turns 48 on — you guessed it — what’s known as Moving Day, the third round of the tournament when contenders make their move up the leaderboard. The years have been kind to Phil: he is currently the 20th ranked player on the planet.
Any of these players could win; in fact, there is so much parity on the tour right now that anyone in the field could surprise. Other notables who could be in the hunt come Sunday are Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Henrik Stenson, or Patrick Reed, who won this year’s Masters.
Want a longshot? Try Bryson DeChambeau, the robotic golfer who is coming into his own. Our own Bob Bubka picks a real longshot, Brent Snedeker. Kevin Somers at Maidstone in East Hampton favors Ricky Fowler. Michael Giglio at Poxabogue chose DJ. So, did Lenny Rodriguez over at the Sag Harbor State golf course. Eric Phelan at Indian Island Country Club in Riverhead likes Justin Rose, DJ, and for a longshot, JB Holmes.
Wanna bet? Fantasy Golf is the fastest growing element of the booming, multi-billion Fantasy Sports boom. Draft Kings has a $3.5 million tournament up for the U.S. Open with a cool $1 million going to the winner. And it’s only $20 to play. Make sure to read Bubka’s Chip Shots in today’s sports section. Bubka made history when he went on the radio and predicted Lucas Glover would win the 2009 Open, which was played at Bethpage.
A famous British bookie, Paddy Power, complained that Bubka’s prediction cost him $1.3 million.
As for this reporter, in addition to Rory and DJ, Hideki Matsuyama is finally healthy and should be competitive. We like Bryson DeChambeau’s recent form. Tommy Fleetwood is a longshot with a real chance.