Tiger Woods, Mickelson will contend, but Jason Day will win U.S. Open

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SportsPulse: Tiger Woods’ last win at a major was 10 years ago, but USA TODAY Sports’ Steve DiMeglio thinks Tiger can end that decade-long drought at the U.S. Open in Shinnecock Hills.
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SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Rory McIlroy has won four major championships, is in form with top-10s in his last two starts, won this year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational with five birdies in his last six holes, and is the No. 6-ranked player in the world.

And he didn’t make our list of the top seven contenders for this week’s 118th edition of the U.S. Open, to be played out starting Thursday on the sweeping sand hills of historic Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.

Neither did the man many think is the best player without a major, that being world No. 7 Rickie Fowler. Masters champion Patrick Reed didn’t make it, either. Nor did Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama, Players champion Webb Simpson, defending champion Brooks Koepka, world No. 5 Jon Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau, a winner two weeks ago in the Memorial.

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It’s another nod to the depth and talent in the current world of professional golf. It’s also a nod to the difficulties inherent in picking a winner out of a field of 156, especially at a U.S. Open, the toughest test in golf.

But here are the seven we think will stand out.

7. Justin Thomas

His firepower travels nicely, his imagination and deft touch around and on the greens works everywhere. The world No. 2 broke his major maiden in the 2017 PGA and he’s coming off a tie for eighth in the Memorial. He’s won seven of his last 38 starts, with two of those victories coming this season.

6. Jordan Spieth

While his most recent four starts don’t inspire confidence — he’s gone T41, T21, T32, missed cut  — and his putter has him shaking his head this year, the man’s work in majors cannot be ignored. Since the start of 2014, the world No. 4 has eight top-4s in 17 starts, with three of those being victories. The guy finds a way, figures it out. The shaved off areas around the greens play to his favor, as will the wider fairways.

5. Phil Mickelson

 With a victory, he’d become the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam, at 48 would be the oldest to win the national championship and the first left-hander to win this major title. And it would mute all that talk about his record six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open, four of them coming in New York, including in the 2004 edition at Shinnecock. The wide fairways and the shaved-off areas around the greens play to his strengths.

4. Tiger Woods

He hasn’t won a major since his epic victory in the 2008 U.S. Open and hasn’t won any tournament since 2013. One part or another of his game has hurt him throughout his comeback, most recently his putter. But he’s back on Poa greens, which he grew up on, and he’s one of the best putters the game has ever seen. From tee to green, he’s been superb. Great around the greens. Now if he can just figure it out when he gets on the greens.

3. Justin Rose

The Englishman has 15 top-10s around the world in his last 20 starts, with four of those being wins. The world No. 3 won the Fort Worth Invitational at Colonial and finished in a tie for sixth at the Memorial in his last two starts. The 2013 U.S. Open champion and stalwart for Europe in the Ryder Cup is a supreme ball-striker and solid putter.

2. Dustin Johnson

No player has won the U.S. Open after winning the week before. DJ could care less, for last week’s winner in the FedEx St. Jude Classic isn’t much into history. The 2016 U.S. Open champ has plenty of firepower with a driver, 3-wood or long iron in his hands. Plenty of firepower with a short iron in his hands, too. And he isn’t too bad with the putter in his hands. Might not be the best from the shaved off areas off the greens. Might not have to be.

And our winner: Jason Day

The world No. 8 and winner of the 2015 PGA has won twice this year despite nagging injuries and illness. His length off the tee alone makes him a threat. He’ll work out his iron play, which has been subpar for his standards. But it’s his short game that will provide the difference. Players are going to miss the undulated, sloping, runoff greens, especially if the wind blows. That’s where Day will shine. He’s No. 1 on the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained: Putting. No. 3 in Strokes Gained: Around the green. And No. 4 in sand save percentage. It will be his Day come Sunday.

 

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