Top 10 storylines for 2017 U.S. Open

Jordan Spieth has a chance to make history at the 2017 PGA Championship

One of the toughest tests in golf is nearly upon us. As the 2017 U.S. Open gets underway, it’s important to know just what stories we should be following.

What kind of venue will Erin Hills be? How important is it for stalwarts like Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth to play well? What kind of history would Dustin Johnson make with a repeat win? What does past history tell us about Sergio Garcia’s chances? How much will the absence of Phil Mickelson be felt? How likely are we to see a new major winner?

These are just some of the things to keep an eye on through the week at Erin Hills.

We know who the hottest golfers are entering the week. Now it’s time to take a look at the 10 main storylines entering the 2017 U.S. Open.

1. Likely absence of Phil Mickelson

For at least the first few rounds, expect a lot of the talk to revolve around one man who won’t be at Erin Hills, Phil Mickelson. Mickelson has opted to see his daughter, Amanda, graduate from high school. A loyal fan even started a petition hoping that the school would move the graduation date. But alas, it was not to be.

Lefty’s only chance of playing in the 2017 U.S. Open will include a four hour (or more) weather delay on Thursday. To be fair, that’s not exactly impossible.

Still, it’s unlikely. In all likelihood, the U.S. Open will not include Mickelson.

How important is Mickelson’s absence?

A win in the U.S. Open would give Lefty the career grand slam, putting him in a group that includes only Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Lists don’t get more elite than that.

The U.S. Open is the one major that Mickelson does not have. Instead, he has six second-place finishes and some true heartbreakers along the way. He’ll turn 47 on Friday, so realistically we have to wonder how many more chances exist.

The upcoming U.S. sites have generally been kind to Mickelson. In 2018 and 2020, Lefty’s national championship will emanate from Shinnecock Hills and Winged Foot Golf Club, respectively. Those sites have each hosted a Mickelson runner-up, with Lefty’s closest call coming at Winged Foot. In 2019 and 2021, Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines will play host to the U.S. Open. Mickelson has multiple wins at both venues.

Still, the optimism should be tempered for a couple reasons.

One, the only one that Mickelson is already qualified for is 2018. The exemption that he earned by winning the 2013 British Open will expire after next year. Mickelson has always been relatively high in the world rankings so logic says that he’ll continue to qualify. Still, he’s getting older. It’s not going to be as easy for Mickelson and his fans to take a top-60 spot in the world rankings for granted.

Secondly, Mickelson has two more kids. We’re not exactly leaping if we assume that they’ll eventually graduate from the same high school as their older sister. It’s also not a stretch to think that their graduations will occur during U.S. Open week. So, this may be the first of three times that Mickelson puts family first and skips the U.S. Open.

2. Erin Hills: Cupcake or Brute?

The 2017 U.S. Open will conclude a rather interesting three-year run in the tournament’s history. In 2016, the U.S. Open was held at Oakmont for a record extending ninth time. But that was sandwiched between two essentially brand new courses.

Chambers Bay in 2015 was controversial. Ian Poulter ripped the venue both before and after that tournament and was far from alone. Will Erin Hills bring the same kind of heat?

Rory McIlroy didn’t seem to have any complaints.

We can’t say the same, however, for Kevin Na, who went on a rant about the fescue grass.

It’s hard to assess a favorite on such an unfamiliar course.

According to Justin Ray of The Golf Channel, the USGA’s plan is to set it up at 7,741 yards, which is a U.S. Open record. But he also noted that Erin Hills can get to 8,348 yards — which is simply nuts.

That would seem to benefit the long hitters. But as Na mentioned, the fescue isn’t only hard to play out of, but it’s “almost unplayable.” In fact, even finding a ball will be hard. So, keeping the ball in the fairway will also be important.

It will be interesting to see how the pros respond. If they don’t like the setup, we’ll know about it. If they do, then the USGA might have found itself another course to put in the U.S. Open rotation.

Only time will tell.

3. Dustin Johnson’s quest for a repeat

Dustin Johnson U.S. Open

If long and accurate drives are the way to navigate Erin Hills, then DJ should have a lot of fun. If DJ has a lot of fun, he might just join a select fraternity in golf history.

Willie Anderson (1903-1905), John McDermott (1911-1912), Ralph Guldahl (1937-1938), Bobby Jones (1929-1930), Ben Hogan (1950-1951) and Curtis Strange (1988-1989) are the only repeat U.S. Open winners in the tournament’s history.

As you can plainly see, it’s not a long list. It’s also not one that’s been updated in a while.

For reference, only Strange’s wins happened during Johnson’s lifetime. Other top golfers like Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama weren’t even alive for that repeat.

You can also tell how select a list is by looking at some of the guys who aren’t on it. If Johnson were to win at Erin Hills, he’d do something that guys like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods never did. That would certainly give Johnson a unique place in golf history.

4. Will we see more parity?

If we’re following the trend of this decade, we’ll see a first time major winner crowned on Sunday. Or, at least, we’ll see someone who hasn’t won a major in a while return to the winner’s circle.

The trend of the golf world — at least as it relates to major championships — speaks to everything that’s happened to Tiger Woods since Thanksgiving of 2009. From 2000-2009, 40 majors were contested. They were won by 22 different men, with Woods himself claiming 12.

This decade, meanwhile, has seen only 29 majors contested thus far. But they, too have been won by 22 different men.

While guys like Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy have had nice runs, we’ve yet to see anyone step up and dominate in the majors like Tiger did a decade ago.

Will Erin Hills be the beginning of that? Or, will it give us more of the same? In this case, that would mean more change.

5. How will Sergio Garcia follow up his major breakthrough?

That Mickelson is forgoing a chance to complete the career slam shows how much things can change in the golf world. Well into his career, there was genuine doubt that Mickelson wouldn’t win any major, let alone all of them.

Similar doubt was experienced with Garcia. But one brilliant Sunday in April at Augusta brought that to a screeching halt.

Much like it did with Mickelson following the 2004 Masters, the question shifts. We’re no longer wondering if Sergio will win a major. The question now is, how many will he win?

Will he break through like Mickelson did and win several more? Or, will Garcia be more like Tom Kite or Davis Love III? Those guys were highly respected golfers by the time they won their first majors and as it turned out, they never won another.

How likely is it that Garcia will follow up his Masters win with a U.S. Open triumph? Judging by history, the odds aren’t great, but it’s not impossible, either.

Jack Nicklaus won the first two majors of the year in 1972. After that, we had to wait a while. But Tiger won the Masters and U.S. Open in 2002, while Spieth did the same thing in 2015. Those were Spieth’s first (and to date, only) career majors. So, Garcia can certainly draw on something there.

6. Rory McIlroy’s health

It hasn’t been a banner year for McIlroy. He’s the second ranked golfer in the world but hasn’t won since the Tour Championship in 2016. In and of itself, that drought is hardly noteworthy. But McIlroy has been plagued by injuries to his ribs and back.

That can’t be overlooked.

So, how are things going? Right now, McIlroy looks fine.

How he’ll hold up is a slightly different issue.

As we’ve already detailed, Erin Hills is going to be longer than any U.S. Open in the past. That’s going to require a lot of walking. Also, hitting out of thick rough and fescue isn’t exactly good on the back.

If McIlroy’s body holds up, he’s a factor. His length is an obvious advantage at a venue like this. If his injuries act up, though, it’s hard to see him doing anything of note at Erin Hills. More importantly, it would be hard to imagine him being much of a factor at the British Open, PGA Championships or for the rest of the golf season.

McIlroy’s score will be interesting to watch. But more important to watch will be how his body holds up through what figures to be an absolute grind of a week.

7. Jason Day’s quest to return to winner’s circle

Like McIlroy, it’s been a while since Day has won. Day last claimed victory at the 2016 Players Championship. Again, for most golfers, that’s hardly even notable. But for someone like Day, it can’t be ignored.

The similarities with McIlroy don’t stop at their current winless stretches, either. Much like McIlroy, Day has also gone public with how much he likes the venue.

But will he like it as much after 72 holes are in the books?

If Day does claim a victory, he may just petition to have all future majors played in Wisconsin. To date, his only major win came at the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, which is also in the Dairy State. So, do we like his chances?

Well, he’s certainly a power player. If Day is driving the ball in the fairway, it’s hard to imagine that he won’t be a factor on Sunday.

8. Another American winner?

At a glance, this is a side plot that you’re not likely to think much of. But when we break it down, it’s absolutely something to watch.

When Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson went back to back at the 2015 and 2016 U.S. Opens, it marked the first time since 2008 and 2009 (Tiger Woods and Lucas Glover) that Americans won their national championship in consecutive years.

Between Glover’s 2009 win and Spieth’s 2015 victory, Webb Simpson (2012) was the only American to win.

When was the last time Americans won three straight U.S. Opens? That would be 1998-2000, when Lee Janzen, Payne Stewart and Tiger won in between South Africans Ernie Els (1997) and Retief Goosen (2001).

It may not have the historical ramifications of Mickelson winning the career slam (if he was playing) or even Johnson winning consecutive U.S. Opens. But if an American wins this week, it will represent something that we haven’t seen in a long time.

9. Jordan Spieth’s quest to regain major form

There’s a couple ways to look at Spieth in the majors. One way is to say that since 2015, he’s been the best golfer in the world at the majors. Objectively, there’s a lot to back that argument up.

But it’s not the full story, either.

Spieth won the Masters and U.S. Open in 2015. Since then, he’s had chances to win others but has fallen short due to some late-round frustrations (2015 British Open), late round collapses (2016 Masters) and final-round disappearing acts (2017 Masters).

The sooner that Spieth can put those in his rear view mirror, the better off he’ll be.

So, how does that happen? Well, the next time Spieth has a chance to win a major on Sunday, winning it would go a long way towards silencing any critics.

From Spieth’s perspective, the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills is as good a time and place as any to start.

10. Another first-time major winner?

While we’ve had 22 different major winners this decade, a few of those guys had enjoyed major triumphs in the past. Mickelson, Ernie Els, and Zach Johnson all won majors from 2000-2009 as well. But Johnson’s win at the 2015 British Open was the last time that someone who had already won a major championship claimed victory at one of golf’s biggest events.

Each of the last six major champions — Jason Day, Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, Jimmy Walker and Sergio Garcia — were all first-time major winners.

Now, this isn’t an entirely unprecedented run, even in recent history. Mickelson’s win at the 2010 Masters and Els’ triumph at the 2012 British Open sandwiched nine different first time major winners. Still, it’s a good time to be someone who’s never won a major.

So, if that trend is going to continue at the 2017 U.S. Open, who are some of the likely candidates to win?

Hideki Matsuyama, Alex Noren and Rickie Fowler are all majorless players ranked in the top 10. Branching out to the top 25, we have Justin Thomas, Paul Casey, Matt Kuchar, Francesco Molinari, Tyrrell Hatton, Patrick Reed, Kevin Kisner, Brooks Koepka, Daniel Berger and Thomas Pieters.

So, the list of realistic contenders is a deep one.