2020 U.S. Open: 10 storylines to follow at Winged Foot, starting with Phil Mickelson’s unlikely win

The 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot is the first of six major championships this season, and it comes at an unusual time for major championships. Normally, at this time of the year, the best golfers in the world are gearing up for the Ryder Cup. Instead, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re locking in for what should be one of the best U.S. Opens of the last few decades at beautiful (but also vile) Winged Foot Golf Club.

Coming off a fun ending to the 2019-20 FedEx Cup Playoffs with a subsequent 50-event 2020-21 season stretching out in front of them, there are a ton of interesting storylines going into the second event of the season. Here are 10 that stand out as a fascinating week begins to unfold. Also, check out the full set of 2020 U.S. Open odds via William Hill Sportsbook.

1. Phil Mickelson’s moment has passed: It’s difficult to think about Winged Foot or the U.S. Open (and especially both) without thinking about what happened to Lefty in 2006. Mickelson went to the 72nd hole needing par for his first U.S. Open (which would have eventually netted him the career grand slam) and bogey for a playoff with Geoff Ogilvy. Instead, he careened one off a hospitality tent on the 18th hole and made double. Mickelson (80-1) is not playing at a level that would suggest he has any chance at this year’s U.S. Open, and given that he does not have a top 25 at this tournament since 2013, it would be shocking if he contended. Shocking, and also the golf (and possibly sports) story of the year.

2. Winged Foot is spectacular: There are few courses in the country better suited to host a U.S. Open than Winged Foot Golf Club. It is unbelievably demanding off the tee, features some of the wildest green complexes of any American venue that hosts major championship golf and will play as tough as it ever has with rough you can get lost in. I don’t know who’s going to win this year’s U.S. Open, but I do know whoever it is will have earned it and that the whole thing is going to be an absolute war. USGA courses are always the star, this one will be so for the right reasons.

3. Dustin Johnson’s dominance: Since the PGA Championship started the first week in August, Dustin Johnson (17/2) has lost to exactly one golfer over the course of 72 holes. That was Collin Morikawa at the PGA Championship, where D.J. finished second. After that runner-up finish, he won, lost in a playoff and won again. It’s reminiscent of his stretch in 2017 leading into the Masters where he won three events in a row but did not get to compete at Augusta National because he fell down the stairs in his rental house. It’s very difficult to imagine D.J. not contending this week given the heater he’s on and the fact that he’s finished in the top four in four of his last six U.S. Opens. He’s the favorite, and he should be.

4. No Brooks Koepka creates an opening: Speaking of getting beat by just one golfer, Koepka has lost to just one player over the last three U.S. Opens. He won two of them before Gary Woodland clipped him at Pebble Beach last year. Koepka pulled out of this year’s event with a lingering knee injury, which means a door that has been mostly shut to the wider golf world over the past three years is now wide open. Koepka was not likely to contend in this year’s event — at least not in my book — but given his recent history here, he would have likely been viewed by many as one of the top favorites.

5. Jon Rahm’s time? There is really no debate left about who the best player in the world without a major championship is right now. The intriguing part to me about Rahm (10-1) is that he already has two wins this year on U.S. Open-like venues, the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village and the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields. On a week in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to envision anyone outside the top 12 or 15 golfers on the planet winning this event, Rahm stands out even among those. He (quietly!) finished T3 last year at Pebble Beach.

6. One-win club: Not all majors are created equal, and winning Winged Foot — just like winning Oakmont, Carnoustie or Shinnecock should count for more than just one major. To coincide with this, the list of active players currently sitting on one major championship is an absolute war chest: Woodland, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Justin Thomas, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Webb Simpson and Patrick Reed. 

Now think about Scott or Garcia adding Winged Foot to Augusta National. Think about Rose adding it to Merion. Think about D.J. adding it to Oakmont or Day adding it to Whistling Straits. While it’s true that this is just a 72-hole event, the way we think about any of these golfers historically changes disproportionally to simply winning a one-week event. Translation: There is a massive legacy opportunity for somebody this week.

7. Coronavirus effect: The primary effect of COVID-19 at the PGA Championship — last season’s only major — back in August was the lack of fans in attendance during times of high drama on the weekend. This week’s effects are already being felt in more substantive ways. One of the best players in the world, Scottie Scheffler, had to withdraw from the event after testing positive for COVID-19. Was that a one-off for a group that has not experienced many positive tests since it restarted at the beginning of June or the beginning of a mini-outbreak that could affect one of the biggest events of the year? I’m hopeful for the former, but in this era of golf, I’m expecting literally anything to happen.

8. Father Rory: After his wife gave birth to their first child, Rory McIlroy opened free and easy with a 64 at East Lake Golf Club at the Tour Championship a few weeks ago. The next three rounds did not go all that well, but that first round was a picture of what a freed-up McIlroy (16-1), at ease mentally and physically, looks like. As one colleague mentioned to me, McIlroy is going to play six majors this season where, for the first time in his life, golf is definitely not the most important thing. That might mean nothing, but for somebody as cerebral as he is, it might be the most meaningful inflection point he’s had in his career in the last five years.

9. Best field ever? There’s an argument that this is maybe the best U.S. Open field of all time because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s the reasoning: With the USGA erasing all qualifying for this event, gone are the golfers who simply got hot for 36 holes of qualifying. In their place are players who qualified by playing at the highest level on the best tours in the world for more extended periods of time. The U.S. Open is one of the great events because, theoretically, anyone can win it. That was not true this year because of the pandemic, but that could lead to a tougher across-the-board test than we have ever seen.

10. Tiger, I guess: I wrote more about Tiger Woods at Winged Foot here, but the short of it is that it’s difficult to imagine him pulling together the loosest parts of his game for one magical week in New York. It could happen, of course. And regardless, Woods (50-1) will be among the biggest stories of the week. It’s just that it’s not likely to happen given what we know about his game, this course and the field he is up against. 

Who will win the U.S. Open, and which long shots will stun the golfing world? Visit SportsLine to see the projected leaderboard, all from the model that’s nailed six golf majors (including Gary Woodland’s win last year) and is up over $8,000 since restart.


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