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In-form Johnson and Rahm stand out among 144 golfers
GOING by recent form you cannot look beyond world No.1 Dustin Johnson for the US Open title.
Two firsts and two seconds in the past four tournaments in just over a month underline the bearded 36-year-old's impeccable form against some gifted younger talent knocking on the door of high reputation.
As a justified world No.1 (he first clinched this honour in February 2017 and remained there for 64 consecutive weeks) who demonstrated his power and panache by claiming the Northern Trust Championship and Tour Championship recently, Johnson is the name on everybody's lips as 144 golfers go into battle at the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York from Sept 17 to 20.
The reputed club, founded in 1921 had staged the US Open five times previously, the first in 1929 and the last one in 2006. And it provides a greater challenge than previously after it underwent some renovation in 2016.
Swedish professional Daniel Chopra, a popular figure to Asian fans mainly because his father is Indian and a familiar face on Fox Sports television, says: "The Open will be on one of the toughest courses in the world, and the greens will be some of the most undulating ones that the golfers will face all year barring Augusta National.
"I look for a great driver of the ball who can work it both ways on the tee. The greens were redone in 2016 in preparation for this year's US Open, and as such they have brought back some of the original slopes that were incorporated by American course architect A.W. Tillinghast.
"I look for someone with great touch and imagination around the greens. Someone with a good track record at the Masters will be a good barometer for success at Winged Foot. And Dustin Johnson has come off one of the greatest month-long stretches in more than 20 years."
Endorsing Chopra's choice is Anthony Kang, the South Korean-American professional who plies his trade mostly in the US. He said: "Without question Dustin Johnson has to be the favourite, considering that only two players have beaten him in his past four starts.
"Second to Collin Morikawa at the PGA Championship, and outduelled by Jon Rahm in a play-off at the BMW Championship, he is long endorsed by his peers as having the best tee-to-green games on the planet.
"Johnson does not require a hot putter, just a cooperative putter as he will contend if he is on the positive side, of the field average, in strokes gained in putting."
No easy ride
Of course, it is not going to be an easy ride for Johnson, who averages 312 yards off the tee. For hounding him will be a pack of "wolves" who can turn the tables even at the deciding "moving" weekend.
Leading that pack is Spaniard Rahm, 25, who bounced back from two poor over-par rounds of five-over 75 and 71 and a six-shot deficit from leader Johnson with two fabulous weekend rounds at the BMW event.
He shot a brilliant 66 and a sensational 64 in the last two rounds to force a play-off with the American ace, and then beat his nemesis in a play-off by draining a 66-foot putt for birdie on the first play-off hole on the 18th.
The world No.2 Rolex Testimonee composed himself after a poor second-round four-over score to return two four-under figures to finish a respectable fourth on a 17-under (he started with the bonus minus 8) total in the Tour event.
Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, the the 31-year-old world No.4, and world No.3 Rolex Testimonee Justin Thomas, 27, are two players ready to step up to the games of the "Big Two" of Johnson and Rahm. Thomas a former world No. 1 who was recently named as the PGA Player of the Year, and McIlroy, another former world No.1, also can assert and exert, having tasted Major victories previously.
Thomas won the 2017 US PGA Championship and McIlroy claimed the US PGA Championship in 2012 and 2014, the US Open in 2011 and the British Open in 2014.
Chopra said: "McIlroy is one of the best drivers of the ball in all of golf, and perhaps Thomas is one who checks all the boxes and may just be the last one standing at the end of the week."
Another strong contender is Xander Schauffele, 26, who has played in three US Open Championships and produced results of T5 (2017), T6 (2018), T3 (2019). Runner up to Rolex Testimonee Francesco Molinari at the 2018 British Open, runner up to Rolex Testimonee Tiger Woods at The Masters last year and tied-10th at the US PGA Championship, in recent weeks the American has been a familiar name on the leaderboard at Major Championships.
He has been very consistent this year as he has not finished outside the top 25 in 14 of 16 events thus far. So Schauffele heads to Winged Foot with a spring in his step and loads of momentum.
One other to watch is American Webb Simpson, 35, the US Open winner in 2012 who always keeps the ball in play, but perhaps lacks some of the power required if he were to venture off the fairway to muscle the ball through the thick US Open rough.
Sentimentalists would like to see veteran Rolex Testimonee Phil Mickelson, 50, perform well. The six-time US Open runner-up and five-time Major winner (sans the US Open) would like to forget his calamitous 72nd-hole double-bogey in 2006 at Winged Foot which cost him the title, losing by one stroke to Geoff Ogilvy.
The Asian challenge comes from two golfers who have blown hot and cold at the recent US PGA events. South Korean Sungjae Im, with a strong iron game, has the potential to surprise while the powerful ball striker from Japan, Hideki Matsuyama, has good all-round play but, if anything, his putting is a chink in his armour.