For much of this season, Dustin Johnson’s dominance was such that the Masters and US Open looked like a race for second. If the world No1’s non-participation at Augusta was the result of a freak domestic accident, recent returns of 12th, 13th and a missed cut means suddenly Johnson does not look quite so imperious.
While he will understandably have a successful defence of the US Open from Thursday as prime motivation, the other leading lights have been afforded hope at Erin Hills. In a nod towards the past three champions, Johnson will have Jordan Spieth and Martin Kaymer for company in rounds one and two.
Unlike Johnson and the vast majority of the field, Spieth has playing experience of the course – from the US Amateur Championship.
“I know nothing about it,” said Johnson. “Before I injured myself, I was playing really well. Everything was just really solid. But it’s getting back to where I feel like where I’m getting a lot more comfortable and a lot more confident in the game. I feel like the game, as far as from last year to this year, is not really much different.”
Fascination elsewhere will surround how Rory McIlroy fares at a course that may well suit his game but who is returning from an enforced break after the recurrence of a rib problem. McIlroy is one of precious few players in recent times to destroy a US Open venue – but this tends to be the most attritional major of them all.
Erin Hills will be subject to intense scrutiny, as will those who preside over the second major of the year. It is a new venue for the championship, which need not be a remarkable factor but the criticism of Chambers Bay in 2015, added to the rules fiasco that overshadowed Johnson’s success last year, means the United States Golf Association is in need of positive publicity.
“They’ve taken criticism for the last two years, I’m sure they’re not liking it,” said Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion. “They’re going to have to try to run a really good event. The ball is in their court; they control it all. Hopefully, they get it right this time, just from a playability standpoint. Let’s just have something that’s a challenge and interesting, not just playing brutal golf.”
The early indications are not particularly good; the USGA has published a supposedly full tournament draw that includes a batch of to-be-decided player times. Phil Mickelson has been included despite saying he will attend his daughter’s high school graduation in San Diego on Thursday lunchtime. Handily, Mickelson has been given an afternoon slot for round one; his participation would become feasible in the event of a lengthy weather delay.
Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, denies the widespread theory that manufactured scoring is high on his organisation’s agenda. “We don’t even talk about it,” he said. “What we do talk about is making sure we can adjust the course to, say, if there’s soft conditions; maybe we tuck a hole location a little bit more versus if we get real firm conditions and it gets windy.
“We’re then sitting there talking among ourselves saying how do we tone this thing down, how do we slow the greens, get some more water on them, whatever the case may be. It really isn’t about the score, it’s about just setting the course up properly.”