The state of play
WE know many things for certain about the US Open: the course set-ups are tough, plenty of the field will wilt under the pressure, and Brooks Koepka won’t (he’s two-time winner who hasn’t finished outside the top four in his last four starts).
We also know that Koepka will be somewhat enigmatic in his dealings with the media. Early on in his career he loved flying under the radar, relishing that his closest rivals were distracted by endless questions.
Then he hit phase two, when he became something of an arch-villain, taking undisguised pleasure in trolling his opponents, doubting their ability to remain calm under the greatest of pressure, talking of having his own secret methods to do so.
His latest mode is truculence and was in evidence after his second round 67 got him back to level-par in a share for 24th. “I don’t come here hoping for second place,” he said. “If you are a good player, you want to come in here and win. That’s why everybody is teeing it up. Nobody has a goal of just making the cut or anything like that.”
So far, so typical of golfers. Then Koepka added a distinctive sign-off. “I’m pretty confident,” he said. “People hate confidence. That’s why people aren’t a big fan of me.” Beneath the grumpiness, does Koepka maybe just need a hug?
Higher up the leaderboard we have quite a weekend in prospect. Collin Morikawa came into the tournament fretting that his long game was in poor shape, but he shares the lead on 5-under 135 alongside Joel Dahmen.
One shot adrift of them are the unheralded trio of Hayden Buckley, Aaron Wise and Beau Hossler, plus the high-class duo of Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy. Another five players are a further shot back including the Masters champion Scottie Scheffler.
If a golfer is not close to the lead at this stage, he needs something pretty special to happen at the weekend. That’s the lesson of history because 23 of the last 25 US Open winners were within two shots of top spot after 36 holes. The exceptions? Webb Simpson in 2012 came from six back and Brooks Koepka in 2018 had been five back. Simpson is particularly notable because he was T29th at halfway and the other 24 were tied sixth or better at halfway (yes, even Koepka).
Koepka was helped by Dustin Johnson blowing a four-shot halfway lead and Simpson was aided by the collapse of the seven men ahead of him heading into the final round (they all failed to break 72).
Let’s be brutal. Those stats are quite compelling so we’ll discount anyone not within two shots of the lead. And of the last 10 winners of the championship none emerged from outside the world’s top 30 and all had a US Open top 25 finish in their logbook. We also noted in the preview that 19 of the last 21 major championship winners had a top eight finish or had been top four with 18 holes to play in one of the three majors ahead of their win.
That knocks out Dahmen, Buckley, Wise and Hossler – the four outsiders. McIlroy was eighth in the PGA Championship and second in the Masters, Morikawa fifth in the Masters and won last year’s Open, when Rahm finished tied third. McIlroy and Rahm are past winners of the championship and Morikawa has been fourth. All three sit comfortably in the world’s top 30.
We need to get more brutal to whittle that trio down. Successfully defending the US Open is hard. Rahm is trying to be just the fourth man to do it since the Second World War and Morikawa’s form does not conform to another trend of winners (having a top 15 finish in their previous two starts). The two are high quality enough to overcome those trends but we’re taking a no-compromise approach here and it leaves only McIlroy.
“I’m playing as good a golf as I’ve played in a long time,” he said after adding a Friday 69 to a first round 67.
He then started to ponder why the course and the fans suit him. “I think I play quite an emotive brand of golf, if there is such a thing,” he said. “I’ve always liked having crowds. I like the interaction. I enjoy that part of it. I’m certainly not one to keep my head down and look straight in front of me, tunnel vision. I like looking around. I like seeing people out there. I’m in a good place.”
If you want someone with the potential to make a run from off the pace Xander Schauffele looks the man. His capacity to hang around at the US Open is extraordinary, having a 5-for-5 record at lying inside the top 20 after 54 holes and a 5-for-5 record at landing a top seven finish.
The question is: what will it take for him to win? It might be that he sets a low number, something he’s well capable of, in the final round and the late finishers fail to match him. He’s currently four back on 1-under, but he has it in him to get closer to the lead in round three and push on in the final lap.