MAMARONECK, N.Y. – Handicapping this week’s field at the U.S. Open is like a Goggle search that spirals into an endless number of rabbit holes.
Dustin Johnson is the world No. 1. He’s the newly minted 2019-20 PGA Tour Player of the Year award winner. He’s the reigning FedExCup champion and he’s a former U.S. Open champion. That he’s the prototype of the modern athlete on 7,477 yards of Winged Foot wickedness is also impossible to ignore.
But if you focus too much on Johnson, you will overlook Justin Thomas, who finished runner-up to Johnson at the Tour Championship - and presumably the Player of the Year voting - as well as Collin Morikawa, who won the year’s only other major, and Rory McIlroy, who hasn’t been his best since the Tour’s restart but is built for the kind of golf the West Course will demand this week.
And those obvious choices overshadow sentimental favorite and “people’s champion” Phil Mickelson – whose career narrative can't be told without the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot – and Tiger Woods, who has not exactly played like the reigning Masters champion but is still Tiger Woods.
The wise guys are leaning towards Johnson, who is listed as the favorite by numerous bookmakers.
But all of this ignores the most obvious and the most likely choice for this week’s champion – Jon Rahm.
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Rahm’s never won a major. In fact, a Spaniard has never won the U.S. Open. But an examination of the strangest of seasons allows for just a single choice at the game’s most demanding test. It’s obvious because no one has performed better at this season’s toughest venues than the 25-year-old.
Muirfield Village for the Memorial and Olympia Fields for the BMW Championship ranked as the Tour’s toughest layouts since June’s restart, with a 74 (2 over) and 71.87 (.87 over) field average, respectively. Rahm won both of those slugfests.
On a baked-out course at Jack’s Place, he overcame a bizarre final-round penalty to lap the field by three shots. At Olympia Fields, a former U.S. Open venue, he ran down Johnson to force overtime, whichh he won with a dramatic putt on the first extra hole.
“I would say Olympia was playing more difficult than Muirfield, so if anything, I would say this week would probably play more difficult than Olympia Fields, so that would be my one, two and three,” Rahm said on Tuesday, when asked to compare venues. “Based on what I've heard, this should be the hardest one.”
That suits Rahm just fine. The thicker the rough, the slicker the greens, the harder the test, the better because if this truncated season has taught us anything it’s that Rahm’s game travels well.
That might not have always been the case. His previous victories at Torrey Pines (2017) and Palm Springs (2019) always had a birdie-fest feel to them. However, his play this year has proven that there’s a tougher side to Rahm.
His game has certainly evolved to allow for a greater degree of confidence when the degree of difficulty is turned up, but if we’re searching for benchmarks to more easily justify his status as this week’s favorite it’s in his approach to the grueling demands of major championship golf.
“I would say in the past maybe this type of golf wasn't my bread and butter, but again, based on the two events I've won this year, I'm pretty much ready. I've been able to dial it back when I needed to, and I've been able to play it properly when I needed to,” he said. “I've always thought the U.S. Open is the type of golf course I can win on. I know my game can win on any golf course, but when you're playing good, again, it becomes a mental challenge, right, so I welcome those.”
With a nod to Oakmont and Carnoustie, this week’s venue may stand as the most mentally challenging in major championship golf. Just ask Mickelson. Or Colin Montgomerie. Or Jim Furyk. All three could have won the ’06 U.S. Open on the West Course with a par at the final hole, but only Geoff Ogilvy was able to pull it off.
All pressure is individual and it’s clear Rahm hasn’t been worn down by the inevitably incessant questions about when he’ll break through the Grand Slam ceiling. It also has become increasingly clear that Rahm has no interest in shying away from the elephant in the room.
“I'm not going to lie to say this; there's always something extra special to be possibly the first Spanish player to win a U.S. Open. That would be amazing,” he admitted. “It's a bit of an extra motivation there to play good this week and do what I have to do.”
Johnson has earned his status as the betting favorite, and Woods and Mickelson will pull their share of nostalgia nods, but Rahm is the only player to prove on this season’s most demanding courses that he is the man to beat this week.