The rainstorm that washed over Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Wednesday made the 118th U.S. Open just a little friendlier, a little more unpredictable, a little more interesting – as if that were possible.
With no precipitation on Long Island for more than a week, Shinnecock Hills had been as familiar as an old friend. It was firm and bouncy and a bit intimidating. But when about a tenth of an inch of rain fell on the eve of the championship, the examination for which the players have been preparing changed.
It will be interesting to see who can take advantage of the par-70 layout.
Brooks Koepka, the 2017 champion, seeks to become the first player since Curtis Strange in 1989 to win consecutive U.S. Open titles, but that seems rather ambitious considering that no defending champion has even followed up with a top-10 finish since Tiger Woods ended up T-6 at Bethpage Black in 2009.
Here are five things to watch for on Thursday as the championship gets underway:
1. Harold Varner hitting the first tee shot. The Akron, Ohio, native, an African American, will let loose at 6:45 a.m. EDT off the No. 1 tee. In the 1896 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, the field included African-American player John Shippen and native American Oscar Bunn. Both had learned the game from Shinnecock pro Willie Dunn, who laid out the original course. Some players threatened to withdraw if Shippen and Bunn were allowed to play, but the USGA honored their entries. No one withdrew, and Shippen, who eventually became a club professional, finished fifth.
2. The leader shooting 66. Or better. That was the low first-round score in each of the last two U.S. Opens at Shinnecock. Three-time major winner Nick Price, now a member of the USGA’s Executive Committee, opened with that number in 1995, and in 2004 Jay Haas and Shigeki Maruyama were 4 under par after 18 holes. The aforementioned rain may open the spigot to some low numbers.
3. Rory McIlroy shooting 66. The 2011 U.S. Open champion has broken par for 72 holes just once in his nine starts in the championship, and that came the year he won by eight shots at Congressional. That was a wet championship. McIlroy goes off early today, at 8:02 a.m., when Shinnecock will not yet have had time to dry out. “I’m glad I go off early,” he mused Wednesday morning. We bet he is.
4. Five-plus hours of Tiger Woods’ every move. The return of the three-time U.S. Open winner for the first time since 2015 at Chambers Bay (where he missed the cut), naturally is a source of immense interest among rabid golfers and casual fans alike. Woods tees off at 1:47 p.m. EDT with Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, who are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, respectively. Only TW could possibly overshadow the game’s top two players, but such is his allure and popularity. The U.S. Open missed him.
5. A lost ball. No, seriously, it could happen. The rough is punishing, and it just might swallow up someone’s errant tee shot. We’re guessing to the right of the 14th fairway, which is nastier than weeks-old clam sauce. Hey, in 1986, Jack Nicklaus, who had won his sixth Masters title two months earlier, lost his tee shot on the 10th hole on a day when the wind gusted to 40 mph. If Nicklaus can lose a ball with all those eyes following it, well, then anything is possible.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.