Among the top 10 favorites to win the U.S. Open across numerous sportsbooks, only Spain’s Jon Rahm and the United States’ Rickie Fowler have yet to win their first major titles.
Rather than tag them as the best players in the world yet to hoist a major trophy, they may be the place to start when trying to predict the 2018 champion at Shinnecock Hills. While the return of Tiger Woods dominates the headlines and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy are among the presumptive favorites, golf is chock full of young talent.
It’s a different golfing world than when Woods won the U.S. Open in 2000 and went on to win 12 of the next 35 majors. No one has dominated like Woods did since his last major 10 years ago, and only Jordan Spieth (2017 Open Championship) has added another major to his mantle among the past 10 major champions.
The top five candidates to take home their first career majors this weekend:
5. Tommy Fleetwood, England: Fleetwood was in contention late into Sunday at Erin Hills last year and has the game to handle the windy conditions the players will face in Southampton this week. Fleetwood will have to steady his nerves in order to be a factor come the 72nd hole. While he has risen to No. 12 in the world and won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January, Fleetwood faded off the pace with an even-par 72 in the final round after opening 2-over through his first eight holes on Sunday.
4. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan: Few players can go as low as the streaky 10th-ranked Japanese star. After dominating the golf world for a stretch at the end of 2016 and the beginning of last year, Matsuyama’s results have been all over the board. He doesn’t have a top-10 finish since tying for fourth at the limited field at the Tournament of Champions in January, finished 19th at the Masters and missed the cut at The Players.
However, Matsuyama has started to show improved form of late, with a tie for 17th at the Byron Nelson and a tie for 13th at the Memorial that included a first-round 65. When he’s on, no one runs hotter than Matsuyama, who tied for second at Erin Hills.
3. Rickie Fowler, United States: No one seeking his first major title has more near-misses than Fowler, who has three more opportunities to get the major monkey off his back before he turns 30 in December. He has finished second at the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open, along with a tie for third at the PGA. Fowler is always hovering around the first page of the leaderboard but has yet to put it all together on a Sunday in a major.
Fowler has long been criticized for his play down the stretch when in contention, but he narrowly missed chasing Patrick Reed down at the Masters in April. Fowler got engaged since tying for eighth at the Memorial two weeks ago. He has the short game to contend at any U.S. Open, and perhaps he has the life contentment to find his golf Zen this Sunday.
2. Branden Grace, South Africa: The feisty 5-10 South African isn’t a household name in the U.S., but I’ve been expecting a major title breakthrough from Grace since watching his bulldog mentality during strong runs at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship three years ago. He enters the week as a dark horse, but Grace is a grinder who knows how to tame difficult courses – evidenced by his 62 at Royal Birkdale last summer.
Grace won the Nedbank Golf Challenge in November, finished second at the BMW SA Open in January and hasn’t missed a cut in 10 months. He plays all over the world, but has focused most of his build-up to the Open in the U.S. After tying for 24th at Augusta, he posted T-46th at The Players, T-3 at the Byron Nelson, T-5 at the BMW PGA Championship in Europe and then T-52 at the Memorial.
1. Jon Rahm, Spain: The 23-year-old is one of five players with an opportunity to wrest the No. 1 ranking from Johnson this week. The former Arizona State star admitted the same opportunity earlier this year got to him on consecutive tournaments as he faded over the weekend and he enters this week at No. 5 – the highest among non-major winners.
Rahm is often his own worst enemy on the course, but he is as talented as any player in the 156-man field. He was ranked 766 in the world before finishing as the low amateur in the 2016 U.S. Open. It would be a spectacular story if the Spaniard can take over No. 1 for the first time just two years later.
Just missing the cut: Patrick Cantlay, Bryson DeChambeau, Tyrell Hatton, Francesco Molinari and Alex Noren.
–Derek Harper, Field Level Media