Welcome to Golf’s Greatest Semester.
I’m talking about the six-week stretch that currently surrounds us. It began with the U.S. Open, which Dustin Johnson won by conquering Oakmont and a posse of dithering USGA rules wonks.
It continues this week with the 145th Open Championship at Royal Troon, where the weather forecast sounds like a waterpark—Wet ‘N Wild.
Golf’s Greatest Semester will conclude in two weeks with the PGA Championship, which makes a rare July appearance, bumped by the Olympics.
Six weeks, three major championships.
Consider the possibilities. A golfer who finds his peak form can sweep three majors—or two, now, unless you’re Johnson. It can make a man’s career.
Which brings us back to Johnson, who stands tall over the Open Championship field not only because he’s the only top-ranked contender who can dunk a basketball but also because he is that aforementioned player in peak form. You thought he might have a letdown after his long-awaited inaugural major breakthrough? No, instead he dropped the hammer—and he wields a big one—at the WGC-Bridgestone Championship.
Johnson is the man to beat at Royal Troon after back-to-back impressive wins. And his victory at Oakmont turns his resume Mongolian Reversal-like on its ear. Johnson’s previous near-misses in majors (11 top-10 finishes) were considered negatives. Now they’re viewed as positives, as in, He’s got a U.S. Open and five other top-five finishes in a major! It’s sort of like bragging, I shot 68… despite two doubles!
In other words, close calls are good only if you’ve got a win to validate them. Nobody denigrates Jack Nicklaus for his 19 seconds in major championships. Why? Because he finished first on 18 other occasions.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Johnson’s game doesn’t travel well for links golf. He has two top 10s in the Open, including a runnerup finish in the 2011 Open at Royal St. George’s, the funkiest of all Open links venues. If he doesn’t inexplicably blow a two-iron out of bounds on a par-5 on the back nine on Sunday and if Darren Clarke’s fairway wood doesn’t clear a gaping bunker by about a foot… well, never mind. Golf has a stat category called If.
The way we look at Johnson isn’t all that has been turned upside down. There are the Artists Formerly Known as the Big Three, who now appear to have been strictly a 2015 phenomenon.
Jason Day has clearly pulled away from the Other Two-Thirds—Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. Day still has only the one major title, at last year’s PGA Championship, but he owns seven wins since last July and has three wins this season, including the Players. He was on the verge of a fourth in Akron until Johnson took him down on Sunday.
Here’s how the World Ranking would look if it were based only on points gained this year before the Scottish Open: Johnson, Day, Spieth, Danny Willett, Adam Scott, McIlroy.
If there is going to be a Big Three moving forward, or a Fantastic Four, Jive Five or Magnificent Seven—whatever, Johnson has to be included.
In the wake of DJ’s win at Oakmont, I whipped up a list of the 10 best players who haven’t won a major, and I had to stretch to fill it out. Golf is overloaded with one-hit wonders. Now it needs a few players to pile up multiple major victories. Think about the active players under the age of 42 (sorry, Tiger, I said active!) who own more than one major title. It’s a short list. McIlroy has four, followed by Spieth, Zach Johnson, Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson, with two each.
So here’s my menu of contenders who are more likely than not (thanks for that phrase, USGA) to capture one or both of the next two majors:
Dustin Johnson: Biggest hitter in the game has more control since switching from a draw to a fade. He’s playing without fear.
Jason Day: Another big hitter whose short game and putting can carry him on an off day. A complete package.
Danny Willett: You know what works in windy conditions? A low straight ball flight. That is Willett’s strength. He is underrated because Americans hadn’t heard of him before his Masters victory, but his accuracy works on any course.
Jordan Spieth: He has seemed frazzled and his swing has seemed sprazzled—O.K., that’s not a word, but it does describe his ball-striking this year, just a bit off. He can win without playing Hogan-like golf because he’s so good on and around the greens. If he straightens out his driver, he can win anywhere.
Adam Scott: After a great spring, the Aussie has cooled. He is best on slightly slower, less undulating greens. Royal Troon, here he comes.
Rickie Fowler: He can flight it lower, like Willett, but still moves it out there a long way. His iron play has been excellent—he’s fourth in greens hit in regulation. But he needs to fire up the putter and clean up the short ones. (He ranks 150th in putting inside three feet.)
Bubba Watson: He’s never finished in the top 20 in seven British Opens, but at the PGA, Baltusrol’s string of long par-4s could be right up his alley.
Lee Westwood: You were sure he was done at 43, but he tied for second at the Masters and played in the final pairing at Oakmont (albeit to a disastrous finish). Give him slower greens at Royal Troon (done!) and softer greens at Baltusrol (the PGA usually has to water the greens heavily due to summer heat) and he’s no long shot to break through.
Zach Johnson: Nobody expects him to win majors, but the defending Open champion is having a Hall of Fame career and is coming off good finishes at Oakmont and Firestone.
Shane Lowry: The Irishman plays aggressively and finds ways to get it done. His putting let him down at Oakmont, but he’s major-worthy.
Will one of these players make the grade in Golf’s Greatest Semester? The next test, Royal Troon, awaits.