Two forces will clash this week at Winged Foot for the 120th U.S. Open.
New school will try to defeat old school when the game’s biggest bombers of the golf ball attempt to overcome Winged Foot’s ankle-high rough and narrow fairways, beginning Thursday.
Which will win out?
Will the likes of world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and his booming length or Bryson DeChambeau and his new-found bulk hoist the chalice at the end of the day Sunday?
Or will the treacherous conditions nullify the super powers of the big boppers?
Recent history says that — high rough and narrow fairways be damned — the big hitters will prevail. Gary Woodland, one of the game’s long hitters, is the defending champion. Brooks Koepka, who’s nursing a knee injury and not playing this week, won the previous two U.S. Opens.
Johnson is unquestionably the game’s best player, closely followed by Spaniard Jon Rahm, the No. 2-ranked player in the world who’s also a big hitter.
DeChambeau went on a workout bender during the COVID-19 shelter-at-home hiatus and came out the other side of it looking almost like a “Popeye’’ cartoon character he’s so bulked up.
“I think overall the game is kind of trending in that direction,’’ Woodland said of the big hitters. “You look at what DJ has done … I don’t think Boston [the Northern Trust] really set up too much for a long, long hitter, and DJ just overpowered the thing [winning at 30-under par]. It was impressive what he did.
“And then you go to Chicago [the BMW], which was a golf course I would say was a pretty good prep for this week there at Olympia Fields, big golf course, thick rough, you saw what DJ and Jon Rahm did that week. And then DJ goes to Atlanta [the Tour Championship], and that’s the same thing, drive the golf ball in the fairway at that place [and win]. The game has kind of trended that way.’’
DeChambeau, for one, said he’s going for it with driver all week — despite the narrow fairways and heavy rough.
“I’m hitting it as far as I possibly can up there,’’ DeChambeau said, almost defiantly. “Even if it’s in the rough, I can still get it to the front edge or the middle of the greens with pitching wedges or 9-irons. That’s the beauty of my length and that advantage. Even if I hit it in the rough, I still feel like I can make birdies out here. I still feel like I can run it up the middle of the green and make a 20-footer. It’s not guaranteed if you lay up you’re in the fairway, right?’’
DeChambeau’s approach is similar to the strategy Phil Mickelson used at Winged Foot in 2006, a bomb-and-gouge philosophy. Mickelson, who was struggling with his driver, particularly in the final round, hit it as far as he could and tried to hack short irons out of the rough.
“Luckily, I’m usually a pretty good driver of the golf ball, so it should fit,’’ Rahm said. “Clearly, hitting the fairway is going to be an advantage. Now, what you choose to hit it with is up to you, whatever you feel comfortable with.’’
Asked if the Winged Foot fairways and rough might be a hindrance to his aggressive approach, DeChambeau said, “I think, if anything, it enhances what I do off the tee with the length. Hopefully it works out for me. You never know. I could be in the rough and get bad lies and not be able to execute out of the rough, or I could hit it in the fairways all day and not hit great iron shots and then not make anything. That’s the beauty of golf … you just never know.’’
Johnson, of late, has left little doubt about his ability to play well under any conditions. In his past four starts, he has two wins and two runner-up finishes. He won in Boston and lost in Chicago in a playoff to Rahm at an Olympia Fields course that was set up like a U.S. Open.
“I’m playing well; I’ve got a lot of confidence in the game,’’ Johnson said. “The game is in good form right now [and] hopefully it stays in good form for the rest of the week, but it’s one of those golf courses where it’s very difficult and you need to be spot-on if you want to play well.’’