(Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – ERIN (Wisconsin) – Here are ten PGA Tour players to keep a close eye on this weekend:
1. Jason Day, Australia — Finally starting to again play the way he did the last two years while rising to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings, Day might be ready to win his second major title. His first came by three strokes in the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, a little more than an hour north of Erin Hills in Wisconsin, where the U.S. Open will be played for the first time this week. With his mother’s battle with cancer becoming more positive, the Aussie recently finished second in the AT&T Byron Nelson and battled back from an opening 75 to tie for 15th in the Memorial. The third-ranked Day is making his seventh start in the U.S. Open and finished out of the top 10 only when he tied for 59th in 2012 at the Olympic Club. He tied for second, two shots behind Justin Rose, in 2013 at Merion, and was solo second, eight back of Rory McIlroy in 2011 at Congressional. This is a major player, with six top-10 results in the Grand Slam events since 2015.
2. Dustin Johnson, United States — The top-ranked player in the world hasn’t quite played that way since a back injury he sustained the night before the Masters in April knocked him out of the first major of the year. Some slump: In four events since, he tied for second in the Wells Fargo Championship, tied for 12th in the Players Championship and tied for 13th in the AT&T Byron Nelson before struggling to a missed cut in the Memorial, but anyone can have an off week. DJ, who will defend his first major title this week at Erin Hills, won three straight tournaments before the injury, including two World Golf Championships. He has won six times in the last two seasons and has at least one title on the PGA Tour in each of the last 10 seasons. Although he didn’t finally break through in the Grand Slam events until last year when he won by three strokes at Oakmont, he has finished in the top 10 seven times in the majors over last three years.
3. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland — After claiming four major titles by the age of 24, McIlroy hasn’t added to that total since winning the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool and the PGA Championship at Valhalla in 2014. He was No. 1 in the world during that time, has slipped only to No. 2, and a victory this week at Erin Hills would help him close the gap on Dustin Johnson. McIlroy is playing in the U.S. Open for the ninth time and ran away with the title by eight strokes in 2011 at Congressional, in addition to tying for ninth two years ago at Chambers Bay and tying for 10th in his first start in the second major of the year in 2009 at Bethpage Black. He has won three times in each of the last two seasons, but the closest he came this year was losing to Graeme Storm of England in a playoff at the South African Open while battling a rib injury that has hampered him recently. McIlroy has eight top-10 finishes in the majors since 2014.
4. Justin Rose, England — With his second major title within reach, Rose was wound up second in the Masters two months ago when Sergio Garcia beat him with a birdie on the first playoff hole. It’s been feast or famine for him in the U.S. Open, as he became the first Englishman to claim our national championship since Tony Jacklin in 1970 when he won by two strokes over Phil Mickelson and Jason Day in 2013 at Oakmont, but he missed the cut five times in 11 appearances, including last year back at Oakmont. The 11th-ranked Rose also tied for fifth in 2003 at Olympia Fields and tied for 10th in 2007 at Oakmont. The 2016 Olympic gold medalist at Rio de Janeiro has finished in the top 10 in the majors five times since 2015. Rose has been close this year without winning, as in addition to his runner-up finish at Augusta, he was second at the Sony Open in Hawaii and tied for fourth in both the Farmers Insurance Open and the Genesis Open.
5. Jordan Spieth, United States — When Spieth captured the Masters and U.S. Open in 2015 and became No. 1 in the world at the age of 22, it appeared there were plenty more to come and there still should be. However, he blew a five-stroke lead on the back nine in his title defense at Augusta National last year and still is looking for his third major title. Spieth tied for 13th in the PGA Championship last year at Baltusrol and tied for 11th in April at the Masters, but the magic that took him to five straight top-four results (and six in his career) in the majors was missing. He is down to No. 5 in the world, but also is fifth in the FedEx Cup point standings on the strength of his ninth PGA Tour victory in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, a tie for second in his title defense at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational and third-place finishes in the SBS Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open in Hawaii.
6. Adam Scott, Australia — In a recent interview, Scott said he hoped the United States Golf Association would make the course at Erin Hills simply difficult instead of almost impossible to play this week in the U.S. Open. The Aussie has played in the second major of the year 15 consecutive times and his only top-10 results were a tie for fourth in 2015 at Chambers Bay and a tie for ninth the year before at Merion. When Scott captured the 2013 Masters in a playoff over Angel Cabrera of Argentina, the talk was that there were many more major titles to come, but he has not found the winner’s circle again in the Grand Slam events despite 16 finishes in the top 10 in his career. Scott, who was top-ranked in the world in 2014 but is down to No. 12, showed his major moxie again in April when he tied for ninth in the Masters and also tied for sixth in the Players Championship, the so-called “Fifth Major.”
7. Sergio Garcia, Spain — With the major monkey off his back after beating Justin Rose with a 12-foot birdie on the first playoff hole in the Masters two months ago, Garcia is looking for more this week in the U.S. Open. Long considered to be near or at the top of the list of best players without a title in the Grand Slam events, it seemed like it might never come despite 22 previous top-10 finishes in the majors. His winning putt came after he missed a five-foot birdie putt on the final hole or regulation to force the playoff with Rose. He is making his 18th consecutive appearance in the U.S. Open and has five results in the top 10, including a tie for third in 2005 at Pinehurst No. 2, fourth in 2002 at Bethpage Black and a tie for fifth last year at Oakmont. Garcia, No. 7 in the world, also captured the Omega Dubai Desert Classic earlier this year and leads the European Tour’s season-long Race to Dubai.
8. Charl Schwartzel, South Africa — The 2011 Masters champion is again playing like the guy who beat Aussies Adam Scott and Jason Day by two strokes with a 6-under-par 66 on that memorable Sunday at Augusta National. He started going in the right direction this season by finishing sixth in the Valspar Championship, then was solo third in the Masters by playing the weekend in 68-68, missing by one stroke the playoff in which Sergio Garcia beat Justin Rose. Last week, Schwartzel shot 4-under-par 66 in the second round and again in the last round to tie for second, one shot behind Daniel Berger, who won the FedEx St. Jude Classic for the second straight year. The South African is making his 11th start in the U.S. Open and his only top-10 results were a tie for ninth in 2011 at Congressional and solo seventh two years ago at Chambers Bay, a course that seems to have some similarities to Erin Hills. Schwartzel has five top-10 results in majors since 2011.
9. Rickie Fowler, United States — One of the new candidates for best player without a major title, Rickie will try to get rid of that talk once and for all this week at Erin Hills. He’s coming off a missed cut in the FedEx St. Jude Classic last week, but the week before he tied for second in the Memorial Tournament after claiming his fourth PGA Tour title earlier this season in the Honda Classic. His five top-10 finishes this season have him sitting eighth in the FedEx Cup point standings and he also is ninth in the Official World Golf Rankings. Fowler was in the running for three rounds in the Masters in April before shooting 4-over-par 76 in the final round to slide for a tie for 11th. That means he has not cracked the top 10 in any of the last nine Grand Slam events since he finished in the top five in all four in 2014, including a tie for second in the U.S. Open behind runaway winner Martin Kaymer at Pinehurst No. 2 and another tie for second in the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool.
10. Daniel Berger, United States — Nobody has ever won the U.S. Open a week after winning on the PGA Tour and Berger will be the latest to try beginning Thursday at Erin Hills. He defended his first title on the circuit by winning the FedEx St. Jude Classic by one stroke over Charl Schwartzel of South Africa and Whee Kim of South Korea, closing with a 4-under-par 66. The 2015 Rookie of the Year on the PGA Tour came close when he tied for second in the WGC-HSBC Champions behind Hideki Matsuyama of Japan early in the wrap-around season and has two other finishes in the top 10 to sit at No. 10 in the FedEx Cup point standings. The next step for the 24-year-old Berger is to make a run at a major title, as his best result in the Grand Slam events was a tie for 10th in the 2016 Masters. He is playing in the U.S. Open for only the third time, having tied for 28th in 2014 at Pinehurst and tied for 37th last year at Oakmont