June 14, 2017 / 11:44 PM / 2 months ago

Golf - Guessing over as U.S. Open tees off

Jun 14, 2017; Erin, WI, USA; Severe storm clouds roll into the course following a practice round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Erin Hills. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

ERIN, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Injuries, graduations, a newborn and a new course have all been part of the 117th U.S. Open buildup but on Thursday the spotlight will be back on the leaderboard and the year's second major.

With the last six majors producing six first-time winners and fitness concerns hanging over some of golf's biggest names, there is an air of uncertainty whistling through the knee high fescue at this year's U.S. Open.

Adding to the unpredictability is the venue Erin Hills, a sprawling links style layout nestled in the bucolic Wisconsin countryside, that will be making its major debut.

At a monstrous 7,741 yards Erin Hills will be the first par 72 U.S. Open since 1992 at Pebble Beach.

"We are excited about this site," said Mike Davis, executive director of the United States Golf Association. "We really do believe Erin Hills meets all of the criteria.

"When we looked at Erin Hills we looked at what the test of golf would be.

"We think it is a good test. A different kind of test."

Reigning U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson kept the golf world guessing whether they would or would not be in Erin Hills this week.

Johnson ended that speculation on Tuesday when he arrived in time for a practise round after partner Paulina Gretzky had given birth to their second child.

Jun 14, 2017; Erin, WI, USA; Dustin Johnson addresses the media during his press conference following a practice round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Erin Hills. Mandatory Credit: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

Mickelson, however, who needs a U.S. Open victory to complete a career grand slam, was going to take it down to the wire, hoping enough rain and bad weather will delay Thursday's start to allow him to attend his daughter's graduation and fly from San Diego to Erin in time for his 2:20 PM CT (1920 GMT).

Major winners world number one Johnson, Northern Irishman number two Rory McIlroy and Australian number three Jason Day all are big hitters and come to a layout that should favour them. But there are questions over their form.

"I mean the golf course I really like it," said Johnson, who is trying to become the first repeat champion since Curtis Strange in 1989. "It's a typical U.S. Open venue where the fact is that you have to hit the fairways. You can't really play from the rough.

"It's a difficult championship to win. It always plays very difficult."

Johnson, who missed the U.S. Masters after hurting his back, failed to make the halfway cut at the Memorial tournament last week while McIlroy has not played in nearly a month, since reporting back problems at the Players Championship.

Day, who pulled out of the WGC Dell Match Play to be with mother while she battled cancer, has slowly found some form following a tie for 60th at the Players with a runnerup finish at the Byron Nelson.

American young guns world number five Jordan Spieth, the 2015 U.S. Open winner, and number nine Rickie Fowler, zeroing in on a maiden major, will spearhead the American charge along with Johnson.

An American has hoisted the trophy the last two years and a strong international field will be determined to prevent a U.S. hat-trick of titles.

Masters champion Sergio Garcia of Spain and runner-up Justin Rose of England drive the ball just about as well as anyone, as does Australian Adam Scott, while South Africans Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen are always a threat.

Editing by Gene Cherry

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