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U.S. Open title, No. 1 ranking at stake at Winged Foot

Dustin Johnson walks the 12th fairway during practice

Dustin Johnson walks the 12th fairway during practice before the U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club on Tuesday in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Five different players have held the No. 1 world ranking in golf over the past year, and since the PGA Tour re-started in June after a three-month pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the trio of Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas has been utterly dominant.

That doesn’t figure to change when that long-hitting trio leads a 144-man field into the 120th U.S. Open Thursday at brutally tough Winged Foot Golf Club.

Johnson currently is No. 1 after three wins during the re-start earned him player of the year honors, Rahm is No. 2 after winning twice since the re-start, and Thomas is No. three with one win since June.

Other leading contenders include No. 5 Collin Morikawa, who has two wins during the re-start, including the PGA Championship, along with No. 6 Webb Simpson, No. 9 Bryson DeChambeau and No. 13 Daniel Berger, all of whom have won once during the re-start. Unfortunately, Brooks Koepka, who was second last year after back-to-back U.S Open titles in 2017-18, withdrew because of a knee injury.

"It’s been a really cool year for golf…with Brooks, Rory (No. 4 McIlroy), me, J.T. and Dustin changing as the No. 1s in the world, five changes," Rahm said. "I think we’re at a point where any of us (who) plays good and wins is going to get the No. 1 spot. It’s a good age for golf, and it’s really cool to be part of this. We know it’s going to be hard, but it’s extra motivation to be playing better golf."

The par-70 West Course measures 7,477 yards and traditionally has been one of the toughest U.S. Open venues, producing winning scores over par in four of the previous five U.S. Opens it has hosted, including Geoff Ogilvy’s 5-over victory in 2006. That trend seems likely to continue considering the deep rough that will remain untrampled because no fans are permitted.

If there’s one thing the top contenders have in common, it’s that they can bomb it prodigious distances off the tee. No one has controlled his driver better recently than Johnson who has two wins and two seconds in his past four events. Johnson’s previous U.S. Open title came in 2016 at Oakmont, which ranks alongside Winged Foot in degree of difficulty.

Johnson said he has a "completely different mindset" at Winged Foot than he would for a course where birdies are plentiful. "For me, it’s just pick whatever club I can get it in the fairway with and go with that," Johnson said. "I’m playing well. I’ve got a lot of confidence in the game, but I’m not putting (on) any extra expectation…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."

Keeping the ball in the fairway off the tee is going to be important, but the best players know they will make more bogeys than normal. The challenge is to minimize the damage, remain patient and seize every opportunity to make birdies.

"You just have to embrace it," Thomas said. "Otherwise, it’s going to eat you alive. A place like this, you’re going to make a lot of bogeys. You’re going to put it in some uncomfortable places. It’s really just how you can manage that.

"I’m not going into this week scared of Winged Foot. It’s probably the hardest golf course I’ve ever played. But that being said…I can’t play tentative. If I have a scoring club, I need to try to make birdie. If I get in trouble, I just need to get out. Try to take each hole for what it is and not make this place any bigger than it is because it’s already big."

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