The U.S. Open may not have the luster of the Masters when it comes to the physical beauty of the golf course, but it is the most important tournament of the year.
It is the national championship event, and the United States Golf Association often turns the host course into the most difficult test of the year on the PGA tour. That seems like the correct road to travel, because the U.S. Open Trophy should not be an easy prize to earn.
This year's tournament should fit that description when the top professionals in the world tee off Thursday at Erin Hills in Erin, Wisconsin.
Golf fans will remember that the PGA Championship was held at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin, two years ago, and this state is rapidly gaining acceptance for its championship golf courses.
Defending champion Dustin Johnson leads the field and is favored to win the event, and he is joined by top players, including Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose and Masters champion Sergio Garcia.
Johnson is the plus-750 favorite to come away with his second consecutive U.S. Open title, according to OddsShark. A successful $100 wager on Johnson will return the original bet and a profit of $750 to the bettor.
Spieth and Day are both listed at plus-1400, while McIlroy is plus-1200. Day was victorious at Whistling Straits in 2015, and a return to his championship form would not be a surprise. The up-and-coming Rahm is listed at plus-2000, Rose is at plus-2500 and Fowler is at plus-1800.
Player, Odds (Courtesy of OddsShark)
Dustin Johnson, +750
Rory McIlroy, +1200
Jordan Spieth, +1400
Jason Day, +1400
Rickie Fowler, +1800
Jon Rahm, +2000
Justin Rose, +2500
Sergio Garcia, +2500
Adam Scott, +2800
Hideki Matsuyama, +3300
Henrik Stenson, +3300
It is very difficult to repeat major championships, and that's just what Johnson would be doing if here were to win at Erin Hills after last year's victory at Oakmont.
However, Johnson has quite a bit going for him as the top-ranked player in FedEx Cup points and a three-time winner on the tour this year. He is known for his remarkable power off the tee, but there is quite a bit more to his game than distance.
When he is on his game, as has been the case in each of the last two years, he is also a remarkably accurate performer with his fairway shots. He ranks first on the tour in reaching greens in regulation.
That's what makes him a special player. It's very rare that the longest hitter on the tour is also the most accurate, but that's what these numbers say. If Johnson can also get the job done with his putter—and that could be a struggle—Johnson could win by a solid margin.
Johnson ranks 171st in putts per round, and that could be something that causes problems as the tournament progresses.
Spieth would love to win his second U.S. Open title after taking the championship two years ago at Chambers Bay when Johnson was unable to close the tournament out despite a late lead.
Spieth ranks fifth in FedEx Cup points and has won one tournament this year, and he also has six top-10 finishes.
After failing to make the cut at The Players Championship and the Byron Nelson, Spieth bounced back with a second-place showing at the Dean & Deluca Invitational followed by a tie for 13th in the Memorial.
Spieth is not in his best form, but he appears to be rebounding. If he is going to contend here, he is going to depend on accuracy and his ability to string birdies together. Spieth is averaging 4.74 birdies per round, and that ranks second on the tour.
McIlroy has all the tools needed to be a contender in most majors, but he is coming off a rib injury that has kept him out of action for five weeks.
He told the press that he has "no limitations on his swing," per Geoff Shackelford of Golfweek.com, but it will be a challenge to go through four rounds without any difficulties.
McIlroy certainly has all the elements needed to win a big tournament, including power, excellent iron play as well as the short game, but he needs to show he can put them altogether at the same time.
Day has had some struggles this year, and he ranks 44th in FedEx Cup points. He has just two top-10 finishes, and he has battled nagging injuries this year. He has struggled with his accuracy off the tee, as he ranks 145th at finding the fairway with just 57.41 percent of his drives reaching the desired turf.
Unless the return to Wisconsin allows him to recover the championship form he had in 2015 at the PGA, it will be difficult for him to contend.
Rahm is one of the young lions on the tour, and he seems to love competing with the best players in the game. It would not be a surprise to see him battle head-to-head with Johnson during the final round of the tournament. He seems to handle pressure well and would welcome the opportunity.
Rahm believes he may have the game to perform well at Erin Hills.
"It's not the usual U.S. Open golf course, the U.S. Open classic setup," Rahm said, per the Associated Press (h/t USA Today). "It's more similar to Chambers Bay. And actually, I absolutely love the golf course. It's a very long golf course, big greens, a little different to what it played last year. It gives you a lot of opportunities to hit the pin. You can be really creative. And I believe it will be a really fun week."
Rickie Fowler has a charismatic personality and is one of the most popular figures on the tour, and his game is in excellent shape. He ranks eighth in FedEx Cup points, has won one tournament and has five top-10 finishes this year.
Fowler leads the tour in sand saves, and he ranks third in birdies per round. When Fowler gets hot, he can string birdies together quickly and make a significant move up the leaderboard.
Look for Johnson to play well in the early rounds of the tournament and set himself up for a strong performance over the weekend that leads to top-of-the-first-page status on the leaderboard.
Rahm should be his main competition among the favorites. He has nearly all the elements needed to win, and he is hungry to compete on the grand stage of the U.S. Open.
Spieth will make a run in the first two rounds, but he will fade over the weekend. McIlroy and Day are just not consistent enough at this point to have more than one good round in this tournament.
Fowler should also be a top-five performer on Sunday. Johnson, Rahm and Fowler will also have to contend with long shots Louis Oosthuizen (plus-4500) and Henrik Stenson (plus-3300) on Sunday.
It will be a tight finish, but Johnson will emerge with his second consecutive U.S. Open title as he plays best of all on the closing holes and earns the victory.