Ranking the Top 10 Golfers Ahead of the 2019 US Open

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistJune 11, 2019

Ranking the Top 10 Golfers Ahead of the 2019 US Open

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    The sands are nearly through the preparatory hourglass, which means it's time for our annual pre-U.S. Open rankings.

    Dustin Johnson entered the 2018 event as the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Ranking and had a four-shot lead after 36 holes, but he ultimately slid to third, falling two shots off the pace of repeat winner Brooks Koepka thanks to closing rounds of 77 and 70 at Shinnecock Hills.

    As for Koepka, his eventual one-shot victory over Englishman Tommy Fleetwood made him just the third player to defend a U.S. Open championship since World War II, joining Ben Hogan (1950-51) and Curtis Strange (1988-89).

    Koepka has become something of a regular at trophy presentations following majors; he's now won consecutive U.S. Opens and PGA Championships, which comprise four of the last eight majors in which he's played. He's the first player to reign as back-to-back champion in two majors simultaneously.

    He also became the world's No. 1 player after beating Johnson by two strokes at last month's PGA Championship.

    So, what goes into the breakdown this time around?

    A golfer's last several starts and a glance at his world ranking are the main considerations, and we also take a look at career U.S. Open performances.

    How do we factor in Tiger Woods' resurgence? Who is the best non-American contender? Can anyone—regardless of pedigree or ethnicitygive Koepka a legitimate push?

    In other words, who fills out our top 10 before the first groupings get going along the California coast Thursday at Pebble Beach?

    Scroll through for the answers.

10. Jason Day

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    OWGR: 16

    Best of 2019: Former PGA champ Jason Day hasn't set the world ablaze in 2019 and has posted just four top-10 finishes in 11 tournaments. But a tie for fifth came at the Masters in April, and his top placement thus far (a tie for fourth) was—wait for it—at February's AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

    FYI, the U.S. Open is being played at Pebble Beach.

    Why He's Here: Some dogs are meant to hunt big game. While it's true Day has only hoisted a major trophy at the 2015 PGA, he's consistently been in the mix when the spotlight has shined brightest, including 15 top-10 placements in grand slam events since 2010.

    U.S. Open History: Someone had to take silver behind a red-hot Rory McIlroy in 2011, and the task was left to Day, though he wound up eight shots off the winner's pace. Another runner-up finish—this time alongside Phil Mickelson—came two years later when the pair finished two shots behind Justin Rose.

9. Patrick Cantlay

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    OWGR: 8

    Best of 2019: While Day made our list largely because of past performances, there's little argument Patrick Cantlay deserves a slot based on what he's been doing lately. The 27-year-old Californian was the best in the field at the Memorial Tournament earlier this month, and he's managed five additional top-10 placements in nine other outings this year.

    The surge has already enabled him to leap 10 spots in the world rankings, going from No. 18 at the end of 2018 to No. 8 this week.

    Why He's Here: As mentioned above, there may not be a player in the world who's consistently been better this year than Cantlay, who tied for ninth at the Masters in April and followed it up with a tie for third at the PGA Championship in May. In fact, he's the only player not named Brooks Koepka or Dustin Johnson to finish in the top 10 at both of this year's majors.

    U.S. Open History: OK, the momentum stops when it comes to Cantlay's career efforts at the U.S. Open. He's only played the event three times, debuting as the low amateur (tied for 21st overall) way back in 2011 and following with a tie for 41st a year later. He returned to the tournament in 2018 and finished tied for 45th.

8. Rickie Fowler

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    OWGR: 11

    Best of 2019: It wasn't too long ago that Rickie Fowler was the colorfully dressed 20-something destined to break through and win multiple majors after tying for fifth in the 2011 British Open at age 22 and placing fifth or better in all four majors three years later.

    But now he's 30, and it hasn't happened yet.

    He has been a PGA Tour winner this year, finishing with a two-shot edge at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February and adding a second-place result at the Honda Classic four weeks later. So there's certainly reason to believe he'll be relevant.

    Why He's Here: Fowler tied for ninth at the Masters in April and tied for fourth at the Wells Fargo Championship, then he reached the weekend in the top 10 at the PGA Championship before skidding to a 36th-place tie.

    Simply put, he's another "veteran" with street cred in major championships, including 10 top-10 finishes in 38 tries.

    U.S. Open History: Call it feast or famine. Fowler has three top-10 finishes in 10 U.S. Opens, highlighted by a tie for second behind Martin Kaymer in 2014 and a tie for fifth when Koepka won it for the first time in 2017. But he's missed the cut four times, too, and has fared no better than a tie for 20th in the other years.

7. Justin Thomas

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    OWGR: 6

    Best of 2019: Had the U.S. Open been scheduled for late February or early March, the smart money might have considered it Justin Thomas' tournament to lose. Now 26 after celebrating a late-April birthday, the Kentucky native had four top-10 finishes in his first five events of the year, including a second and two thirds.

    It's been more challenging since, and his tie for 12th at the Masters is his best effort of the spring. 

    Why He's Here: Considering he's already been a major champion, became the world's top-ranked player and is still only in his mid-20s, Thomas will be among the favorites in every big competition for the foreseeable future. He won the 2017 PGA Championship and tied for sixth while trying to defend his title. 

    U.S. Open History: Thomas recorded his first top-10 finish at a major in the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, during which he turned in rounds of 73, 69, 63 and 75. The 63 included nine birdies and an eagle and tied a major championship record. He tied for 25th in last year's tournament at Shinnecock Hills.

6. Justin Rose

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    OWGR: 3

    Best of 2019: As with several other players on our list, how seriously you regard Justin Rose as a contender may depend on when you're answering the question. The Englishman may have the world's best all-around game and started 2019 off well with a win at the Farmers Insurance Open in January, but he's not won again in eight subsequent PGA events. A missed cut at the Masters doesn't help, either.

    Why He's Here: All that said, the 38-year-old is solid with his irons and his putter, and his occasional trouble with the driver may not be as much of an issue thanks to the layout at Pebble Beach, where driver isn't the go-to club. And let's not forget, 15 top-10 finishes at major tournaments have to mean something. 

    U.S. Open History: Rose is among the select golfers in the field who can call themselves U.S. Open champions. He won his lone career major at Merion in 2013, besting Day and Mickelson by two shots. He's got three other top-10 results in 12 appearances, highlighted by a tie for fifth at Olympia Fields back in 2003.

5. Rory McIlroy

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    OWGR: 4

    Best of 2019: It's hard to believe the phenom from Northern Ireland is now a 30-year-old whose first appearance at a U.S. Open was 10 years ago at Bethpage Black, where he finished tied for 10th behind Lucas Glover. And though five years have passed since he last won a major, he's played more like a serious contender in 2019, winning The Players Championship and adding eight more top-10s in 11 events.

    Why He's Here: Well, he's here because he's ranked fourth in the world and has won four major championships, including a U.S. Open back in 2011. A tie for eighth behind Koepka at last month's PGA Championship marked the 19th time he's been a top-10 major finisher in 42 appearances.

    U.S. Open History: Sure, it's been awhile, but McIlroy's blitzing of the field at the 2011 event at Congressional is still worth recalling. He finished eight shots ahead of Day, established a record-low 72-hole total of 268—and a record-low 16 under par, as well. In addition, his four rounds of 65, 66, 68 and 69 made him the fifth player in the event's history to go under par in all four rounds.

    Nevertheless, he's not been a consistent contender. In fact, he's missed the U.S. Open cut five times and managed only ties for ninth and 10th in nine other non-winning appearances.

4. Jordan Spieth

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    OWGR: 28

    Best of 2019: Jordan Spieth hasn't won since 2017, and given the way he started off this calendar year—no better than a tie for 21st through 11 events—it looked like it might be at least that long before it happened again. But all of a sudden, things are looking up for the three-time major winner. He's reeled off three straight top-10 finishes, including a tie for third at the PGA Championship.

    Why He's Here: Like several others on the list, Spieth is here because of big-event pedigree.

    He was the world's best player in 2015, winning the Masters and the U.S. Open to start the season and flirting with a Grand Slam before ultimately tying for fourth at the British Open and finishing second at the PGA Championship. He's had five top-10 major finishes since, including a win at the 2017 British Open.

    The layout at Pebble Beach may not work well because of his issues staying in the fairway. But if he's striking it well, he can be as good as anyone over four days.

    U.S. Open History: Spieth's 2015 win came when he was just 21 years old, making him the youngest champion since Bobby Jones and the youngest to win both the Masters and the U.S. Open in the same year. He was the low amateur and finished tied for 21st as a teenager in 2012, but he has missed two cuts and failed to best a tie for 17th outside of the year he won.

3. Tiger Woods

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    OWGR: 5

    Best of 2019: Yes, it actually happened. Tiger Woods won the Masters.

    While the remainder of his 2019 schedule has, thus far, been longer on hype than production, the idea that he's returned to relevance after finishing 2017 as the world's 656th-ranked player is no less remarkable. A missed cut at the PGA Championship dulled the "he'll start winning every major again" chatter, but a tie for ninth at the Memorial Tournament has him squarely on the radar heading to Pebble Beach. 

    Why He's Here: It's been nearly two decades, but that Pebble Beach thing could be important.

    Woods won at the course in February 2000, then returned in June to run roughshod over a U.S. Open field en route to a ridiculous 15-shot victory. Lest anyone forget, he also fired a third-round 66 there while finishing tied for fourth at the 2010 U.S. Open.

    If he putts well, he's a proven horse for the course.

    U.S. Open History: Woods won three times, finished second twice and placed third once at the U.S. Open over a 10-year stretch from 1999 to 2008. He tied for sixth and fourth in the two subsequent years but hasn't been a factor since, missing two cuts and finishing no better than 21st in four appearances.

2. Brooks Koepka

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    OWGR: 1

    Best of 2019: Brooks Koepka is the latest in a short series of players whose major championship performances over a given period have warranted Tiger comparisons.

    The 29-year-old Floridian has won four of the last eight majors in which he's played, including a two-shot victory over Dustin Johnson at the PGA Championship in May. A month earlier, he led during the final round at the Masters before finishing one stroke behind Woods. Overall in 2019, he's won once, finished second twice and recorded one other top-10 placement in 11 events.

    Why He's Here: Well, duh!

    He's the No. 1 player in the world. He's become a fixture at major championship trophy presentations. And he's shown no signs his confidence is waning. As Pebble Beach acumen goes, he tied for eighth there in his lone appearance as a professional in 2016.

    U.S. Open History: A missed cut, two top-20s and a tie for fourth were the bullet points on Koepka's U.S. Open resume through 2016, before he broke through to win at Erin Hills and followed it up in 2018 at Shinnecock Hills. He's trying to become the first player to win three in a row since Willie Anderson did so in 1903, 1904 and 1905.

1. Dustin Johnson

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    OWGR: 2

    Best of 2019: He's been first, second and third in the world rankings already this year, so it's no surprise Dustin Johnson's 2019 has been statistically successful.

    In 12 events played, he's won twice, finished second twice and recorded four other top-10 placements. One of the seconds came at the PGA Championship, where four straight rounds in the 60s were only good enough to stay within two shots of Koepka. It gave Johnson second-place results at all four majors.

    Why He's Here: Again, duh!

    Johnson and Koepka would surprise exactly no one if they turned this into a two-man show. And it shouldn't surprise anyone if Johnson's track record at Pebble Beach gives him an edge. He's won twice and finished second twice in the annual PGA Tour event there and was a leader by three shots in the 2010 U.S. Open before a final-round 82 left him tied for eighth.

    U.S. Open History: Johnson shook off years of missed opportunities to capture his lone career major at the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, where he finished three shots clear of three players. He's made the top 10 four other times at the event, most recently taking third behind Koepka and Tommy Fleetwood last year. He's also missed the cut twice and finished between 23rd and 55th four times.