Rozner: This U.S. Open is survival of the fittest

  • Jon Rahm blasts away from the 11th fairway during a practice round Tuesday for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

    Jon Rahm blasts away from the 11th fairway during a practice round Tuesday for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Associated Press

  • Dustin Johnson walks the 12th fairway to get a lay of the land during practice Tuesday ahead of the U.S. Open at Winged Foot.

    Dustin Johnson walks the 12th fairway to get a lay of the land during practice Tuesday ahead of the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 9/15/2020 5:55 PM

It was in many ways a declaration.

In his last tournament as an amateur in June 2016, Jon Rahm went to the U.S. Open at Oakmont and shot 1-over par in his final three rounds, only 2 shots off winner Dustin Johnson's pace the last three days.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The ASU star -- a two-time Hogan winner and the No. 1 amateur in the world -- finished T-23 and earned top amateur honors as he announced to the golf world that he was ready for the big time.

Last year, Rahm finished T-3 at Pebble Beach as Gary Woodland captured his first major championship, but that is less a representation of how ready Rahm is to win his first major than what Rahm has done this season.

There have been two very difficult challenges this year, the Memorial at Muirfield and the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields.

More than the PGA Championship at Harding Park, the Memorial played like a major on the weekend, and the BMW was in every sense a major championship except in title, and it's no coincidence that Rahm won them both.

It's also the way in which he won that offers some clues about how prepared he is for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot this week. Rahm shot 10-under on the weekend at Olympia Fields, 6 shots better than Johnson, whom Rahm defeated in a playoff, and 5 shots better than anyone in the field on Saturday and Sunday.

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Rahm was 4 shots back of Johnson making the turn Sunday at the BMW.

"It's going to give me confidence knowing that I can get it done," Rahm said Tuesday morning in New York. "It comes down to mental strength, who can endure the most and who can endure until the end. Having done it in two tough tests like the Memorial and the BMW, I'm excited to start because I know I can do it.

"Hopefully, I don't need a comeback like I did in Chicago, but I know I can do it."

Setting aside Tiger Woods for the moment, not knowing how cold weather will affect his body and never certain how healthy he is, there are five players who have clearly separated themselves -- physically -- from the rest of golf.

That isn't to say that others can't win -- there are another dozen to consider -- but when any one of these five are at their very best, they are unbeatable.

There is Johnson, who has 2 wins and 2 seconds in his last 4 starts, following some uneven play after the restart.

There is Rory McIlroy, who has not won a major in six years and has been less than steady playing in the final group the last three years, but his best is total domination.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

There is Justin Thomas, the 2017 PGA champion who shot 63 on Saturday at the 2017 U.S. Open (Erin Hills), but also blew a 3-shot lead with 3 to play at the Workday in July and lost in a playoff.

There is Brooks Koepka, the four-time major champ, but he is not at Winged Foot due to injuries.

And there is Rahm, who has three Top 5s and four Top 10s in his last 8 majors.

These five have not only the extraordinary talent, but also the mettle required to survive a course that will punish players for every errant shot.

"It's sort of like in boxing where Mike Tyson said everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face," Rahm said. "It's the same thing here. We all have a plan, but if you hit it sideways, you've got to figure it out."

Fairways are narrow and the rough is damp and thick. Bogey is in play with every missed fairway. With no fans, the rough will not be trampled down far from the fairway, and with no hospitality tents there will be no free drops.

Even a green in regulation is no guarantee of par, as the undulating surfaces offer 3-putts more regularly than birdies.

Unless you count the tricked-up Shinnecock in 2018, this will be the toughest -- and most legitimate -- test since Oakmont in 2016, when Johnson won at 4-under and only three other players broke par, all at 1-under.

Four of the five U.S. Opens at Winged Foot have seen a winner at over par, and assuming proper weather that will be the case again.

"Based on the two events I've won this year, I'm pretty much ready," said the 25-year-old Rahm. "I've been able to dial it back when I needed to, and I've been able to play it properly when I needed to.

"I've always thought the U.S. Open is the type of golf course I can win on. When you're playing good, it becomes a mental challenge, so I welcome those.

"Plus, I'm not going to lie. There's something extra special to be possibly the first Spanish player to win a U.S. Open. That would be amazing."

This will be a brutal test of driving accuracy and mental toughness, a course that requires every club in the bag and every ounce of patience. Size matters and length will be a huge advantage for any player finding short grass.

The weekend at Olympia Fields suggests -- again -- that Jon Rahm is ready to win his first major.

Surviving such a brutal test of golf would be a fitting way to do it.

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