It was supposed to be Tiger’s big chance to get back to winning majors but a fourth back surgery in April this year has put paid to any dreams we had of seeing the three-time open champion making his big comeback.
And with that news, our thoughts turn to Woods’ compatriot and current world number one Dustin Johnson. A heavy favourite for the Masters, a serious back injury saw Johnson withdraw from a tournament that the crowds wanted to see him win. And while we felt the disappointment of his absence, Garcia’s playoff win over Justin Rose was enough to put a smile on anyone’s face (even Padraig Harrington.)
But having rested up for the Masters and now seemingly fully recovered, some feel that this could be the year that Johnson wraps up both the US and British Opens in a single season. But as we all know, an injury, particularly a back injury can destroy a golfer’s season before it’s even started.
Johnson is the out-and-out favourite to win the US Open for the second year in a row, but he seemed to be holding himself back just a little at the Wells Fargo Championship earlier this month. This isn’t really all that surprising though as he is most likely protecting his back and keeping himself fresh for the upcoming majors. All it takes is the wrong twist or an overextended muscle and his season could be over. Tiger knows.
With Rory McIlroy looking a little off the pace at Augusta and Sergio Garcia fresh from his first major win, there’s still some uncertainty as to who will push a fully fit Johnson at the US Open. Both Jordan Spieth and Jason Day will likely be near the top of the leaderboard come the final day but can Justin Rose continue the fine form he exhibited at the Masters? It seems a huge ask for the Englishman, but his current form sees him sixth favourite at 18/1 just behind Hideki Matsuyama.
Whatever happens at Erin Hills in June all eyes will quickly turn to the next, and most historic major, The British Open. This year’s Open Championship will be the 146th edition and it is set for 20th – 23rd July at Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport. It will be the tenth time the Open has been held at the club and the first since 2008 when Padraig Harrington won the title.
Back on European soil, we fully expect a reenergized Sergio Garcia to make a claim for the championship that has eluded him on so many occasions. And assuming that McIlroy doesn’t win the US Open, the Northern Irishman will see the Open as the perfect occasion to win his first major since 2014. At only 28 it seems ridiculous that some are talking of McIlroy as a player in decline and it is a measure of the early success of his career that his current not-too-shabby form is seen as relatively poor.
However, BetStars are still going with McIlroy as second favourite at 10/1 and Johnson as favourite at 15/2 in what is almost a mirror image of the odds for the US Open. Even with Johnson’s back trouble and Rory’s apparent dip in form or lack of confidence in majors, it’s unsurprising that the world’s number one and two are the favourites for any tournament they enter.
It’s interesting that both McIlroy and Johnson have traded positions in terms of both rankings and self-confidence in recent tournaments. Johnson now seems at ease with his play while McIlroy sometimes looks like he’s losing the ice in his veins.
Having said that, Johnsons’ history in majors (excluding last year’s US Open) could be the monkey that climbs once again onto his battered and bruised back.
Johnson is not a golfer lacking in confidence, and it was this attitude of self-worth that many felt was his undoing at Royal Troon last year. His swagger and air of invincibility make him a popular player even on British soil, but perhaps this year a more modest approach might see him improve on last year’s 9th place finish.
As golf’s nearly man, Johnson let slip a series of chances to win majors in the past.
He squandered a three-shot lead in the final round of the 2010 US Open and suffered a two-shot penalty for grounding his club in a bunker during the US PGA the same year costing him a place in a playoff. Then there was the final hole of the 2015 US Open when he three-putted to lose by one to Jordan Spieth.
No stranger to controversy on the course, Johnson has also had his fair share of personal issues. There were rumours that he left the tour in 2014 due to three failed drugs tests with cocaine mentioned as a possibility. However, he later revealed that it was alcohol that was the issue and not drugs.
These setbacks rather unfairly painted Johnson as a player that couldn’t handle the pressure of a big occasion. And at this point, you would wonder how he didn’t just throw the towel in.
Despite all odds, he stayed true to his swaggering form and at last won himself his first major at the US Open last year. Although the penalty debacle saw him play the last six holes with a possible penalty over his head. At the time, he was informed he had a one-shot lead so to carry on and win by three shots was immense by anyone’s standards and just went to show how he has toughened up the mental side to his game.
With the major jinx lifted, Johnson went on to win three tournaments in a row, a feat that saw him climb to the top of the world rankings in February of this year and become the first player to win all four WGC events. And although his five overall World Golf Championships are well short of Tiger’s 18, we’re sure there’s more to come.
We’ll reserve our full judgement on a possible Johnson win at Royal Birkdale until we see how he (and his back) handle the pressure of the US Open. But should he come through the tournament unscathed and finish at the top end of the leaderboard, then we’re quietly confident that the 32-year-old from South Carolina could bring the Claret Jug back to American soil once again. It’s a win that no one would begrudge the ‘nearly man’ except perhaps a certain Mr. Garcia who begrudges anyone winning the Open. A Garcia/Johnson playoff does sound rather interesting, doesn’t it?