Aiming for glory: Dustin Johnson is bidding to be the first golfer in 28 years to retain the US Open title. Picture: ROB SCHUMACHER/USA TODAY
Aiming for glory: Dustin Johnson is bidding to be the first golfer in 28 years to retain the US Open title. Picture: ROB SCHUMACHER/USA TODAY

Erin — Dustin Johnson will aim to exploit his big-hitting prowess on the longest course in Major championship history when he tees off at the US Open on Thursday, bidding to become the first back-to-back champion in 28 years.

The world No1 won his first Major in 2016’s US Open at Oakmont, after several near-misses, and is the bookmakers’ favourite at the picturesque Erin Hills course in rural Wisconsin.

Eight South Africans will tee off on Thursday, with Charl Schwartzel likely to lead the local challenge.

Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion, arrives at Erin Hills in top form after finishing tied second at the St Jude Classic in Memphis last week.

Ernie Els, the only South African US Open winner in the field (1994 and 1997), has been showing signs of getting back into form.

Louis Oosthuizen has been in great form this season with six top-25 finishes in just 11 events, including a runner-up finish at The Players Championship in May. He is definitely someone to keep an eye on.

The others are George Coetzee, Thomas Aiken and Branden Grace while Oliver Bekker and Brandon Stone will be making their debut.

Hosting a Major for the first time, the intimidating 7,741-yard, par-72 layout is not for the faint-hearted, promising a physical and mental challenge for even the very best.

Many holes feature blind tee-shots, while the course’s mid-section runs on an outward-inward path that will ensure players face variable winds.

Factor in fairways bordered by deep fescue grass that some have already described as unplayable, and it appears likely that the tournament will live up to its billing as the toughest test in golf.

Johnson, however, who missed the Masters in April after a freak accident where he slipped on steps and hurt his back on the eve of the tournament, was adamant the length of Erin Hills would suit his game.

"It’s just a very, very difficult tournament to win," the 32-year-old said, noting the US Open challenge and the reputation of this year’s venue.

"I like really tough golf courses. I tend to focus more and play better. I like knowing par is a good score for some reason. I don’t know why. I play better when I’m playing for pars."

If he defends his title, Johnson will be the first man to win back-to-back US Opens since Curtis Strange (1988 and 1989).

Strange, now working as a television analyst, backed Johnson to complete the double.

"We’re at a bomber’s paradise, and the best player in the world is the bomber," Strange said.

"Wherever DJ plays, he’s the longest out there. I have a feeling he’ll be amped this week."

With Tiger Woods absent, still struggling to resurrect his career after back surgery, and Phil Mickelson likely to skip the tournament to attend his daughter’s high school graduation, this year’s US Open could mark the end of an era.

If Mickelson fails to show as is expected — he retains a tee-time despite vowing not to attend — it will be the first time since 1994 that neither player has featured in the first round of the US Open.

World No2 Rory McIlroy, who won the event in 2011, has declared himself ready despite a frustrating season dogged by niggling injuries.

The Northern Irish star has played only one event since the Masters after rib and back problems forced him to withdraw from the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.

AFP

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