Dustin Johnson set for US Open defence
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 number one won his first major in last year's US Open at Oakmont, after several near-misses, and is the bookmakers' favourite at the picturesque Erin Hills course in rural Wisconsin.
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 the very best.
Many holes feature blind or semi-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 in 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 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 number two 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.
McIlroy arrived in Wisconsin last week to begin surveying a course he believes he can thrive on.
"I don't think it's a secret that I feel like my driver is one of the biggest weapons in my bag," McIlroy said on Tuesday. "If I can get that in my hands more regularly, and I think if the field has to hit driver more, as well, that plays into my hands, too."
While other players have complained at the tangled acres of fescue grass, McIlroy was dismayed to learn some of the rough had been cut back following the complaints.
"These are the widest fairways we've ever played in a US Open," McIlroy said. "You've got 156 of the best players in the world here. If we can't hit it within that avenue, you might as well pack your bags and go home."
The last six majors -- including Johnson's maiden US Open victory -- have been won by players who had never won a major before.
One of the likeliest candidates to continue that streak at Erin Hills is 22-year-old Spaniard Jon Rahm, the former amateur world number one.
Rahm, who turned pro in mid-2016 and claimed his maiden PGA Tour win at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in January, said he is ready for the challenge of Erin Hills.
"It's like a links golf course on steroids, everything is a little bigger," Rahm said. "But I think it's US Open, they expect our best."