U.S. Open: Is it Dustin Johnson's tournament to lose?

The 118th U.S. Open stands at the halfway point. A familiar name tops the leaderboard, and several other familiar names are headed home early. Let’s answer your key questions heading into Saturday: 

Can anyone catch Dustin Johnson?

Can they? Sure. Will they? Mmmmmaybe. Johnson, who leads the U.S. Open at -4 — four ahead of Charley Hoffman and Scott Piercy — is a beast when he’s atop the leaderboard, and he doesn’t scare easily. If some journeyman manages to play the round of his life Saturday and work his way into a final group with DJ on Sunday, it won’t take long for Johnson to shrug him off and storm to a victory. On the other hand, if a more experienced hand — Henrik Stenson (+1), say, or Justin Rose (+1), major winners both — can climb up the standings and put some pressure on Johnson, then we might have ourselves a tournament.

“Dustin’s playing well,” Rose conceded after his round, “but you have to think that he’s just a hole away from letting everyone else back into the tournament.”

The U.S. Open isn’t Johnson’s to lose — if nothing else, you can bet the USGA will reach into its bag of landscaping tricks to try to forestall a runaway — but he’s in prime position, having taken all that Shinnecock can throw at him and still standing.

Of course, the last time Johnson was -4 and holding a halfway lead at the U.S. Open was in 2016, and he went on to win that. Make of that omen what you will.

DJ

Could Rickie Fowler finally close the deal?

Possibly! Fowler (+1) is a feast-or-famine dude. In his seven U.S. Opens since turning pro, he’s missed the cut in three and placed in the top 10 in three, including a T2 in 2014 and a T5 last year. Fowler still carries that “best never to win a major” yoke around his neck, and he will until he grabs one. Chasing down Dustin Johnson on a U.S. Open track isn’t what you’d call an easy challenge, but then winning a major shouldn’t be.

Who could jump up and make a run?

Ian Poulter (+1), the perpetual hero of the Ryder Cup, remains stubbornly in the mix for what would be his first major. Tommy Fleetwood (+1), the rocker-haired Englishman who’s ranked 12th in the world, seems juuuuust about ready to break through. If someone could convince Hoffman that Sunday at the U.S. Open is actually Thursday at Augusta, he’d win going away. Charles Howell III (+2), Russell Henley (+2), Marc Leishman (+3) … you might not recognize them at the grocery store, but each one’s got the game to win this, if everything breaks right.

Ian Poulter was one back of Dustin Johnson, then finished triple bogey-bogey. Still, he’s just five strokes back. (AP)

What will the weather be like?

Like a gentle caress scented with magnolia. Weather’s going to be perfect — low 70s with mild winds on both Saturday and Sunday, with only a minuscule chance of rain. So no using the weather as an excuse; it’ll be clear skies and gentle breezes all the way home. (In theory, anyway.) Anyone winning the U.S. Open will be battling the course and the field, but they won’t be battling the elements.

What’s wrong with Rory McIlroy?

Who knows? He hasn’t won a major since the 2014 PGA Championship, and he hasn’t made a cut in the U.S. Open since 2015. He wound up +10, done for the weekend. Preparation apparently isn’t helping; according to reports, McIlroy spent the last few weeks playing in the Hamptons to prepare for this week, and it didn’t seem to do very much good. McIlroy’s flailing, with his once-reliable driver and once-flawless putter suddenly all too balky. He’s still got the ability to throttle an entire field — witness the way he hammerlocked the field at this year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational — but he can’t close the deal in majors. He’s got two more chances this year before the questions start to go from murmurs to bellows.

How many more chances will Phil Mickelson get at the career Grand Slam?

Not many. Mickelson (+6) turns 48 on Saturday, and he’s on the front edge of a three-Open run that couldn’t set up better for his skills. After Shinnecock, where he lost one possible victory back in 2004, the U.S. Open heads to Pebble Beach in 2019, where Mickelson came within three strokes of a win back in 2010. Then comes Winged Foot, site of Mickelson’s most painful U.S. Open loss, where in 2006 he held a one-stroke lead on the 18th tee on Sunday. Beyond that, he’ll be Champions Tour-eligible, and you’d have to figure his skills won’t be able to hang at a U.S. Open any longer. It’s literally now or never for Phil.

Will Tiger Woods ever win a major again?

No. But we’ll still watch every time, even when he ejects early like he did this week.

Onward to the weekend! See you here Saturday.
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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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