June 15, 2017 / 5:02 AM / 2 years ago

Golf: Big hitters will rule Erin Hills, says Leonard

ERIN, Wisconsin (Reuters) - With Dustin Johnson a distracted dad, Rory McIlroy a little rusty and third-ranked Jason Day trying to put it all together in 2017, the door could be open for another first-time major winner in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills.

February 19, 2016; Pacific Palisades, CA, USA; Justin Leonard hits on the first hole fairway during the second round of the Northern Trust Open golf tournament at Riviera Country Club. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Yet former British Open champion Justin Leonard thinks the run of six successive first-time major winners is set to end at the hands of one of the big hitters.

“I think the guys that hit it a long ways and keep it in play for the most part are going to be at an advantage,” Leonard told Reuters on the eve of Thursday’s opening round.

“I’m in that Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Adam Scott kind of area.

“Guys that drive the ball a very long ways and hit it pretty straight.”

The sprawling, 7,741-yard course, the longest ever to host a U.S. Open, has been softened by rain this week.

If Leonard’s crystal ball is accurate, the string of new major champions will end, following breakthrough wins by Sergio Garcia (2017 Masters), Jimmy Walker (2016 PGA), Henrik Stenson (2016 British Open), Johnson (2016 U.S. Open), Danny Willett (2016 Masters) and Day (2015 PGA).

Asked who was best placed to keep that streak alive, Leonard nominated world number nine Rickie Fowler.

“I think that the next guy that’s probably due is Rickie Fowler, just because of the talent level and the fact that three years ago he finished top five in all four majors,” said Leonard, the 1997 British Open winner at Royal Troon and now a commentator on Golf Channel.

“His game is showing that kind of maturity.”

Leonard said emerging young players Hideki Matsuyama of Japan and Jon Rahm of Spain, seeking their first major, had the talent to win but their lack of experience might let them down.

He felt the USGA was already a winner, however, for choosing Erin Hills as a first-time major venue.

“I think it’s great. I think it presents lots of different challenges. I like that it keeps the driver in the players’ hands,” he added.

“You can say it is not a classic U.S. Open course.

“But credit the USGA (U.S. Golf Association) for going outside the box a little bit for the next great venues in the United States.”

Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Ian Ransom

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