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Len Ziehm On Golf

Dustin Johnson’s the man to beat at Erin Hills

ERIN, Wis. — No matter how you slice it, Dustin Johnson is at the top of the golf world. The FedEx Cup standings say so. So do the Official World Golf Rankings. And, starting today, Johnson will defend the most prestigious title he’s ever won at the U.S. Open.

So, what could possibly go wrong for him at Erin Hills?

Well, the other 155 players in the field could take heart from the fact that Johnson hasn’t won since before the last major championship – April’s Masters – and Johnson didn’t even play in that one. He took a fall down some stairs on the eve of that tournament, injured his back and his game hasn’t been as good since.

“It was a freak accident, and obviously disappointing,’’ said Johnson while heavy afternoon rains wiped out his rivals’ final practice time for the Open. “I watched most of the Masters lying on a couch. Leading in I was playing the best golf I’ve played. I’ve still got work to do to get back to playing that good.’’

And doing the “work’’ hasn’t been easy because Johnson has had other things on his mind lately. Fiance Paulina Gretzky gave birth to their second child on Monday – a son named River Jones Johnson.

Insisting the name came from “Mama,’’ Johnson was pleased to report that “everybody’s healthy’’ and it’s full steam ahead for him to become the Open’s first repeat champion since Curtis Strange in 1988-89.

“It helps that Paulina and my son are home now, and I don’t have to worry about them,’’ said Johnson. “Now I’ve got to play golf.’’

He said his participation in the Open was in jeopardy for a while “depending on what happened with the baby…..But I’m here, and I’m playing.’’

Actually, Johnson could have been going for an Open three-peat had he not three-putted the final green at Chambers Bay in 2015, handing the title to Jordan Spieth.

Like Chambers Bay, Erin Hills is hosting the U.S. Open for the first time.

“I really like it,’’ said Johnson. “Like all U.S. Open courses there’s a big premium on driving in the fairways. Given the conditions the last few days the course is soft and will be playing long. That sets up very well for me.’’

Another storm pelted the Erin Hills Media Center as Johnson declared his readiness. The fact that he didn’t show up at Erin Hills until Tuesday was insignificant. So was the fact that he shot 78-74 to miss the cut in his last tournament, the Memorial.

“I didn’t want to do that, but it worked out because I got to practice two days here,’’ said Johnson. “I may have come in late this week, but I don’t feel behind the 8-ball at all. I’m happy to defend. I feel my game’s in good shape. I’m prepared.’’

Since his freak fall before the Masters Johnson had a tie for second in a weak field at the Wells Fargo Championship, a tie for 12th in a strong field at The Players Championship and a tie for 13th at the Byron Nelson Classic before his collapse at the Memorial.

Those showings created some shuffling in the two most significant ranking systems, but didn’t unseat Johnson as No. 1 in both. In the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings he’s trailed by Justin Thomas, Hidecki Matsuyama, Jon Rahm and Jordan Spieth.

In the Official World Golf Rankings his closest pursuers are Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Matsuyama and Spieth. They’re all here to give chase to Johnson on a course that plays into Johnson’s strength. Erin Hills is the longest course to host a major championship.