First-round preview: The U.S. hoping to keep the majors, trouble at No. 7 and more

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- The season's second major opens Thursday at Shinnecock Hills, with all the big names seemingly primed to make something happen. Can Dustin Johnson win two weeks in a row and continue the American dominance in majors? Can Phil Mickelson make one more U.S. Open run and grab the major that has eluded him all these years? Is it Rickie Fowler's time? Will Rory McIlroy's two-week golf trip on Long Island -- he's played seemingly every big-name course in and around the area during his extended stay -- result in a second U.S. Open? Oh, and what about Tiger Woods? Is the major that now seems the toughest for him to win -- the demanding, one-big-mistake-will-do-you-in major -- be the one where he breaks through?

All the majors in the same place

A quick peek at the Official World Golf Rankings shows the sport is in diverse hands. Seven different countries are represented in the top 20. So you'd think the titles would be distributed throughout the world, right? Actually, no. Right now, the U.S. has its hands on all four major titles as this U.S. Open kicks off. Brooks Koepka is the defending champion here. Patrick Reed won the Masters in April. Justin Thomas closed the 2017 major season by winning the PGA Championship and Jordan Spieth claimed The Open last year with a wild Sunday finish at Royal Birkdale.

The all-U.S. major run marks the first time since 2003-'04 that Americans have had all four -- Jim Furyk (U.S. Open), Ben Curtis (The Open), Shaun Micheel (PGA Championship), Phil Mickelson (Masters) -- at the same time. Before that, Americans held all four majors in 2000-'01 when Woods held all four after completing the Tiger Slam.

Don't bet on the favorite

Looking at the odds and trying to figure out who has the best shot to take home the trophy? Well, don't look at the favorite.

The last time the betting favorite took home the title was 2008, when Tiger Woods limped around Torrey Pines on a broken leg and held off Rocco Mediate in a Monday playoff for what was Woods' last major title. According to ESPN Stats & Information, in the 39 majors since Woods' victory, the betting favorite has won just twice -- Jordan Spieth at The Open last year and Rory McIlroy at the 2014 PGA Championship.

That's bad news for Dustin Johnson, who enters as the favorite at 9-1.

Also bad for DJ? The last time the top-ranked player in the world won the U.S. Open? Yeah, Woods in 2008.

When the key players hit the course

Click here for the entire list of Thursday's first-round tee times

Tiger and Phil factor

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will be on opposite sides of the draw, with Mickelson's day starting at 8:02 a.m. and Woods' not beginning until 1:47 p.m. Both, though, have a lot on the line, with Woods trying to figure out how to win another major and Mickelson, who turns 48 this week, still trying to complete the career grand slam with that missing U.S. Open.

For Woods, this is his first U.S. Open since missing the cut in 2015 at Chambers Bay. And while he has been in contention this season, there has always seemed to be one missing part from his game that holds him back from winning. Early in the year, he was putting well but spraying full shots. In his past few events, he hit the ball solidly but struggled mightily with the putter.

"Golf is always frustrating," Woods said. "There's always something that isn't quite right, and that's where we, as players, have to make adjustments. You've seen the tournaments I've played in this year ... There's always something. Hopefully, this is one of those weeks where I put it all together and even it out, and we'll see what happens."

As for Mickelson, he still thinks he can win. And honestly, others are rooting for him.

"If I wasn't playing and just purely as a fan of golf, I'd love to see Phil win this week because it's great for the game," McIlroy said. "It's a huge story in the game of golf. And as someone involved in the game, I think it would be really cool for that to happen. But seeing as I'm playing in the tournament, I'd rather beat him and not have that happen. But if it isn't me that wins this week, it would be a great story if Phil was to win."

Is No. 7 going to be OK this time?

The last time the U.S. Open was held at Shinnecock Hills, the par-3 seventh green became nearly unplayable. The USGA, in an effort to keep the course firm and fast, let the heavily sloped seventh get too dry, to the point that golf balls would not stay on the green. Even USGA CEO Mike Davis admitted that even good shots were being penalized. That won't happen this time, right?

Well, during practice rounds, players still had trouble hitting the seventh.

"I'd rather hit in the bunker than miss the green [left]," one player said as he hit shot after shot into No. 7. "You're going to see a lot balls over here. Might as well keep practicing it."

A foot away, another player pitched ball after ball onto the green, only to watch each roll back to his feet.

"You can't stop it [on the green]," he muttered to himself.

The decision about how much to push the 189-yard seventh hole -- or any hole at Shinnecock Hills -- rests in the hands of the USGA.

"And at the end of it, we believe that, as long as we keep the turf healthy there and there's enough moisture and we keep the green at an appropriate speed, that it will be a very difficult hole, but it will be playable," Davis said.

McIlroy, for one, isn't worried.

"[No. 7] has been very playable so far," McIlroy said with a shrug when asked Wednesday.

Nor does Rickie Fowler, who thinks the hole will be incredibly hard, with very few landing spots.

"I don't think they're going to let it get out of control to where they had to water it in between groups in the past U.S. Open here," Fowler said. "It's still a very tough green. It's a very hard par 3. If you don't hit it in maybe a 10 foot by 10 foot circle in the kind of front portion of the green, it's going to be very hard to keep a ball on the putting surface

Will everyone make their tee time?

The nightmare for every player in the field isn't a ball trickling off the seventh green or failing to hit the fairway with their opening tee shot. The big nightmare is not making it to the course on time. No other topic has been discussed as much as the traffic situation around Shinnecock Hills.

"There are a few guys so far this week have said it's taken them from the hotel 2½ to 3 hours," Woods said. "You get a little traffic, you get maybe a little fender bender, it's not inconceivable someone could miss their time.

It's so much of a concern the USGA put out an advisory Wednesday as a warning shot to everyone -- players and fans -- about just how bad things could get.

"Traffic during the morning hours within a 10-mile vicinity of Southampton can expect delays of up to two hours on main roads during peak periods and should adjust their planning times accordingly," the USGA advisory said.

So get an early wake-up call.

"I played with Matt Fitzpatrick [on Tuesday], and he said it took him an hour and a half to get to the golf course," McIlroy said. "One of the things about this area is it's a small piece of land and can only take so many people."