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Thank goodness Tiger Woods withdrew. The 116th US Open, set to be contested starting later this week at Oakmont Country Club, is the most intriguing and eagerly anticipated national championship in recent memory. If Tiger would have tried to play (and if you’ve been paying attention to his recovery from yet another back surgery, you know he was light-years away from tournament-ready), he would have been the dominant story of Open week, and that would have been massively disappointing. There are far too many storylines heading into Oakmont’s record 9th US Open that deserve more attention than Tiger’s mere presence. Maybe Tiger Woods, the most dominant force I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, in any sport, will have a miraculous comeback and write a postscript to his superlative career. I don’t think he will, but it could happen. But it’s a post-Tiger golf world, and this US Open, returning to the course that is the greatest test of championship golf in America, has all the makings of a classic.
The golf course will be the biggest star of the week. There’s a reason the US Open is returning to Oakmont for the 9th time, more than any course in championship history. It’s the gold standard. Golf fans have a certain kind of test in mind when they think of our national championship, and Oakmont ticks all the boxes. Narrow fairways, thick rough, and fast greens distinguish the US Open, and the best players in the world will have their fill of all three this week.
I had the opportunity to play Oakmont a few weeks ago as the guest of a friend who recently joined the club. It was an extraordinary day, and my round there personally confirmed all of the stories of Oakmont’s beauty and difficulty. My biggest takeaways weren’t unusual. The 2016 US Open champion will be the player that hits the most fairways, take his medicine when he doesn’t, keeps his ball below the hole on approach shots, and respects the greens enough to know that two-putts will move you up the leaderboard. Some of the longest players on Tour will only use their drivers 3 or 4 times per round. Playing between 7200 and 7300 yards, with five par-4’s under 400 yards, the premium at Oakmont is on accuracy, not distance. Of course, longer players have an advantage on EVERY course (Jason Day will hit his 2-iron the same 280 yards that Luke Donald hits his driver, and will have a shorter iron that’s more likely to spin and hold on a green), but Oakmont doesn’t exclude short hitters the way some venues can. Anyone who misses the fairways, however, must appreciate that discretion is the better part of valor.
The players haven’t faced “US Open rough” in a few years. Pinehurst #2, an outstanding Open venue, has literally zero rough after its restoration. The fairways led directly to sandy waste areas, a unique defense, but not thick, dense rough. Chambers Bay had wide fairways that allowed for imaginative play, but didn’t place a premium on accuracy that usually characterizes our national championship. For the first time since Merion in 2013, US Open participants will face true Open rough. And the rough at Oakmont Country Club is absolutely brutal. My “Oakmont rough” story: my tee shot on 10 landed in the left side of the fairway and trickled into the rough, less than five feet away from the short stuff (all of Oakmont’s fairways slope towards the rough). I couldn’t see my ball until I was standing over it. I tried to get brave and hit my 7-iron the 50 or 60 yards necessary to carry the ridge and run toward the green (yes..7-iron for 50 yards was “ambitious”…that’s how thick it was). I pulled it further left into the dry trench deep(er) rough, hacked it out of there, then left myself short of the green. It turned into a triple-bogey 7, the only truly hideous blemish on a scorecard I am otherwise very proud of. Faced with a similar situation on 18 (drive just trickled into rough, was basically submerged in the juiciest rough I’ve ever seen), I learned my lesson. I hacked out 10 yards sideways with my sand wedge, and managed to salvage a bogey instead of closing with something far worse. By no stretch of the imagination am I comparing my game to a pro’s, but the lesson is the same…sometimes a bogey is acceptable. Admitting that you’re not capable of pulling off a shot, and recognizing when the risk outweighs the potential reward, will go a long way towards surviving the rough at Oakmont. Everybody’s going to make bogeys. Preventing them from turning into doubles or worse could lead to a victory. There are no water hazards at Oakmont, there is no tree trouble. Deep bunkers, thick rough, and fast greens are its defense. And players will leave the greens shaking their heads.
Those greens. Yes, they’re fast and firm and severe. But they’re pure, and they’re right in front of you. There are no huge mounds, knobs, or plateaued sections of greens. They slope, or tilt, more than they undulate. Sometimes it’s front-to-back (which is so unusual and jarring), sometimes it’s back-to-front, sometimes left-to-right or vice-versa. There is subtlety, and there are putts with double-breaks, but the greens are fair. Leave your ball below the hole, and you’ll be fine. Miss the green on the correct side, and you can save par. Almost every green has a fairway approach that you can use to run the ball onto the green (except 5 and 11), so short is almost always a better miss than anywhere else. The course can be managed with patience. I’m in the minority, but I honestly believe someone will figure out and execute a game plan that leads to a below-par winning score. Even par will guarantee a top-5 finish, but the champion will finish in the red. Just a hunch.
If the winner is above par, that’s fine. I don’t mind seeing the top players in the world struggle one week out of the year. I DO think the USGA is a little too preoccupied with par as a standard, but it’s their thing. They could call #9 at Oakmont a par-five (as it used to be for major championships, and still is for members), and it wouldn’t change how anyone plays it. If 9 were called a par-five in 2007, Angel Cabrera STILL would’ve finished over par. Instead, they call it a par-4 and rob themselves of artificial, psychological drama (“Ooh, a chance at eagle!!!”……it’s still a ‘3’) to preserve par. The USGA likes to make US Open courses par 70’s (Chambers Bay, Pinehurst, Merion, and Olympic were all par 70’s), and Oakmont likes to preserve its reputation as the most difficult test of championship golf in the country.
So…who’s going to win? Obviously, I have no idea. The US Open is far tougher to handicap than the Masters, and nobody really seriously predicted a Danny Willett victory (he was as overlooked as the 12th ranked player in the world coming in could be). The Masters returns to Augusta National every spring, so we look at who has a good history there when making predictions, but how useful could it possibly be to look back to one week nine years ago to see “who plays well at Oakmont?” Not very. Nobody saw Angel Cabrera coming back in 2007, especially with Tiger in the last group on Sunday. There could be a midday storm that gives the afternoon wave an advantage in one of the first few rounds. Maybe an obscure qualifier gets hot with the putter and writes a Cinderella story. After all, major winners at Oakmont include Nicklaus, Hogan, Jones, Snead, and Sarazen. Fellow champions Els, Nelson, and Miller all won multiple majors, as well. But club pro Sam Parks, Jr. won back in 1935, and Cabrera was largely unheralded before he held off Tiger and Jim Furyk back in ‘07. Instead of trying to pick a winner, I’ll pick the best possible stories that could emerge Sunday (or Monday).
Phil. I will root for Phil Mickelson above all others this week. If he were to put his US Open close-call misery behind him (6 time runner up!!!!) and complete the career grand slam, while simultaneously becoming the oldest winner in championship history?? It couldn’t get any better than that. Phil doesn’t have great history at Oakmont (he hurt his wrist and missed the cut in ‘07), but he’s become a more mature golfer since then. Nobody would have thought Mickelson would ever adapt his game to win a British Open, but he did just that to capture the Claret Jug at Muirfield in 2013. Keep the driver in the bag, find the fairway, use the legendary short game to escape mistakes from places no one else could. It’s not out of the question.
Any of the young, talented Official World Golf Ranking top 3 (Day, Spieth, McIlroy). Jason Day is the obvious favorite. His last start was a win against the toughest field of the season at The Players Championship. Spieth is the defending champion, and his worst finish in a major since the start of last year was a tie for fourth (one shot out of a playoff at the British Open), with two wins and three runners-up. Any player in the world would love to “struggle” like Spieth. I do wonder how he will react to the bad breaks that will come at an Oakmont Open. Will the thick rough throw him off his game? Jordan Spieth has a reputation as an elite putter, and he’s made his fair share of memorable 20-footers in big moments over the last few years, but the stats prove he struggles from the all-important range of 5-to-10 feet. Those are the putts that winners make and losers miss, and the skill required from that range is magnified at Oakmont.
If it rains this week, and the course softens a bit, I’ll move Rory up my list. His major victories have come on softened, wet courses. He hasn’t handled firm and fast particularly well. Oakmont will likely be firm and fast. Silver lining for Rory? He’s always managed to be a top player with his exceptional ball-striking and getting by with average putting. During his last start (the Memorial), Rory had, statistically, the best putting performance of his professional career. If he combines his typically strong long game (not as much of a certainty as it was two years ago) with another good putting week, he’ll be there on Sunday.
The Americans without a major: lots of folks are tapping Dustin Johnson for a big week. He had a chance to win last year before his painful 3-putt on the 72nd hole, and he comes in playing well. I understand why people like him this week, but I can’t look past his poor short game. We’ve all seen DJ struggle with the putter in the biggest possible moment, but his pitching and chipping are below-average by Tour standards. It’s hard to picture him making saves from the penal bunkers and thick rough that surround Oakmont’s greens. I just can’t see it. I’d put Rickie Fowler ahead of DJ. After a stellar year that yielded four top-5’s but no major wins in 2014, Fowler took a step back in last year’s grand slams. He comes in a bit under the radar this year, but a good start will quickly catapult him back into the conversation. I want to think Patrick Reed will thrive at Oakmont, but there’s simply nothing in his major resume to make me think he will. Reed has never had a top-10 at a major; his best-ever finish was a T-14 at Chambers Bay last year.
Bubba Watson doesn’t seem like the kind of player who would thrive at a US Open. He speaks freely of his self-doubt and mental frailties. You need to keep your head at an Open, and Bubba can get mighty down on himself when things aren’t going his way. However, Oakmont seems like the kind of course that would fit his uber-creative golfing eye: a sweeping canvas onto which he can paint his singular portrait of shaped shots on imaginative lines that other players simply don’t see. His best US open finish was a tie for 5th, at Oakmont, in 2007, and that was before he became “BUBBA.”
Jim Furyk. Coming off a wrist injury and hasn’t shown anything close to top form in his return, but the man is built for US Opens (2003 champion), and letting the 2007 edition at Oakmont slip away with a costly bogey on 17 on Sunday is a mistake he’d like to correct. Furyk has been very honest about how much that event still hurts, and the local roots (Furyk lived here for the first few years of his life, and still has family in Pittsburgh. He’s a legit Pittsburgh sports fan.) will make him a fan favorite, just as he was in 2007, when chants of “Here we go, Jimmy…here we go….” rang around Oakmont’s back nine.
The aging Europeans that haven’t won a major yet: I wouldn’t HATE it if Henrik Stenson, Lee Westwood, or (gasp!) Sergio Garcia broke their major duck at Oakmont. I definitely wouldn’t love it, but I could deal with it.
Hideki Matsuyama. He would become the first Japanese major champion, and would immediately insert his name in the conversation with Day, Spieth, and McIlroy as the “big young stars.” I don’t think his putting stroke is steady enough to seriously compete at Oakmont, but I could watch him swing a golf club all day. He’ll win majors, but not this week.
Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen, Justin Rose, Danny Willett. These four own one major win apiece, and each could greatly elevate his place in the game’s history by claiming a second at Oakmont. Of these four, I would’ve liked Rose’s chances best, as he won the 2013 Merion US Open in similarly difficult conditions, but recent back problems don’t bode well. Louis Oosthuizen is consistently rock solid in major championships, and if he were to add a US Open at Oakmont to his British Open win at St. Andrews? That’s a legacy builder. Adam Scott’s game has trailed off a bit after a dominant February, and if you’re coming to Oakmont looking for something to click, you won’t be happy when you leave. Danny Willett WON The Masters by shooting a bogey-free 67 on Sunday at Augusta. Unfortunately, the 2016 Masters will probably be most remembered for Spieth’s meltdown at 12. Backing up his green jacket with a win at Oakmont would drastically change that (and there’s no good reason to think he can’t).
Miscellaneous young and young-ish Americans: Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau (that trio is first tier miscellaneous), Chris Kirk, Billy Horschel, Tony Finau, Kevin Na, Smylie Kaufman, Kevin Kisner, Kevin Chappell, Jamie Lovemark, James Hahn. You know…”those” guys. I’d be happy for any of them to win a major. Just not this week. Honestly, several of those guys probably aren’t even in the field, and I’m not going to look.
I want Oakmont to produce a truly great champion this time around. Angel Cabrera backed up his Oakmont victory with a win at the 2009 Masters. Cabrera’s green jacket drastically altered how I view that Open nine years on. Still, at the time, I wanted Tiger to win. He was the only “great champion” of that era that I felt Oakmont “deserved.”
There’s no force like “2000s Tiger Woods” in the game today. There probably won’t be anything like that ever again. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t great players waiting to forge their own legacy in the game. One of them may emerge this week, or one of the players firmly on that path may look right alongside Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, and Jack Nicklaus. I can’t wait to see how out plays out. Oh, yeah….one more thing…..no Monday playoff (unless, of course, it’s something ridiculous like a 4-man between Day, Spieth, Rory, and Rickie). The 18-hole Monday playoff is the worst.