U.S. Open Preview – Who will conquer the toughest test in golf?

The Irish contingent will face one of the hardest courses in tournament golf if they want to capture the U.S. Open Trophy

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OAKMONT, PA- SEPTEMBER 26: General view of the church pew bunkering on the 15th hole at Oakmont Country Club, site of the 2007 US Open on September 26, 2006 in Oakmont, Pensylvania. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

After the chaotic quirkiness of Chambers Bay last year, the U.S. Open returns to Oakmont Country Club, Pennsylvania for the 116th staging of the major championship. It will be the ninth time that it will be played at the iconic golf course, which poses challenges more typical of the tournament, and “not like we’re playing on the moon,” according to Rory McIlroy when comparing this year’s course to Chambers Bay.

That means heavy rough, long, demanding holes and treacherous greens. Jordan Spieth said after a preparation round in May that he would take level par as a final total and it is hard to argue with his assessment.

It is often said that day in and day out Oakmont Country Club is U.S. Open ready. Johnny Miller once said that “you could hold a U.S. Open there any day of the week.” Mike Davis, executive director and CEO of the United States Golf Association, called it “the one golf course in the United States that, if we had to make a call one to two weeks before the U.S. Open and say, we’re in a pinch, can you host the national Open Championship, this place could do it.”

For a course that does not have a single water hazard, a person would be hard-pressed to find a more difficult challenge. Along with lightning-fast greens and thick rough, there are 210 sand traps to negotiate. Competitors will have to negotiate past ‘The Church Pews’, adjacent to the third and fourth holes, which includes a dozen mounds of grass located within a large sand trap.

“I have to say, I have never felt so uncomfortable on a putting surface in my life as I do out there,” Graeme McDowell said that week. “Doesn’t matter if you’re 10 feet, 20 feet, 50 feet, they are awful. They are really scary.”

Another challenging hole is the 8th, a par three that measures 288 yards, which they hope to push back beyond 300 yards at some point during the tournament to meet the original design of requiring a 3-wood or more to make the green. “This is certainly one of the most penal courses in the world,” says Bob Ford, the PGA Head Professional at Oakmont. “It’s a fair test of golf, but errant shots are treated as errant shots.”

This was evident the last time the U.S Open was held at the storied course. The winner in 2007 was Argentine Angel Cabrera, with a score of five-over-par. There, he edged out peak Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk by a single stroke. Tiger hit 17 of 18 greens on Saturday but could still only manage a one-under-par 69, given the difficulty of the greens. It was one of a measly eight rounds under par in the entire tournament. Australian Aaron Baddeley led after three days but finished with an 80, typical of the carnage that ensued that week.

Graeme McDowell, then 27-years-old, was the top Irish player in the field as Padraig Harrington, who would win the very next major, missed the cut. McDowell’s 17-over-par total was good enough for tied 30th place. His experiences at Oakmont were no doubt a character-builder ahead of his 2010 U.S. Open success at Pebble Beach.

“I have to say, I have never felt so uncomfortable on a putting surface in my life as I do out there,” Graeme McDowell said that week. “Doesn’t matter if you’re 10 feet, 20 feet, 50 feet, they are awful. They are scary. They are really scary.” Nevertheless, previous experience at Oakmont should favour G-Mac. His top-10 finish at The Players Championship, which included a 69 on similarly scary greens at TPC Sawgrass on Saturday, should also give him confidence ahead of the test that awaits.

McDowell is one of three Irish players confirmed for the field, with world number three Rory McIlroy and WGC Bridgestone Invitational winner Shane Lowry. A stronger Irish performance at Oakmont is expected this time around with Rory McIlroy, too young to play in 2007, joint-favourite with the bookies alongside Jason Day.

McIlroy has a 305-yard average drive on the PGA Tour this season, making him one of the longest hitters on tour, but crucially he is also significantly straighter off-the-tee than fellow bombers Watson, Day and Johnson.

The Northern Irishman finally broke through at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in spectacular fashion after a frustrating year for him that had lots of top 10 finishes but no wins. There, he hit two of the sweetest fairway wood shots under pressure at 16 and 18 that we are ever likely to witness. The way he won his national Open, which he said was possibly the most pressure that he had ever felt on a golf course, is bound to give him lots of confidence heading into the U.S. Open.

McIlroy’s superb prowess with the longer clubs is likely to go far at Oakmont. The 27-year-old has a 305-yard average drive on the PGA Tour this season, making him one of the longest hitters on tour, but crucially he is also significantly straighter off-the-tee than fellow bombers Watson, Day and Johnson.

This is important on a long, demanding golf course but McIlroy will still have concerns about putting on Oakmont’s greens. “You can hit 72 greens in the Open at Oakmont and not come close to winning,” local legend Arnold Palmer, who lost in a playoff to Jack Nicklaus there in 1962, once said.

Unfortunately for McIlroy, his putting this season inside 10 feet has left a lot to be desired and has more three-putts than most players on tour. That may not translate well to the slippery surfaces in Pennsylvania. Rory has always been a confidence player with the short stick so he will hope that the Irish Open win will inspire a better summer on the greens. Still his best opportunity may come should rain hit Oakmont and slow down the greens a little.

If McIlroy is to win a second U.S. Open, then world number one Jason Day and defending champion Jordan Spieth will be the men to beat. Jason Day has won with incredible regularity in the past 12 months, in a run that has included the PGA Championship and the recent Players Championship. The Australian has all the tools to contend at Oakmont, showing a superb all-round game in the past year and a hot putter to boot. He will also have an “inside scoop” on the course, as his agent is a member there.

That sort of inside knowledge worked for Jordan Spieth last year. The American’s caddy, Mike Greller, was a member of Chambers Bay and his expertise certainly helped Spieth close out the win. The ‘Golden Child’ of U.S. golf has had an inconsistent year on the PGA Tour so far and has struggled with his swing.

SpiethOakmont-847-JustinAller

Spieth, who will defend his crown, is one of the favourites to win

His blow-up on the 12th at Augusta, when he put two balls in the water to card a 7 on the par three, was a bitter pill to swallow. What was lost in the aftermath was that Spieth has contended every single one of the last five major championships and could have won them all. Not bad for a 22-year-old still learning what it is like to be on tour. Given Spieth’s midas touch on the greens, who better would you want facing a tricky downhiller at Oakmont?

Another U.S. Open appearance will excite Shane Lowry after his exceptional performance last year. Lowry closed within a few shots of the lead at one point on Saturday before settling for a tie for ninth place, equaling his best ever finish in a major. The Offalyman thoroughly enjoyed his time at Chambers Bay.

“I said to my caddie coming up the last, it’s probably one of the most enjoyable days I’ve had at a golf course in a while,” Lowry said on Saturday. “Being in contention in a tournament like this, what more do you want? It’s very tough. But I think it’s playable,” he said about Chambers Bay, which was being criticised from all angles.

Lowry’s positive attitude about dealing with the elements that a U.S. Open test presents should hold him in good stead this year. Having won a World Golf Championship at Firestone in the meantime, Lowry knows he can compete with the very best in the game on the toughest of golf courses.

Elsewhere, there are plenty of other storylines to consider. Will Phil Mickelson finally win his home Open after six second-place finishes? Will Danny Willett back up his Masters win? Will Fowler, Johnson or Garcia break their major duck? After Spieth’s collapse at the Masters, we can take nothing for granted in major championship golf.

It leaves us with an intriguing U.S. Open to savour on one of the world’s best courses.

David Gorman

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