If you like your golf tough, brutal and a little sadistic, the US Open is the tournament for you.
The national championship of the United States Golf Association doesn’t aim to excite or thrill with birdie blitzes and daring attacking play, rather it plans for a more sober entertainment where the enjoyment is to be accrued from watching the most complete examination a golfer will face.
Patience and precision are rewarded while waywardness and indiscipline are punished mercilessly with any chinks in a player’s armour ruthlessly exposed. In summary, it’s golf for the purist and golf without pity.
The event aims to be the most technically demanding of the four majors and narrow fairways bordered by thick rough with fast greens are the order of the day.
When many golf fans think of the US Open, the abiding memory is of a competitor’s drive missing the fairway by a few inches followed by the disgruntled player attempting to hack his ball out of the four-inch high rough. The US Open puts a premium on accurate driving and penalises even the slightest diversion from the prescribed path.
But the USGA have sprung a surprise this year; for the first time in its long history since the first staging of the event way back in 1895 there is no rough. That’s not a misprint; the one aspect most closely associated with the US Open, the rough, will not be making an appearance this year.
Does this mean that the USGA, the committee who have always differentiated their event from the other big four of the game in their aversion to scores more than a couple of shots under par have softened their stance and lightened the strain on the players?
While the absence of rough would seem to indicate that the Pinehurst course will be an easier challenge, the natural landscape of wasteland and sandy areas which have replaced the rough – as per Scottish designer Donald Ross’ original intention – will pose a different question. Although there will be parts of it where the natural vegetation and scrub will limit the options a player has after hitting an errant drive to simply laying-up, the sandy areas and pine needles will generally allow a shot at the green.
However, Ross had always intended for the course’s main defence to be his greens – which resemble an upturned saucer (or turtle-backs as they’re known Stateside) – and whose small landing areas mean that an approach from anywhere but plum on the fairway will make controlling the ball to land safely extremely difficult. Indeed, with the greens as firm and fast, as they are, unless softened-up considerably by rain which may arrive this week, scrambling from the run-off areas will be crucial to a player’s chances of contending.
As such, accurate driving – with length an added bonus – top-class scrambling and excellent putting will be prerequisites and, as per usual with the US Open, concentration, patience and an ability to keep mistakes at a minimum will be key to any player hoping to get in the mix on Sunday.
Pre-tournament favourite Rory McIlroy (11/1) is a man many feel is in the right form – five top-eight finishes in-a-row – and has the game to win his third major. After a poor 2013, the Northern Irishman is on his way back to his brilliant best and if the heavy rain comes then, as with when he strolled to the title at Congressional three years ago, he will be hard to beat. However, while McIlroy’s driving certainly gives him an edge, his relative weakness at putting could be exposed by Pinehurst’s devilishly difficult greens.
Compatriot Graeme McDowell (55/1) also has a US Open on his mantlepiece and having followed up his win in 2010 with a second place two years ago, he certainly has the game to contend in this event for the next decade.
The 33-year-old’s ability to grind out the pars playing steady, accurate golf allied with his excellence with the putter in his hands means he could feature here. McDowell’s relative lack of length off the tee could hamper his chances if the course is softened but his decent, if unspectacular recent form, hints at a prominent showing and he knows how to get the job done if he’s involved in the back nine on Sunday.
Adam Scott (14/1) and Masters winner Bubba Watson (18/1), first and third in the world respectively, are two players who can never be ruled out. With both in great form – Scott won at Colonial a fortnight ago while Bubba has two victories already this season – they will be confident of coming out on top but neither has an intimidating record in the US Open (Scott has a tied-15th best performance, Bubba just one top-15 finish which was back in 2007) and it could be that the grind of this event isn’t suited to their natural flair.
Matt Kuchar (25/1) and Jim Furyk (40/1) will have their supporters and could well figure prominently but doubts remain about both players’ ability to get the job done on the biggest of stages while Brendon Todd’s (100/1) recent form and ability to scramble could see him perform well at his first-ever major.
2012 champion Webb Simpson (45/1) is a player coming back into form who proved two years ago when holding off a stellar chasing pack that a lack of length off the tee need not be an insurmountable obstacle.
The 28-year-old is a native of North Carolina and learned the game in his formative years playing at Pinehurst so knows every nook and cranny of the famous course. ‘Home advantage’ doesn’t always translate into a win but his game’s suitability to the US Open, his return to form and his intimate knowledge of the course means he ticks a lot of boxes.
Only two players have finished in the top-five places twice in the last three years and while injury struggles will probably prohibit Jason Day from challenging this week, the other man, reigning USPGA champion Jason Dufner (50/1), could well be the proud holder of a second major come Sunday. The 37-year-old has the cool temperament, tight game and talent on the greens to tackle Pinehurst and he demonstrated when winning his major title last August that leading down the home stretch won’t faze him.
However, if there’s one man many golf fans want to win this week it has to be Phil Mickelson (16/1). Six-times a runner-up, the US Open has tortured ‘Lefty’ to the point of perversion and having won the British Open last year to complete three-quarters of golf’s Grand Slam, his national championship is all that is required for him to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods as the only players in history to win all four major titles.
While the 43-year-old has endured his worst season as a professional, an 11th place at St. Jude’s last weekend and the unique features of the Pinehurst course, which will reward creativity and imagination he possesses in abundance, mean that this could finally be the week when all the pain and all the disappointment that the tournament has drowned him in will be washed away and he finally lifts the US Open trophy. I wouldn’t bet against it.
Cian O’Callaghan, Pundit Arena.