Oakmont: a hard course in a hard city. US Opens had delved into war of attrition territory long before this Pittsburgh venue was selected to host the 116th version, which begins on Thursday.
The last time the tournament visited Oakmont, in 2007, 11-over par earned a top-10 place. Ángel Cabrera prevailed at plus-five, his 13 birdies in 72 holes a share of the highest total.
Johnny Miller’s closing round of 63 to claim the US Open of 1973 should be hailed as one of the finest in history. When Paul Casey signed for a second-round 66 nine years ago, he received a round of applause from fellow competitors.
Tiger Woods may only have just confirmed he will not make his return from injury in the coming days, but that was perfectly obvious months ago. Woods could not have discovered a less forgiving place than Oakmont at which to re-engage with competitive golf, which he would know only too well. Put simply, this is one of the toughest courses in the world.
A scorecard that shows more than 7,200 yards includes par fives at potentially 609 and 667 yards. The nuances of Oakmont stretch way beyond numbers, though. The 9th green, say, is one of the great spots in world golf as it runs directly into the practice putting surface behind it. Holding the ball on ice-like greens from fairway approach shots will prove tough enough; the same will be near-impossible from dense rough.
In theory, all of this should play into the hands of Redemption Man. Jordan Spieth may scoff at the notion he must win another major championship for the ghost of Augusta National past to disappear but in the wider consciousness and possibly even in the mind of the Texan himself, that is the case.
Add the fact Spieth will arrive in Pennsylvania as the defending US Open champion into the equation and there should be no question as to where most of the pre-tournament attention will focus.
Spieth is a terrific strategist. He has an ability to decode golf courses like no other. Moreover, and this is clearly pertinent where Oakmont is concerned, he is a wonderful putter. Spieth’s mental fortitude, to the point where he is commonly harder on himself than need be the case, was evident even before his Masters collapse; that circumstances turned rapidly against the former world No1 on Augusta’s 12th hole will only add to already intense levels of motivation.
The potential parallel? Rory McIlroy’s US Open triumph of 2011, two months after his own late Masters horror show.
On his first visit to the venue in early May, Spieth played 27 holes in the company of a local caddie. Typically, he gleaned crucial information. “I have different impressions from what I already knew,” Spieth says.
“The bunkers may as well be bunkers in the UK, they may as well be pot bunkers. You kind of have to hit sideways out of them for the most part. So they are very much hazards and you really don’t need a lot of drivers. I didn’t think either of those points were of importance until playing it.
“Quite a few of these greens pitch front to back, which is unusual. You need to put the ball in the fairway.
“It’s very difficult to understand; you get to a couple of tee boxes, you think you can hit driver. All of the sudden, your ball has landed. You think it’s on the right side of the fairway, but it’s flown either 25 yards further or 25 yards shorter than you thought. That’s something that is nice having now played the golf course and understanding, not only going off the yardage book but visually gaining knowledge.”
Spieth returned this weekend as a means of “front-loading” his US Open preparation before crowds begin to swell. “It’s just kind of craziness,” is the Spieth analysis of Tuesday onwards.
Colin Montgomerie did not win a major championship but was a regular contender at the US Open. The Scot says that he sensed that from a field of more than 150, there could be 100 players who simply did not want to be there. The challenge was either alien to them or perceived as far too much of a struggle.
It is safe to say Spieth falls into the smaller, but more important, group.
“It is a great test of golf,” Spieth adds. “Very tough but a fair test of golf. The best player will come out on top this week. You will have no crazy circumstance or bounces or this or that. You have to golf your ball around this place and the person who is in full control of their entire game will win this US Open.”
Augusta aside, this has been a curious 2016 for Spieth. The fact he competed so strongly in Georgia at all was testament to his mindset, with him struggling technically during Masters week. He has bemoaned similar – with different aspects of his game – elsewhere but has still won twice since the turn of the year. He is the top player by seasonal scoring average on the PGA Tour but signed off from The Memorial tournament last Sunday by insisting his driving accuracy needs to drastically improve pre-Oakmont.
This golfer’s special narrative suggests it will. There would be no more emphatic way to banish Augusta nightmares than ensuring Spieth’s name is etched upon the US Open trophy once more.
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