Cleat Geeks

Off the Tee: U.S. Open

As golf’s four major championships go, the U.S. Open seems to be the one that so often is about the golf course almost as much as the players who play it.

USOpenTrophy@OakmontIt features a rotation of classic tracks like Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, Winged Foot and Southern Hills, and more contemporary layouts like the grueling Bethpage Black in New York, or last year’s site, Chambers Bay, along the coast in the Pacific Northwest.

But say the name “Oakmont,” and even the best players shudder a bit. The western Pennsylvania course has long been regarded as one of the most demanding in the U.S. Open mix, and the words coming from those preparing for this week’s U.S. Open are of respect, maybe even fear.

“You can hit 72 greens in the Open at Oakmont and not come to close to winning,” the great Arnold Palmer said years ago of the difficulty of putting at the course.

After dropping a ball in the rough by the 17th green and almost not being able to find it, first-time Oakmont competitor Justin Thomas posted this video:




And Byeong-Hun An posted this video of an attempt from a greenside sand trap to illustrate how slick the greens are.


“I think it’s really tough but still fair, and I think that the rough is certainly some of the hardest I’ve ever been in,” said defending champion Jordan Spieth. “But I think fairways, hitting the fairways are going to be critical. Fairways or first cut. The first cut is nice out here, and it will hold the ball up from going into that thick rough.”

AP Photo/Mike Groll, File

AP Photo/Mike Groll, File

“It’s a course that will severely punish poorly hit shots and reward well-struck shots,” Phil Mickelson simply stated.

“We’re basically playing the same golf course as we played in 2007,” said Mike Davis, executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, and guru for setting the course up for each year’s U.S. Open. “It’s the exact same yardage. It’s the same fairway widths. In fact, it’s the same fairways that the members have played for many years. So it’s not as if we’re coming in here and narrowing.

“It’s a mindset that Oakmont Country Club really set this culture back in 1903 that they wanted this to be a championship golf course. And think about the historic championships that have been played here at Oakmont.”

About those championships: Oakmont last hosted this event in 2007, with Angel Cabrera outlasting Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods by a stroke. Prior to that, it was here in 1994, when Ernie Els won his first of two U.S. Opens.

It’s also where Johnny Miller had perhaps the greatest round in U.S. Open history in 1973, a closing 63 that matched the record low score for any major championship and helped him overcome and pass players like Jack Nicklaus, Palmer and Lee Trevino.

nicklaus_palmerUSOpenAnd Nicklaus himself won his first major championship in 1962 at Oakmont, battling not just the course but golf’s most popular player, Arnold Palmer, in his home area. Facing Palmer and a crowd of some 10,000 fans, pretty much all rooting against him, Nicklaus defeated Palmer by three strokes in a Monday playoff after they tied for the four rounds of regulation.

Ben Hogan won there. So did Sam Snead and Bob Jones and Gene Sarazen.

So what’s the common denominator of all these great champions? Toughness. Grit. Sheer talent. Perseverance. It’ll take all of those factors for the man who winds up holding the trophy on Sunday afternoon.

Consider this: Cabrera’s winning score in 2007 was 5-over par. Els was 5-under in 1994, but only eight players broke par for the week. Even with his amazing finish in ’73, Miller was one of only nine players under par for the week.

“I’d sign for even par,” Spieth said. “I don’t think anyone’s going to be in the red come 72 holes. So it will be a challenge, but I’m certainly looking forward to it.”

It’s likely the big winner at the end of the week may still wind up being the golf course itself.


U.S. Open Picks

Since we’ve picked the winner three of the last four weeks, there’s a little pressure on this one to keep up the standard. And on a major championship week, you don’t fool around with any wild picks.jason-day (1)

Jason Day – With the brutal length of some holes, it’s simply a week where strength and accuracy are a must. Day hits it further than almost anybody, and he’s been on quite a roll with four wins since last August’s PGA Championship triumph. He’s ready to add another big trophy to the mantle.

Matt Kuchar – With as many challenging situations as a U.S. Open brings, a key to success is being unflappable and calm and able to handle those down turns. Kuchar is about as steady and solid as they come in pro golf these days, and won’t let a bad break or two take him off his mental game.MatthewFitzpatrick

Jason Dufner – As said above about the first two picks, ball striking is massive this week, and Dufner’s strong iron game will come in huge here, and his temperament is famously calm. The question is how he will handle Oakmont’s slick greens.

Longshot – Matthew Fitzpatrick – The 21-year-old Englishman is the best young player you’ve never heard of. He was the first British player to win the U.S. Amateur in a century when he did it in 2013, and since turning pro the next year he’s won twice on the European Tour – one of those just two weeks ago in Sweden.

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