One of the most noticeable things about the US Open is that the battleground is often more talked about than the soldiers in the build-up to the tournament.
The 116th edition of the second major of the year, which begins today, is no exception.
It happened for all the wrong reasons at Chambers Bay last year, which appeared artificially tough with terrible greens. Even though a bigger challenge awaits the elite field of 156 this week, there will be no complaints. Only respect.
Sure, everyone wants to know whether Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy will be able to beat the quality field assembled in Oakmont Country Club. But the bigger question is, whether they will be able to slay the monster that was created by Henry Fownes 113 years ago.
The golf course was designed with a specific aim to be the most rigorous test possible of a golfer of any ability. Unlike the modern-day philosophy of making it easy for the members from the forward tees, it is the Oakmont membership that insists on a golf course that borders on being a sadist.
They say Oakmont is the only golf course in the world that is ready to host a major championship at any given time. Well…they do need a few days to bring down the speed of the greens, which oddly enough, play faster on non-championship days. This is the golf course that led to the invention of the stimpmeter, the device used to measure the speed of the greens.
In 1935, Edward Stimpton saw the incomparable Gene Sarazen roll his putt off the green and that set his engineer’s brain thinking. This is the golf course that has already hosted eight US Opens and has a cumulative winning score of +11.
It guarded itself so fiercely in 2007, the then No. 1 Tiger Woods played superlative golf and yet finished one shot behind champion Angel Cabrera at six-over par.
The Tiger couldn't catch The Duck at the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont. https://t.co/9Gmu2GogpG— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 13, 2016
You don’t have to reach the third fairway and the famous Church Pew bunkers to gain respect for the course…you feel like going down on your knees from the very first hole. No gentle openers at Oakmont, which will also feature the longest par-3 in the history of major championships – the 288-yard eighth hole, and the second longest par-5 – the 667-yard 12th hole.
And yet, length and bunkers are not something that will worry the players. What’s giving them major headache is the length of the rough, and the severe slopes and speed of the greens. No wonder USGA’s Mike Davis, the man responsible for setting up the US Open courses, is always happy to be returning to Oakmont. It is one golf course where his workload is lot less compared to most other venues.
“There’s a reason the US Open is coming back to Oakmont. This really is the gold standard for championship golf. It doesn’t get any better than Oakmont,” he said on the eve of the championship.
Oakmont is the predominant storyline this week, but there are several juicy ones involving the players too. There is huge interest around Phil Mickelson, who will once again try and complete his career grand slam in a major in which he has finished runner-up six times.
Then there is the recent form of World No. 1, 2 and 3, with Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy all winning in the past few weeks.
One thing is for certain, only a golfer with pedigree will win on a golf course like Oakmont.
On a day when cold, wet and windy conditions made things difficult, Flanagan remained unruffled, reeling off one eagle, four birdies and a bogey in his round.
England’s Billy Spooner joined the South African duo of Kevin Rundle and Jaco Prinsloo in a tie for second on 69, one shot ahead of a three-man group which included rising amateur David Meyers.
Flanagan came out singing in the rain, thanks to a new putting approach, as well as experience gained from college golf in Houston.
“It was quite cold and wet, but I’m kind of used to the conditions having played in similar conditions back in Houston when I played college golf,” said the 24-year-old.
“I just drew on those experiences. You’ve got to be patient and realize that the majority of the field are going to be knocked down from the word go because they aren’t really happy with the conditions.”
Flanagan’s new putting approach yielded some impressive putts on the pristine putting surfaces at
Glendower Golf Club, but the talented South African said it was still a work in progress.
“Yeah, I had a major breakthrough with my putting. I kind of had enough of putting mediocre, so I just changed a few things and I’m excited about how I’m putting the ball. I had 28 putts today – I hardly ever break 30 putts – so I’m really happy about that,” said Flanagan.
Highly-rated Englishman Haydn McCullen sits on one-under-par alongside four others, including 2007 Johnnie Walker Classic winner Anton Haig, while Thriston Lawrence, the 2015 MENA Golf Tour Order of Merit champion, settled for a level-par 72.
Bryandrew Roelofsz, winner of last week’s tournament, stumbled to a 75 and would need to produce something special if he aims to haul himself back into contention.
The major season of golf is upon us. It technically starts with the Masters at Augusta in April, but it is June, July and August when the schedule becomes choc-a-block with the biggest events in golf.
The US Open, the second major of the men’s season, begins next week at the treacherous Oakmont, while the ladies are vying for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship title at Sahalee Country Club in Washington this week.
There are many interesting things to look forward to at the Women’s PGA, including the fact that world No. 1 Lydia Ko is the only player who has a chance to win a grand slam after her ANA Inspiration triumph earlier in the season. That is an achievement more difficult than in any other sport, including men’s golf, because the LPGA has five majors.
But all eyes will be on South Korean Inbee Park. The former world No. 1, now No. 2, has the opportunity to rewrite the record books as she bids to become the only player to win a major championship four successive times.
If Park wins on Sunday, she will go one step better than two LPGA legends, Patty Berg (Titleholders Championship, 1937-39) and Annika Sorenstam (also Women’s PGA Championship, 2003-05).
The best run among men is four successive wins (Tom Morris Jr at The Open 1868-1872 and Walter Hagen at the PGA Championship 1924-27). There’s a lot more at stake for Park, who just needs to tee off in the tournament to become eligible to enter the women’s golf Hall of Fame.
The LPGA Tour HoF is based on performance and Park, meets every criteria having won seven major titles and 17 LPGA Tour events since turning pro in 2008.
The other player who is bound to be in the spotlight is Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn.
The 20-year-old won her last three consecutive tournaments last month and is hoping to make the most of her hot form and secure her first major title this week.
Maverick McNealey is the second highest ranked amateur player in the world.
Winner of the prestigious Haskins Award last year for being the American collegiate circuit golfer, he also happens to be the son of the billionaire founder of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy.
Previous winners of the Haskins Awards include Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, and each of them have gone on to have a career in professional golf. But Maverick, who is in Stanford, is not sure.
In a fascinating interview of the father and son done by the Wall Street Journal, Maverick said: “My dad always tells me, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected’. I’m given a huge amount of opportunities, and I feel like it’s my duty to do the most that I can with them. I’m still trying to figure out how.”
And father Scott, who loves to take time off and caddie for his son, said: “Part of the challenge for Mav and the thing I worry about most is will he get intellectually bored after three years, trying to spend eight hours a day on the range, playing six-hour rounds and traveling around like a gypsy?”
I am not sure which way the 20-year-old is going to lean, but I am pretty certain Sun Microsystem does not need him over the next few years. He can easily play a few years of professional golf and then get back to business if he doesn’t like it.
There are no doubts about his academic, or golfing, capabilities, but it will be a criminal waste if golf fans are denied the opportunity of enjoying his immense talent.
The Ian Poulter situation with the European Ryder Cup team is really interesting.
Obviously, the talismanic Englishman, holder of the best winning record for Europe in the history of the tournament, has ruled himself out as a player for the showdown at Hazeltine.
Captain Darren Clarke wasted no time in securing his services as one of his vice-captains. There can be no arguments about his Ryder Cup credentials, but Poulter has struggled with his form lately. In fact, his last win was way back in 2012, at the WGC HSBC Champions.
Since finishing second at the 2013 Turkish Open, he has had only two third place finishes in the last two years. He has dropped to No. 86 in the world.
But Match Play is a completely different ballgame, and there is every possibility Poulter would have come alive seeing the Americans on the other side.
There was a lot of debate whether he’d be a good or a bad choice as one of the wildcard picks for Clarke. Thankfully, the captain has been saved a lot of thinking.
Joost Luiten, posted video of two hilarious techniques with new putters – the first one with a ladder around his neck (no kidding!), and the second with a vacuum cleaner. It has become viral on social media. Check out his twitter handle @joostluiten.