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On Tuesday we took a look at the gruelling challenge which Oakmont will present to the players this week and if you didn’t take our word for it, here’s what the champion from the 1994 US Open held at Oakmont, Ernie Else has to say about the test ahead:
"This is going to test the boys this week, I promise you. Of the four rounds you're going to play, at least one - maybe two - is going to be a survival test.”
The long length, the brutal rough and the steep sloping greens are not for the faint-hearted and many players really needed bother teeing up on Thursday as the daunting task that awaits will have beaten a lot of them before they have struck their first ball.
"Attitude is huge,” pre-tournament favourite Jason Day said. “You have to come in with a positive attitude, regardless of what the outcome is. If you're going to have a bad attitude, you may as well not even tee it up because you probably won't play good anyway. That's just one less person you have to worry about at the end of the week."
The roll call of previous winners at Oakmont includes Ben Hogan, Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Ernie Els and Angel Cabrera – all multiple major winners clinching five of the eight editions held at Oakmont – while Bobby Jones won the US Amateur at this course; added to the glittering roll call of winners at golf’s ‘toughest test’ are Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen who both triumphed in the US PGA Championship here.
It is highly likely that the demanding challenge of Oakmont will ensure that the eventual winner will be a top player in good form, a fact Rory McIlroy also believes: "I would expect the more established players and those up near the top of the world rankings to do well this week, because it is a golf course that can separate the players that are playing well from the players that are just slightly off their games.”
That will help us whittle down the list of possible contenders and we’re going to start our analysis of them with the world number one, Jason Day (13/2). With seven victories from his last 18 starts, including his first major at last August’s US PGA Championship and the Players’ Championship last month, the world number one is a justifiable favourite to cement his status as the world’s top player. The Australian has a stellar record in this event with his form-line reading a highly impressive 2-T59-T2-T4-T9 in just five starts.
Oakmont’s lightning quick greens will kill off many a challenge but Day’s skill with the short stick surely means his bid for the trophy won’t crumble there. Day’s length off the tee will give him an advantage but his only weakness, a sometimes lack of accuracy off the tee, could be what scuppers his chances. Oakmont’s narrow fairways and penal rough will pose an issue for Day if he is wayward but if he keeps it relatively straight then he could be the man to beat.
Second in the betting is Rory McIlroy (7/1), who comes into this event in fine form, his commanding win at the Irish Open and fourth place at the Memorial – which saw him produce some cracking putting stats – meaning he merits serious contention. Despite winning by eight shots at a rain-soaked Congressional in 2011, the Northern Irishman has a poor record at the US Open, with his form-line reading T10-CUT-1-CUT-T41-T23-T9.
The US Open, and particularly this staging at Oakmont, will be won by the player who shows the most patience and grinds out a good score on the ‘survival’ days and this is not something we yet associate with the 27-year-old. The severity of the greens would also be expected to eventually expose his only real weakness, his putting, but if he drives like he did when winning back-to-back majors in 2014, McIlroy will have such an advantage on this track that he will take some stopping and a nagging feeling that this will be the case persists.
Defending champion Jordan Spieth (9/1) completes the so-called ‘Big Three’ and like the other two, he will fancy his chances of finishing top of the pile. Considering his back-nine meltdown at Augusta which saw him blow his opportunity of clinching back-to-back green jackets, the fact that many will tip the Texan to triumph on Sunday pays testimony to his mental toughness and ability to get around any course in a low score.
The 22-year-old almost blew his chances with a double bogey on 17 at Chambers Bay before his birdie on the par-five 18 ensured he won by a single stroke after Dustin Johnson’s final green disaster. While Spieth’s genius putting should see him handle Oakmont’s lightning quick greens as well as anyone, his relative shortness off the tee could mean he is firing in lower-numbered clubs than his rivals and these greens really leave little room for error. His win at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational three weeks ago however, showed he has bounced back well after Augusta and he can’t be ruled out here.
The next rung of contenders features Dustin Johnson (16/1), Justin Rose (25/1), Rickie Fowler (25/1), Adam Scott (28/1), Henrik Stenson (28/1) and Phil Mickelson (28/1). While I would like nothing more than to see Lefty complete his personal major grand slam, and despite his six runners-up here and a second place finish last weekend, his missed cuts at The Players’ and The Masters this campaign tell me more about his chances here and Oakmont will be too tough a test for the man who turns 46 on Thursday.
When one tots up the number of times Dusty has blown big tournaments at the death – including at last year’s edition when this column tipped him to win – his 16/1 price doesn’t appear too generous while we are happy to rule Stenson out who was only one top-five at the US Open in nine visits, including a missed cut at Oakmont in 2007.
Fowler’s three missed cut in his last five tournaments, including at Augusta and at Sawgrass, would hint he is not in the form to tackle this course head-on. However, it would be foolish to dismiss Scott and Rose without long consideration. The former has earned consecutive top-10s at this event and has been building – a 55th place finish at the Dean & DeLuca aside – some nice form while 2013 champion Rose’s 10th and 13th at Augusta and The Players’ respectively confirm he has found the knack of producing close to his best golf on the big stage. With two other top-10s in this event, including one at Oakmont in 2007, the Englishman is certainly not without his chances.
Two players who came to prominence at the US Open are Brooks Koepka (45/1) and Branden Grace (45/1). The former was tied-fourth two years ago at just his second appearance in the tournament and followed it up with a tied-18th last year. Koepka added two top-10s in majors last season to confirm the 26-year-old as a player who could potentially win big torunaments. Back-to-back second place finishes in his last two outings mean Koepka will be confident heading to Oakmont and it is a price which appeals.
Grace meanwhile started as a triple-figure price at Chambers Bay but could have won until he fired out-of-bounds on 16. The South African followed it up with third at the US PGA and his victory at the Heritage and ninth at Texas in April point towards a man at home on the PGA Tour. The 28-year-old however, was 57th in his last outing but it would be rash to let that put you off backing him.
2014 champion Martin Kaymer is a player whose price of 60/1 is attractive. The German ran away with the event two years ago and also has a tied-8th and tied-15 in his last six appearances. While his form-line in the US – 18-49-41-39 – doesn’t command attention, he finished fifth in the Irish Open and seventh at Wentworth and the two-time major winner has the driving, the patience and the putting to conquer Oakmont.
With a win in 2003 and a couple of near misses, Jim Furyk (66/1) will attract support while Matt Kuchar (35/1) is bang in form but, to these eyes at least, doesn’t convince he’ll win a major.
Graeme McDowell (80/1) is a past champion but has struggled for consistent form over the last two years. Although the Northern Irishman has improved slightly this term, his missed cut at St. Jude’s last week, and at The Heritage and at Augusta in April, means we can rule him out.
Shane Lowry (80/1) meanwhile, hinted at his elevated status after winning the WGC Bridgestone last August, with good showings at Augusta and Sawgrass recently and his ninth place at Chambers Bay last year is an example of his improved showings in the biggest events. The popular Offaly man will attract a lot of support from Ireland and he certainly isn’t without his chances.
Similar to Angel Cabrera in 2007, Marc Leishman (80/1) has posted some major results which hint that he could make the breakthrough at Oakmont. When winning his first major in 2007 here, Cabrera was a long shot but he had served notice of his potential with two top-10s in majors the previous campaign. Leishman’s three top-fives in his last 10 major starts point to a player who is close to winning a big one and although his record at this event – a tied-51 his best result – does not inspire confidence, his 13th at Dean & DeLuca and 11th at the Memorial are signs he is reaching peak form.
Billy Horschel (70/1) is another player who some will feel can make his breakthrough here. The 2014 FedEx champion went off the boil last season but his recent finishes of 4-36-28 and his 17th at Augusta are encouraging. This straight-hitter was fourth behind Rose in 2013 and could surprise with a high finish here.
With this event producing some very high-priced players finishing in the places in the last few years, it could be worth a couple of quid on the real long shots with Kevin Kisner (100/1), Keegan Bradley (150/1) and Chris Kirk (150/1) presenting decent cases.
Oakmont is sure to produce such a difficult test that it will be won by a truly top class player, whether that is an existing one such as Day or a possible future one such as Koepka. The four days will be a tough grind with patience an absolute imperative. It’s golf for the purists and I for one cannot wait.
To win: McIlroy
Each-way: Koepka, Kaymer, Leishman
All prices correct at time of writing