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Having drifted from their usual US Open path in recent years, the United States Golf Association (USGA) has sent golf’s toughest major back to a traditional tournament set-up; deep thick rough, narrow fairways and an extremely long layout is once again the order of the day. Add in the severely sloping greens and you have a beast of a course for the players to contend with, none other than Oakmont.
The last three editions of golf’s second major of the season were held at the classic courses of Merion and Pinehurst No. 2, while Jordan Spieth took advantage of Dustin Johnson’s final green disaster to triumph in 2015 at the links-style Chambers Bay; all tough courses no doubt but Oakmont is on a different level altogether and there are sure to be many players teeing up on Thursday dreading the potential horrors which await them.
Generally ranked among the three most difficult tracks on the planet – Pine Valley and Winged Foot are the other two, since you asked – Oakmont will pose a challenge as tricky as any with accuracy and length off the tee going to be essential components’ of the leading contenders’ game this week.
Patience and precision will be rewarded while waywardness and indiscipline, particularly off the tee, will be punished mercilessly by the rough, rough which will be up to eight inches in places. But it’s not just accuracy off the tee that is essential; even if an approach lands on the dancefloor, such is the speed and complexity of the greens that finding the wrong part of them can easily lead to a dropped shot or two. The great Arnold Palmer put it best when he said of Oakmont’s greens that "You can hit 72 greens (in regulation) in the Open at Oakmont and not come close to winning."
With such a premium put on quality putting by Oakmont, Spieth immediately springs to mind as a potential champion but such is the intricacy of the greens that putts to hole birdies are going to be rare and the winner will be the one who successfully two-putts the most, avoiding three-putting from 25-30 feet. This perhaps negates Spieth’s main advantage of sinking clutch putts from inside 20 feet, a skill that his fellow “Big Three” members Rory McIlroy and, to a lesser extent, Jason Day do not possess to a similar level.
However, should McIlroy bring his best driving game, the kind which saw him laser-guide his tee shots to win back-to-back majors two years ago at the Open Championship and US PGA, he will have a big advantage over Spieth in terms of length and will be firing in approaches with a much higher numbered club. Day on the other hand, can drive as long as the Northern Irishman but can sometimes struggle when combining it with accuracy; at Oakmont the last place a player will want to be is landing in the deep stuff either side of the narrow fairways.
After the experience of the last three years at untypical US Open courses, viewers will have to get used to the sight of disgruntled players attempting to hack their ball sideways out of thick rough; many enjoy that masochistic side to golf’s ‘toughest test’ and those looking for a birdie blitz of any kind are going to be left disappointed.
However, Oakmont has the distinguished history of usually leaving one of the world’s greatest golfers standing tallest on Sunday evening with Ben Hogan, Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Ernie Els and Angel Cabrera – all of them multiple major winners – victorious at US Opens at this famous track while Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead both triumphed when the US PGA Championship was held there. If that roll call of past champions wasn’t glittering enough, the US Amateur also took place at Oakmont and the man who won was the great Bobby Jones.
Staging its ninth US Open, a record for the event, Oakmont has no water and few trees; in fact since its last event in 2007, another 7,500 trees have been removed meaning that from the clubhouse it is now possible to see some portion of each hole. While this may give the impression that the dangers of finding the trees has been taken away, on the flip side where previously the trees emphasised some of the lurking risks such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike – which separates holes two to eight from the remainder of the course – are now hardly noticeable until your ball lands in them and therefore present a hidden peril.
The severity of the test awaiting the best golfers in the world can be testified by the fact that Cabrera won here with a score of +5 in ’07, a single shot ahead of Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk while multiple major winners Ernie Els and Zach Johnson finished their four days’ play on +21 and +20 respectively; notable absentees for the weekend included Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson who both missed the cut.
Els, of course, famously won his first major title at Oakmont in 1994 when he saw off Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts in a play-off; Els and Roberts signed for rounds of 74 to eliminate Montgomerie before Els finally won on the second hole of sudden death. Victories at Oakmont never come without an almighty effort expended.
So who will win this ninth edition of the US Open at the famous old brute of a course? Will one of the fabled Big Three triumph? Tomorrow we’ll whittle the runners and riders down to the small handful who have what it take to successfully tackle Oakmont.
By Cian O'Callaghan