Wednesday, June 11, 2008

US Open Preview

The last time a U.S. Open was held on the West Coast Tiger Woods eviscerated the field and streaked to an unprecedented 15 shot victory. Thus began the “Tiger-Slam”, one of the most dominant sequences of success in the history of modern sport. On the face of it we could very well witness another such annihilation this week at Torrey Pines. The world number one’s track record here is characteristically superb: in the 11 times he has teed it up here he has left with winner’s cheque and trophy in hand on no fewer than six occasions. The rest of the field shouldn’t pack their bags just yet however. Woods is coming off a long layoff whilst recuperating from knee surgery and had it not been for the US Open would surely have given himself more time to ease back into competitive golf. As it is, he is thrusting himself directly back into the deep end. After all, the man for whom triumphing at golf’s major events has become an obsession isn’t about to pass up an opportunity to inch closer to Nicklaus’ tally at a course he has virtually owned for a decade.

One imagines that many of the game’s big names are cursing the fact that golf is typically a non-contact sport (Even Woody Austin’s not infrequent moments of self abuse are a thing of the past). A dodgy knee could be nicely exposed by a Mickelson ankle-tap or a Vijay jab were this rugby or football, but Tiger need have little fear on that front so long as Phil can keep his frustrations in check. What might concern him more is the memory of the difficulty he had overcoming surgery on that same troublesome knee five years ago. Though the procedure was in December 2002, Woods’ results in the majors the following year were far below what one would expect from a fit and firing Tiger: The Masters saw him finishing 9 shots off the pace, whilst he was 11 behind Jim Furyk at the US Open. A fifth place finish at the open behind Ben Curtis was followed by a PGA in which he finished 16 behind Shaun Micheel to cap off his most disappointing year this decade. That his knee was bothering him was obvious. As if to reinforce the point that knee injuries take a long time to heal, Ernie Els went three years without winning a PGA Tour event after damaging his in a boating accident in 2005. Furthermore, as Woods only played his first round of golf since the Masters on Wednesday, and that with the aid of a cart, one imagines that he is bound to be at least a little rusty. So for once, Tiger is something of an unknown quantity. Were he anyone else his chances of winning would be slim. But then he is Tiger Woods.

Phil Mickelson, with whom Tiger is paired for the opening two rounds, is naturally the other name being bandied about as a likely champion. With 3 wins around Torrey Pines to boast of himself, Mickelson must like his chances playing in his own backyard especially considering his majestic performance at Colonial two weeks ago. Furthermore, Mickelson can expect boisterous support from hometown galleries who will be looking to cheer on the man who has established a persona as the people’s hero on a public golf course, as was the case at Bethpage Black back in 2002. Nonetheless, the media’s virtually exclusive focus upon the world’s number one and two is perhaps misguided. After all, this isn’t tennis: other competitors do have a chance. In fact, a world top-ten ranked player hasn’t triumphed at the US Open since Retief Goosen won his second in 2004. Of the world’s top ranked players, only Mickelson has any real current form to speak of, and thus this trend has every chance of continuing this year. Look for consistent rather than spectacular performers such as Boo Weekley and Stewart Cink to contend this week.

One of the problems with a major being hosted at a course where the PGA road-show stops every year anyway is that it deprives the viewer of the excitement one usually feels at the prospect of witnessing wall to wall coverage of a great layout to which they are typically underexposed. Courses such as Shinnecock Hills, Bethpage Black and Winged Foot remain largely unexplored mysteries as they are rarely paraded before the world more than once a decade. Pebble Beach can overcome this problem simply because it is such a fantastic venue. Torrey Pines may struggle more to capture the imagination of a familiar golfing public. True, spectacular Pacific views furnish the South Course with panoramic vistas of which one is unlikely ever to tire, but unlike at Pebble the craggy cliffs and booming surf play little role in actually defining the layout itself. Indeed, the design has in the past been accused of being somewhat uninspired and it will be interesting to see how the course holds up to the harsher spotlight of a major championship. The South Course is the first venue to host the US Open never to be ranked as one of the top 100 golf courses in America by either Golf Digest or Golf Magazine. By Golf Digest’s reckoning it is only the 90th best public course in the United States. Considering it joins the aforementioned world-renowned Pebble Beach and the superb Olympic Club as Californian US Open sites, one worries that Torrey Pines may well be destined to become the poor cousin of this particular club.

From a player standpoint, we must of course remember that Torrey Pines has been given the USGA treatment ahead of the tournament and will play very differently to what the players are used to facing in the Buick Invitational as a result. Tiger Woods may have shot 19 under par here earlier in the year in waltzing to yet another Buick triumph, but that was before the hair-raising gentlemen from the USGA got their hands on it. According to Mike Davis, the man who has taken over from the ever-controversial Tom Meeks as the organisation’s Senior Director of Rules and Competitions, the USGA wants a “very stern test of golf.” In other words, the line shall again be toed between difficult and unfair. We all remember the debacle at Shinnecock Hills in 2004 where a great course was turned into a farce as a result of over-zealous preparation. Since then the USGA has stepped back from the brink and has managed to by and large to produce tough but fair examination papers in which even the most pampered of PGA starts have found nothing to object about. That said, still expect lightning-fast greens, knee high rough and holes cut on the side of slopes. The course will be playing to an attention grabbing 7643 yards par 71 with greens running at a projected 13.5 on the stimp-meter. Two par fours have been stretched past the 500-yard mark, a number no longer taboo to administrators attempting to counteract 330 yard drives. Nonetheless, the 515 yard par four sixth does smack a little of the absurd. With two par threes playing in excess of 220 yards and the ninth stretching to 612, one imagines the field resignedly dusting off their rarely used long irons on the practice ground in preparation for this gruelling track. If the weather is unkind then we could see another astronomical winning total. So long as Torrey Pines provides the same kind of excitement as Winged Foot and Oakmont has done in the previous two years, most fans will scarcely care.

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