Visiting the moon is nice but there’s nothing like coming home to good old Mother Earth, which brings us to the second Major championship of the 2016 season. After a two-year odyssey across the burned-out extraterrestrial landscapes of Pinehurst No. 2 and Chambers Bay, the US Open lands this week with a familiar thud at Oakmont Country Club, a golf course on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Oakmont CC is what the traditionalists like to call a “traditional” US Open venue. It is a blue-collar club with a red-blooded course. Rugged as Pittsburg itself.
The bunkers are vicious, the rough is vicious, the greens are vicious. It is a tough, tough place.
How tough? When Oakmont opened for business in 1903 it opened as a par 80. The par for this week’s US Open will be 70 but, as the US Golf Association and the greens committee at Oakmont have never said, par is just a number, right?
Suffice to say, no-one – absolutely no-one – will be picking Oakmont apart.
The winner will not be -10, he will be the last man standing. The question, as ever, is who will he be the last man standing?
Looking back over history of USGA tournaments held at the venue is like walking through through a hall of statues.
Bobby Jones won the US amateur at Oakmont back in 1925. Sarazen won the PGA Championship three years before that. More recently, the list of winners includes legends (Nicklaus, Snead and Hogan), greats (Ernie Els, Johnny Miller and Patty Sheehan), and the merely brilliant, Larry Nelson and Angel Cabrera, who won the US Open with a score of five-over par when it was last played there in 2007.
But delve a little deeper into that 2007 leaderboard and you will find Jim Furyk, who finished tied for second with Tiger Woods (above looking for his ball at Oakmont), and Aaron Baddeley, a short-hitter who putted like God on his way to the top of the leaderboard before eventually fading.
The point is Oakmont is not a place that unduly favours a particular kind of player. Bombers have done well here and so have relatively short-hitters. Like all truly great major championship venues, the only preference it has is for the very best players, playing at the top of their game.
As we head into this week the obvious has never been more unimaginatively stated than to say there are three players who would fit such a description. After a first half of 2016 in which they have mixed winning performances with strangely mediocre (for them) outings, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy have all won recently. Day at the Players, Spieth at Colonial and McIlroy at the Irish Open.
They have the form. The question is do they have the game?
Spieth won at Chambers Bay but he may be the least suited to win at Oakmont. His strengths as a player revolve around the short game and putting but as the social media outpourings of those players practising at Oakmont over the last few days attest, the rough this week is so thick and juicy that it will mitigate this advantage. Like most, Spieth will be reduced to slash and gouge around the greens. Likewise, the greens – reputedly the fastest in the U.S. – threaten to reduced the massive advantage he has as a putter over, say, McIlroy to merely a slight advantage.
Looked low the whole way… 56 inches of break wasn’t quite enough from 10 feet… Oakmont is for real pic.twitter.com/ktWvaYOY8V
— Patrick Rodgers (@PRodgersGolf) June 13, 2016
Day is similarly talented on and around the greens but, like his rival, his edge may be somewhat blunted. Where the Aussie does have an advantage over the defending champion is off the tee. He is simply longer and, crucially, straighter. Miss a fairway at Oakmont or find a bunker and there is very little chance of an easy escape. Which begs the question – can he find the fairway enough times?
Which brings us to the third member of the troika. McIlroy has already won a US Open on a traditional venue but Congressional back in 2011 was different from this week’s setting. It was less penal and, crucially, wetter, which translates into ‘longer’. The forecast this week is for thunderstorms on Thursday, rain on Friday. This adds up to no fun for the fans but mana from heaven for the Irishman. He is the best driver of the ball in golf and, if his short game isn’t as good then there is no greater encouragement for him than the thought that it’s importance will be lessened this week.
It all adds up to a bold prediction. Day might be the best all-around player in the game right now and Spieth the most indefatigably competitive. But of the big three, McIlroy is the most fancied this week – by me at least. This isn’t to say he will win, of course. There are too many other good players in the field who would qualify as Oakmont-worthy winners.
How about Brooks Koepka, the coming man of American golf, or Justin Rose, who knows what it takes to win a U.S. Open. Hideki Matsuyama has been teetering on the brink of a becoming Japan’s first Major champion for some time now. He is a player very much in the Cabrera mould. Solid, strong, brave. If the formula worked in 2007, it can work in 2016.
Look out, too, the shooting stars of the PGA Tour’s journeymen ranks – players who will flash briefly across the sky before being extinguished by the pressure of winning a U.S. Open.
But look out most of all for Dustin Johnson – a magnificent driver of the ball with a short-game flinch. Oakmont was built with a player like DJ in mind. It matches his DNA, from the opening tee shot to the final putt. He failed at the 72nd hole last year like he has failed a few times before.
But one day he will eventually cross the line. Next Sunday could be his day.