Here comes the US Open, golf’s so-called toughest major and the only one of the sport’s four biggest events about which it can be said before a ball is struck that two-thirds of the field have no chance of winning.
It’s fairly easy to spot the no-hopers but it’s even easier to hear them, whining in the wind, bitching as they trudge through brutal rough, talking themselves on to the first plane out of town on a Friday night.
In 1974 Hale Irwin shot seven-over par to win the US Open, a tournament that was immediately written into history under the chapter heading “The Massacre at Winged Foot”.
Here’s what Irwin has to say about the run-up to that tournament:
By Tuesday, 70 per cent of the field had given up. All I have to do is beat 30 per cent.
It is a simple enough lesson but 41 years later it is still to be absorbed by the brotherhood of pampered, put-upon souls, also known as world-class golf professionals.
On the eve of this year’s US Open at Chambers Bay, 45 miles south of Seattle – that low moaning sound you hear in the distance is not from the engines of private jets as they land at the nearest airfield, it is from the passengers inside.
The problem, is Chambers Bay.
— U.S. Open (USGA) (@usopengolf) June 15, 2015
Not that it in any way resembles Winged Foot in 1974 or any of the US Open venues since, all of which have been high on rough, narrow on fairways and murderous on the psyche of most of those who played them.
Chambers Bay is a different kind of US Open venue. Radically different, by which I mean it looks like it has been transplanted from the west of Ireland. Think of it as a star-spangled Lahinch.
Unlike your typical US Open course, the rough is as thin and wispy, and the fairways are runway wide. The green are fast and roll like Pacific coast waves.
Ryan Palmer (above) when asked for his assessment after a recent scouting trip there said:
Put a quarter in the machine and go for a ride.
This might be the most memorable thing Mr Palmer has ever said. It was also the starting gun for much locker-room complaining. Ian Poulter rather give the game away, saying he’d been told by other pros who had been to the course that it was a “farce”. Oops.
Winner takes it all
Golf nerds can start arguing about whether not the choice of Chambers Bay as a US Open venue is a “farce” or a bold and innovative choice by the USGA. But we are not here to do that, we are here to identify potential winners or the definite non-winners. Hale Irwin’s infamous 70 per cent.
Poor Ryan Palmer falls into that group, surely, and so do those who have written the course off as a farce, albeit in the privacy of the locker room. As for public utterances – the trick is to look for code words; “challenging”, “different”, “unusual”, “tricky”.
Tiger Woods, (above) after visiting the site last week, was heard to use the word ‘interesting’, which veteran Tiger observers would argue suggests he isn’t a fan. Not that admiration for the course (or lack thereof) matters much in Woods’ case. His recent form has been such that making the cut will be the limit of his hopes.
As for those who travel to Chambers Bay with greater ambition, they must first arrive with a determination to embrace the challenges and the quirks. This is not a place for the emotionally fragile or the easily frustrated.
Blowing in the wind
A creative genius like Bubba Watson might seem perfectly suited for the venue but how will be respond when the ball bounces unfairly (as it undoubtedly will).
Likewise, previous champ Rory McIlroy, (above) who despite his Open Championship victory around the links at Royal Liverpool last summer, has never looked entirely comfortable in the wind.
Still, it would be a bold judge who would dismissed the world No 1’s chances. Far better to concentrate on players who have proved themselves temperamentally stable, as well as supremely gifted.
Phil Mickelson (above) has always played with a smile, regardless of circumstance. He will be the crowd favourite this week and the cognoscenti’s pick, not least because of his his third place finish in Memphis last weekend.
He matches Bubba for talent and creative and out-duels him easily when it comes to temperament. This might be his last and best chance to complete the career grand slam.
Expect him to contend, bank on him finishing inside the top five.
Yet if the heart calls for the big lefty to win, the head is tempted towards a younger generation of American players, a European who is generally overlooked when the conversation turns to Majors and a legendary South African.
Jordan Spieth, the World No 2 will be the choice of many, as befits a player who won the US Masters so convincingly. He has earned the right to be fancied. But does he has the game to meet the challenge of this big, bold links course?
Three and in
The same question can be asked of my three choices and answered in the affirmative.
Sergio Garcia (35/1) has never won a Major, but has shown the requisite skills. If he can maintain his composure then he has a chance.
Ernie Els (200/1) needs no introduction. He has won a pair of US Opens and a couple of Claret Jugs. He can play in the wind, as he has proved time and time again. He might not putt like he once did but for the moment at least he believes he can. Both these veterans would be worthy and popular winners.
But if you are looking for the most likely winner of all, look no further than Rickie Fowler (18/1), (above) whose recent victory at the Players Championship elevated him from over-rated clotheshorse to serious contender.
Like Mickelson he plays with a smile. He is a creative shotmaker and, bizarrely for kid who grew up in Southern California, he loves to play in the wind. When things go wrong, he is the last man on the course to throw a club or curse his bad luck.
Fowler has the game for Chambers Bay. More than that, he has the mind. The steady, unflappable mind of a US Open champion ready to claim his prize.
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