All along this 115th U.S. Open has been one for the dreamers. Only a dreamer could have envisioned beautiful Chambers Bay while surveying the ugly sand and gravel mine that it once was. Only a dreamer could have seen the course receiving the U.S. Open so shortly after it opened in 2007.
But could the tournament also get a dream winner?
“Phil Mickelson has a really good chance of hoisting a U.S. Open trophy,” Greg Norman, Fox’s lead analyst, said in a conference call with reporters last week. “Chambers Bay will suit him.”
“On paper,” says Jay Blasi, the main field architect on Chambers Bay under Robert Trent Jones Jr., “if you write down a list of traits—the golf course is quite long, and favors someone with an imaginative short game—it certainly sounds like Phil.”
Says two-time U.S. Open winner Curtis Strange, “The course has wider fairways, which is good for him, and it takes a lot of imagination into and around the greens, which is also good for him. I kind of like him.”
Merion. Pinehurst. Now Chambers Bay. It’s almost as if USGA executive director Mike Davis keeps trying to come up with ever-Phil friendlier layouts. Soon Davis will be petitioning to have a U.S. Open at Augusta National.
Chambers itself has hogged most of the headlines so far, but there are many cool stories. It will be the first U.S. Open played in the Pacific Northwest, the first played on all fescue grass and the first broadcasted by Fox.
Cole Hammer, 15, will become the third youngest player to tee it up in the national championship. Tiger Woods, 39, is looking older than ever after stumbling to a third-round 85 in his last start, at the Memorial. Rory McIlroy is trying to rebound from two straight missed cuts on the Euro tour. Jordan Spieth shot 83 the last time he toured Chambers. (Granted, he was only 16 as he played the 2010 U.S. Amateur, but still...) Bubba Watson has been quiet of late. And Rickie Fowler couldn’t possibly win the Players Championship and the U.S. Open in the same year. Could he?
Inevitably, though, we come back to Phil, who turned 45 on Tuesday and has collected a record six runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open. (The last man in his 40s to win the tournament, Payne Stewart in 1999, beat Mickelson by a shot at Pinehurst.) A breakthrough victory in his 25th U.S. Open start would make Lefty just the sixth player to win the career grand slam, after Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods.
Mickelson hasn’t won since the 2013 British Open, making this the longest drought of his career, but things are looking up. At the FedEx St. Jude Classic on Sunday, he rolled in a 25-foot putt on 18 for the last of his eight birdies, completing a final-round 65 that left him tied for third. You could almost hear the imaginations running wild on living-room sofas across the land: Phil was trending up as he headed to the event that has tormented him most.
Chambers features dramatic elevation changes, wildly undulating greens and just one tree, a fir that stands behind the green at the 15th hole, which at 246 yards will be the sixth-longest par-3 in U.S. Open history. It also will boast the four longest par-4s in Open history: the 546-yard 14th hole, the 537-yard 11th, the 534-yard 13th and the 525-yard 18th, which will also play as a par-5. (The 1st hole also can play as a par- 4 or a par-5.)
“The ground is firm,” Mickelson says. “Typical British Open style shots around the greens. That fescue grass gets firm, tight lies.”
Mickelson scouted Chambers late last month and likens the course to St. Andrews. The first time you play either one, he says, you are presented with a confounding jumble of humps and hollows that move the ball hither and thither. Then you play it again and you begin to learn.
“It’s a special course in that there’s a lot of different ways to play shots to a lot of different pins,” Mickelson says of Chambers, “and if you play the highest percentage shot, it’s not a hard golf course. But if you don’t know what that shot is, you play the wrong one, there’s a lot of penalty.”
Mickelson suffered “a lot of penalty” at Shinnecock in 2004, and with his Winged Foot nightmare in ’06, and at Merion two years ago, and, well, you get the idea. His age and/or psoriatic arthritis seem to have made him even more unpredictable recently. After his T-2 at Augusta he missed the cut at the Players, tied for fourth at the Wells Fargo and shot 78-75 on the weekend to drop to 65th at the Memorial. Then came last weekend’s bounce-back.
Having finished second to Spieth (by four) at this year’s Masters, and to McIlroy (by one) at the 2014 PGA Championship, Mickelson has been consistently solid in the last two majors. He rallies when it counts.
So maybe this year he’ll avoid calamity. Maybe this year things will finally fall Phil’s way, and his long-running U.S. Open dream spares us the ghoulish ending. There’s a first time for everything, right? Right?
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