The Answer Man returns after a long sabbatical (at least, that's what his parole officer likes to call it) with snappy answers to your pressing U.S. Open questions.
Question: I heard they cut down all the trees at Oakmont. Why would they do that? Brian Leaf, San Diego
Answer Man: Club officials wanted to get the course back to its original, barren-but-brutal appearance. Which is like me dieting to get back to my original weight 8 pounds, 7 ounces. Some 5,000 trees were felled, secretly in the night at first to prevent a members' revolt. Most of the trees weren't really in play. They were planted by a former grounds committee that wanted to spruce up the place (pardon the pun). Golf's dirty little secret is that as nice as trees are, they inevitably aren't good for the health of the surrounding grass, especially greens and tee boxes. Oakmont looks so much better without the trees, you won't believe it. They won't be missed ... unless it hits 98 degrees like it did during the '94 Open and fans are desperate for whoops shade.
Question: If Oakmont cut down all the trees, will the club get rid of its squirrel logo? Buddy Nutt, Squirrel Hill, Pa.
Answer Man: Yes, I hear the new shield features a chain saw crossed with a golf club.
Question: Winged Foot looked like the hardest course I'd ever seen last year. Is Oakmont going to be as difficult? Carlin Montgomery, Houston
Answer Man: It's the U.S. Open, isn't it? Of course it's going to a miserable bogey-fest survival test. If Oakmont has any wind at all, Winged Foot will seem like a picnic by comparison. This is a course where the members are so choose a word that rhymes with masochistic that they play the course with Open-style conditions year-round. Oakmont has no single disaster hole; it's got 18 of them. Any green can be three- or four-putted, which brings double bogeys into play on a course that has no water hazards. The par-3 8th has been lengthened to 288 yards (they can get it to 300 if the pin is back), and the 1st and 10th holes have unreceptive greens that slope sharply from back to front, making them difficult to hit. Five over par won at Winged Foot last year. I'd take my chances with five over right now at Chokemont ... especially since I'm not in the field.
Question: How come the Golf Channel's U.S. Open commercial mentions every Open champion at Oakmont from the last 50 years except '83 winner Larry Nelson? Laurie Nelson, Alpharetta, Ga.
Answer Man: The excuse I got from a Golf Channel spokesperson was that it was only a 30-second spot and they couldn't squeeze in Larry. Yeah, sure. It's a weak excuse, but at least it's not a blatant lie like Michelle Wie pretending she hurt her wrist and quitting with two holes left so she wouldn't shoot 88. I'll take the Golf Channel's word for this inexcusable slight against Nelson, but I guarantee that if Tom Watson had won the '83 Open, as he nearly did, he would've been in the commercial.
Question: Who's going to win the Open this week? Millie Phickelson, Phoenix
Answer Man: Oakmont will be the only true winner by Sunday night. No one else will be standing.
Question: What kind of a weasel non-answer is that? Aren't you going to pick a winner? Kay McBones, Phoenix
Answer Man: Oakmont brings out the best. Past winners were generally the best players at the time: Nicklaus, Hogan, Miller. Even Nelson, tee to green, was as good as anyone in the game, and he barely edged Watson, who was the best player in '83. That makes Tiger Woods the obvious pick. But he's been struggling with his driver, and that could prove costly in Oakmont's rough. A straight driver who putts great could do well, like Loren Roberts in '94. I think Steve Stricker could be the Loren of 2007, so I'm taking him. It's never wise to bet against Tiger, but it's getting old picking him in every major.
Question: What would Michelle Wie shoot if she played in the Open this week? Annika Scorenspam, Lake Tahoe, Nev.
Answer Man: She'd shoot 67. Then she'd walk in after the 13th hole because "her wrists hurt."
Question: Phil Mickelson has to be haunted after his colossal flop at Winged Foot last year. I see he's working with Butch Harmon to straighten out his tee shots. I don't care if he's working with Ben Hogan himself. Phil's never going to win the Open, is he? Rick Smythe, Ishpeming, Mich.
Answer Man: Surely you jest, Rick, and stop calling me Shirley. I don't think Phil is haunted by the Winged Foot fiasco at all, except by us media scum who keep bringing it up. Sure, Phil knows he totally blew the Open. But I think his self-confidence is such that he figures, "Well, I guess I'll only win three Opens in my career instead of four." And if Phil is going to drive it better (and he is driving it better, otherwise he wouldn't have won the Players), he should maybe be the favorite. The guy is tied with Sam Snead for runner-up Open finishes with four, and that's B.B. (Before Butch). Phil is a slow learner. But he learns.
Question: Whatever happened to Ernie Els, who won the '94 Open but hasn't done much lately? Does he have a third Open title in him? Ernest Theodore, Johannesburg
Answer Man: My heart says yes, but my head says no. Ernie probably came back too soon after a serious knee injury, and it affected his swing. He's been trying to correct that, and then he began battling his putter. He's made good progress but hasn't been able to put together 72 holes. That said, he probably would've won at Harbour Town if Boo Weekley hadn't chipped in on the last two holes. Ernie had a length advantage off the tee early in his career, but now he's just above average. It's tougher for him to win. Plus, if Tiger wasn't around, Ernie would probably have six or seven major titles. It was a big blow losing the British Open to Todd Hamilton, but Ernie isn't even 40 yet. He has plenty of time to push himself back to the top.
Question: I've got tickets for Oakmont. Any spectating advice? Davy Fay, Far Side, N.J.
Answer Man: Yeah, if you're going to follow Tiger or Phil, don't bother watching them play the first hole. Go right to No. 2 and beat the crowd over the spectator walkway that crosses the Pennsylvania Turnpike. In '94, it often took me 20 or 30 minutes to get across when I followed a player with a sizable gallery. They built a second one, but that doesn't give me confidence the pedestrian jams are going to be any smaller. Of course, if you can make it across the Hulton Bridge to get to Oakmont, you can do anything.
Question: Do you have a dark-horse pick for the Open? Mr. Ed, Burbank
Answer Man: This may sound crazy, but Woody Austin, who just won in Memphis, reminds me of Larry Nelson. He's a sweet ballstriker who isn't always comfortable on the greens. But when he finds his putting stroke, as he did Sunday, he is dangerous. But, it's hard to believe his nerves would hold up. I also like the big-hitting, low-scoring Anthony Kim, who holed a bunker shot to stay alive in a playoff for the last qualifying spot, which he went on to win. I believe he's a star in the making.
Question: I hear you've played Oakmont half a dozen times. Ever broken 80? Ty Tannic, New York
Answer Man: Sure. I've actually been in the low- to mid-70s a couple of times.
Question: Was that from the tips, or did you move up and play the equivalent of the ladies' tees? Michele Us, Honolulu
Answer Man: Sorry, Michele, um, my time here is up. I'll get back to you.