Last Monday I played a practice round at Oakmont Country Club, site of the 2007 U.S. Open, with a player I coach, Paul Casey. A lot of other pros were out there too, including Tiger Woods, Ian Poulter, Adam Scott and the defending U.S. Open champion, Geoff Ogilvy.
With the removal of more than 4,000 trees, Oakmont is wide open and fair, and even though it's just outside Pittsburgh, the course really looks and feels like the Scottish links courses that inspired it. Oh yeah, I also think it's going to play a lot harder than Winged Foot did last year.
The thick, deep rough and Church Pew bunkers will get all the attention, but Oakmont is all about the greens. It's a "second shot" golf course, meaning that you must put the ball in the proper spot on the green if you want to give yourself a realistic chance at birdie. Our wonderful local caddies showed Paul and me some crazy putts and rolls.
"You have to be here," they said on numerous greens, "otherwise you're toast."
Oakmont members boast about Stimpmeter readings that reach 15, so if you put yourself in the wrong place on these greens, the reading would be at least 45.
Assuming conditions stay fairly dry, length should not be an issue, but the course favors players who can shape their shots. After playing the course Monday, I realized why Tiger Woods was hitting so many draws and fades at Memorial he was tuning up for Oakmont.
Maybe the biggest key to the week will be who can control wedge shots from between 80 and 120 yards out that's the distance many players will leave themselves when they have to pitch out from the rough. Everyone will miss some fairways, but the players who can get up and down from that distance will stay in contention.
The USGA's reputation precedes it, and the pros arriving at Oakmont expect a course that goes right to the edge of fairness. Mark Kuhns, the grounds superintendent, and the rest of the staff at Oakmont should be commended for getting the course in such incredible condition. But if the USGA officials do not pay close attention to the greens, they could easily lose control of the course as they did at Shinnecock Hills in 2004. But with so much media attention on it, I doubt things will get out of hand.
As the saying goes, "There are horses for courses." So here are my thoughts on many of the players who will be widely talked about during the U.S. Open.
Tiger Woods The question is: Can Tiger hit the fairway, and will his putting be on or not? He loves to play old school, and no one shapes iron shots better than Tiger, so that's a big advantage. If he hits fairways and putts decently, he's your winner.
Phil Mickelson This is not the kind of course, or tournament, you'd want to play if you were thinking about swing mechanics. If Phil uses his right brain and takes advantage of his feel and creativity, he can redeem himself after Winged Foot. But he's got to be prudent and hold to the game plan that he conceived with Butch Harmon, Dave Pelz and Jim McKay.
Jim Furyk I think this guy is a real threat if Tiger is a little off his game. Oakmont rewards the plodder, the patient player, the guy who hits fairways and greens like a machine. Furyk, who leads the PGA Tour in driving accuracy, does that, and he's a heck of a good putter too. His game is perfectly suited to U.S. Opens (he won at Olympia Fields in 2003), and being a Pennsylvania guy, he'll have plenty of support out there.
Vijay Singh The big man from Fiji is very close to playing some very good golf, but Vijay has been playing a lot of full-swing, hard-hitting shots lately, and Oakmont will not allow that. There are just too many awkward lies in the fairways. If Vijay can play the half- and three-quarter-swing shots well, he will have a chance. That said, I think Oakmont will be more difficult for players who use belly or long putters. Those putters may not give players the touch and creativity that are necessary to handle these greens.
Geoff Ogilvy The defending champion is quietly rounding into form at the right time. Ogilvy loves the course, is long enough and hits it high (which will help him hold the ultra-fast greens). The young Australian always seems to go into big events with the right attitude and won't let the USGA's brutal set up, or a few bogies, get him frazzled. If you think Ogilvy will be "one-and-done" in majors, you're wrong.
Adam Scott He's playing very well, but I wonder if Scott can hit the partial shots, the finesse shots, necessary to win on this type of course. The bottom line: He'll do as well as his putter allows.
Sergio Garcia From tee to green, Sergio has the game, and enough imagination, to work the ball into the proper spots, but how will he putt? Will he be able to maintain emotional control? If he can, he'll be there at the end.
Luke Donald More than almost any other player, the Englishman has the classic game for this course. Luke has enough length for Oakmont and has a wonderful demeanor that is tailor made for U.S. Opens. He's not a gambler, but he will take advantage of what the course offers, and he won't make many mistakes.
Retief Goosen As good as his swing is, and that's very good, the Goose's best weapon is his mind. You can't win two U.S. Opens without being able to maintain your composure, but he'll need to putt like he did at Shinnecock Hills if he's going to win.
Paul Casey My guy had the low final 54 holes in last year's U.S. Open and this year's Masters. He needs to get off to a better start. If he does, look out.
Padraig Harrington The slow pace of play could be an advantage for Harrington, who's notorious for his methodical approach to courses. However, he tends to play well on flatter courses, which Oakmont is not.
Henrik Stenson Another world class player who is very measured and methodical. At Oakmont, I think players will need to use a lot of feel around the course, but clearly Stenson has all the shots.
Ernie Els I think Els is struggling right now. Sure, he won at Oakmont in 1994, but I think he has lost confidence in his full swing, and he just switched to a cross-handed putting grip at The Memorial. The Big Easy is not on my list of Top Picks.
Rory Sabbatini This is not a course that can be over-powered, so Sabbatini will need to adjust his style at the U.S. Open. He can't challenge this course like he did Colonial. As someone who prefers to play fast and wear his emotions on his sleeve, I think he may not be patient enough to contend.
My 2 cents
I am all for growing the game, and I understand that moving the U.S. Open our country's national championship from region to region helps do that. But if I ran the USGA, I'd develop a golf complex that would be the permanent home for ALL USGA national championships. Why not build a complex that had a course for the men's U.S. Open, a second course for the women's U.S. Open, a third for the U.S. Senior Open and a fourth for junior, amateur and other events?
Not only would this end the yearly griping about how the courses are set up, but the USGA would also earn a lot of revenue from people who'd come to play those courses. The USGA could then design courses from the beginning to fairly test the best players in the world, and it could stop modifying great courses with ridiculous fairway cuts and par 5s converted into par 4s.