We convened a special U.S. Open Champions Confidential roundtable of former U.S. Open champions like Ray Floyd, Tom Kite, Andy North and others to talk about this year's tournament, the belly putter ban and more. Special thanks to these gracious champions for their time. We hope you enjoy it.
1. How do you think Merion will hold up with so many long players on Tour and the weather potentially being a factor?
Raymond Floyd, 1986 (Shinnecock) champion: I’m afraid it won’t. I’m afraid it won’t hold up. I just don’t see how a golf course that short by today’s standards of Tour players can hold up. It would have to be tricked up, and the fairways mowed into nothing. If they went two or three weeks without rain, it might have a chance. But I just don’t see it holding up. Unless they go two or three weeks without rain, getting sun and dry weather, I would see the scoring record broken for a U.S. Open.
Andy North, 1978 (Cherry Hills) and 1985 (Oakland Hills) champion: I think the most important thing is if they get lucky enough and have it dry the next few days. If they can dodge the rain and have it warm, maybe get a little breeze, by Thursday they might can get the golf course playing firmly enough. If they get any more rain, it’s going to be a real issue. If it’s soft, it means the scores can be really low. I can’t imagine that somebody doesn’t get to 10-under par if it stays soft, and it might be lower than that. There are so many scoring opportunities on this course, and if someone is playing well they could make five, six birdies. You usually don’t say that about an Open golf course. In ‘81, Graham shot 7-under for the week. There were some really good other scores as well. I think Crenshaw had a 64, and there were some 65s and 66s. These guys hit it 10 to 20 percent further than we did then.
Hubert Green, 1977 (Southern Hills) champion: They’ll shoot whatever the USGA wants. They have a way of making the golf course fit their desires.
Tom Kite, 1992 (Pebble Beach) champion: I don’t know, honestly. I haven’t played it since they made the changes to the course. But I have to think it will be a strong test. It’ll be different from what most players like these days. They like to bomb it out there 50 yards offline. The PGA Tour has bought into that idea. They set up courses that let those guys win. There’s no rough all year. And then they get to a major, and its a shock. Merion will be very penal off the tee. And the greens will be as hard as they can be.
Tony Jacklin, 1970 (Hazeltine) champion: From my recollection, it is a golf course that requires tremendous patience. I see the yardage isn’t so long this year, so it’s going to be a patience round there. It’s really back to what the game used to be like with the old ball and controlling it. Not muscling the ball or anything like that. Just putting yourself in position to go for pins. I can only assume the greens and everything will be set up to test one's’ patience as much as possible. I have no idea what the rough’s like, but I expect it’s quite penal. If they play the course like that, it’s going to be a real examination of patience and perseverance. Keeping the ball in play off the tee will be the most important. It will be certainly like that now because the golf ball goes 40-50 yards further. It doesn’t mean that it’s easier to control. That’s the problem they’ll have. It’s all well and good to hit 2-irons 230, 240, 250 yards, but can they control it going that far? That is to be seen. This is going to be a test like no other we’ve seen in modern times. With a championship course set up for an Open, it’s going to be fascinating to watch. I’m looking forward to it very much, and I have no idea how it’s going to pan out. I wouldn’t have a clue what the winning score is going to be. But historically, they’ve always tried to aim at par being a good round, but whether they can play a course at this length there is to be seen.
2. What type of game do you think fits Merion and who would you pick to be successful and win this year's Open?
Lee Janzen, 1993 (Baltursol) and 1998 (Olympic Club) champion: Any player that is on top of his game could win a U.S. Open, but the deciding factor is mental. Is a player comfortable with the extra attention and the adversity that will come? Staying in the present is even more important at the U.S. Open. Mistakes can be more penalizing. Fairways are more narrow. The rough is deeper, and the greens will be firm and fast. Merion has some long difficult holes and some short holes that are not easy birdies. A variety of shots will be needed. The greens have enough tilt that being below the hole and missing on the proper side will be huge. I don't think many players will end up under par. Maybe 5. Jim Furyk should do well. A good hybrid player should do well too.
Green: It’s hard to go against Tiger. He doesn’t hit driver a lot of times. He plays smart golf and keeps the ball in play most of the time. That’s extremely important at a U.S. Open. You have to be in the fairway. Tiger proved in the British Open when he hit irons off every tee. You can sacrifice a little bit to play a smart brand of golf. It’s better than most of the other players I think.
Jacklin: There are a couple. Graeme McDowell’s game might suit it. He’s already got one under his belt. Zach Johnson is a sort of player that could do well. He’s very tough-minded. Not a long hitter, but he’s a major winner already. Those two come to mind as being the sort of player that could get it done. I like the way Zach Johnson plays, and we’ve already seen him perform at the highest level. And McDowell has already won a tournament this year, and I’m sure he’ll be looking forward to the Open.
North: I think first of all, this is an Open that really will be open. I think a ton of players will have an opportunity on this golf course because of the length. It’s interesting in that there are some very long holes, but also some very short holes. So if you’re laying up off the tee, everyone will have wedges and nine-irons on these short holes. It will be who will take advantage of those situations. You’ve got to figure out a way to play those long holes in par. If you do that, you’re going to go low. There are so many different types of players. If a longer player can reign in his power, be smart and hit some irons off the tee, I think a longer player can win. If you look at the shorter players, the Zach Johnsons and Graeme McDowells, I think this is a great opportunity for them to win. Overall, you still have to hit quality shots, put the ball in the fairway, and when the week is done, you’ll have to have made a lot of five-to-six foot putts for pars. And that’s the guy who’s going to win. But I think there are a ton of players who have an opportunity to do that.