In my January column, I contended that this year, the final three majors are essentially British Opens because they'll be played on links-style courses: the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, the British at the Old Course at St. Andrews, and the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. Very few players are familiar with Chambers Bay, which opened to the public in 2007, and I'm anticipating a memorable maiden major. Forget about the U.S. Opens you've seen before; even last year's browned-out host Pinehurst No. 2, which has links characteristics, looks traditional next to Chambers Bay. The only thing that will feel familiar about this year's U.S. Open will be the crushing pressure the players feel.
Don't get me wrong. I'm in favor of variety. I don't want the same kind of U.S. Open course every year—crazy long, fairways like ribbons, dense rough. So I welcome Chambers Bay's entry into the historical fold. In fact, in 2006, I visited the course during construction to do some consulting for designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. At the time, the site was an empty sand pit. Even then, it was clear that it would present a very different examination from the typical U.S. Open.
As with all links, the weather will factor in determining the champion. Ideally, Mother Nature will cooperate, giving us a dry, firm, fast setup. If that happens, and the wind blows, you'll see many unusual shots and situations.
Three things you won't see at Chambers Bay? Tight fairways, high rough, and lightning-fast greens—basically, the hallmarks of a traditional U.S. Open! The greens won't play at typical speeds because the contours simply won't allow it. Players will need a lot of imagination to succeed. At times, when hitting approach shots, they may need to play away from the hole by almost 90 degrees in order to get the ball close. The course will reward those with creative short games. Peter Uihlein won the U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay in 2010 largely because he has tremendous imagination on short shots.
And is anyone more creative than Phil Mickelson around the greens? I think this year is Mickelson's best remaining chance to win the Open. The course design and setup is made for him. There's room to drive the ball, which is great for Lefty, who can get wild off the tee. Also, the course places a premium on short-game play, and Phil is a greenside artist. These two factors may be what he needs to finally win our national championship and complete the career grand slam.
Which other players will be front-runners? Hard to say, because the course is such an unknown. Guys who make the trek to play there before U.S. Open week have an edge. Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy have all played well on links-style courses. And defending champion Martin Kaymer has won his two majors at links-like courses: Pinehurst No. 2 and Whistling Straits.
Still, with back-to-back second-place finishes in majors—and time running out—Phil will have my full attention at Chambers Bay.