To get your head around what it will take to win the 116th U.S. Open at Oakmont, go back to the 2011 Hyundai TOC at Kapalua. Or the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla. Those were the sites of what may go down as the zaniest, most defiant pars of Jason Day’s career. (Check out the latter on YouTube.) In other words, U.S. Open pars.
That tree-shorn Oakmont is our hardest U.S. Open venue will most likely only accentuate the importance of such guile and resilience. The tournament in general and Oakmont in particular will make you look bad; the key is keeping your scorecard pretty.
“It’s a very fair test, even though it’s hard,” six-time U.S. Open runner-up Phil Mickelson said at last week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, where he tied for second, three behind first-time winner Daniel Berger. “But a lot of golf courses, when it challenges you tee to green the way Oakmont does, it usually has a little bit of a reprieve on the greens, and you really don’t at Oakmont. They’re some of the most undulating, fast, difficult greens to putt. It really is the hardest golf course I think we’ve played.”
Golf’s sister sport boasts the World’s Toughest Tennis at its U.S. Open, but the tag line for golf’s U.S. Open should be: Whatever it Takes. The U.S. Open is Payne Stewart busting out the scissors to turn his rain jacket into a vest before winning at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999. It’s Lucas Glover bouncing back from a double bogey on his first hole of the week to win at Bethpage Black in 2009. It’s Jordan Spieth, after making double on 17, roaring back with a two-putt birdie at the 72nd hole last year at Chambers Bay to become the event’s youngest winner since Bobby Jones in 1923.
Day’s refusal to back down is one of the biggest reasons why he’s No. 1, and one of the biggest reasons why he comes into the week as the favorite. You could see it in March during his semifinal victory over Rory McIlroy at the Dell Match Play; McIlroy accumulated more style points from tee to green, but Day’s short game was superior.
“I feel good,” Day said early this month at the Memorial, where a final-round 74 dropped him to 27th, his last competitive round. He has won three times this year and seven times in his last 18 starts.
“As long as I keep doing the stuff that I’m doing in the gym,” he added, “my body will hold up and be strong. As long as I keep working the six, six and a half hours a day on my off weeks, my game will hold up. And the mental part is all up to me.”
Golf is in a good place, despite the ongoing absence of Tiger Woods. Day won the Players Championship on May 15, McIlroy eagled the last in winning the Irish Open a week later, and Spieth needed just nine putts on the back nine in taking the Dean & Deluca Invitational at Colonial a week after that. The Big Three were back. Now they begin a two-month stretch highlighted by three majors and the Rio Olympics.
Day talks of wanting to “put the foot down” to extend his lead in the ranking, and while you get his point, no one “puts the foot down” at Oakmont. The par-3 8th hole will play as long as 288 yards, the par-5 12th at 667 yards. The rough is too thick in most places for anything but a sand wedge, and the greens were the inspiration for the Stimpmeter. It’s a two-hands-on-the-wheel, hang-on-for-dear-life place, with the Pennsylvania Turnpike bisecting the property.
It’s also a misnomer; there’s no more oak in Oakmont. Absent trees, except for an elm near the 3rd tee, Oakmont this week will show what it looks like to reduce water usage by 45%. McIlroy will show us what his latest putting change—he went back to a conventional grip while tying for fourth at the Memorial—looks like in extremis.
Mickelson, who turns 46 on Thursday, will try to complete the career grand slam. He has five top-five finishes this year, but his last victory came at the 2013 British Open. Spieth hopes to further distance himself from his Masters meltdown, and Fox will attempt to redeem itself after a U.S. Open debut that at times was as bumpy as the greens at Chambers Bay.
“I’m pumped,” says Brad Faxon, a Fox analyst who is expected to take on a more visible role this time around. “Oakmont is gorgeous. I played there [two weeks ago], and it’s impossible. I shot 75, five over, and on three or four holes we didn’t go all the way back. The rough was 80 to 90% of what it’ll be. The greens weren’t quite as fast as what they’ll be. It was in as good a condition as I’ve ever seen. The greens were perfect.”
The golfers, of course, will be anything but. In the end, Oakmont will win. Rock-hard greens will repel approach shots, but players must shrug and bounce back. Balls will roll off greens, but the mentally tough will regroup and chip it close.
The best score could be five over par, Angel Cabrera’s winning total in 2007. Or it could be higher. But that’s the U.S. Open, where winning ugly is still winning, and the trophy shines just as brightly. Like they say, there are no pictures on the scorecard.