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.
3. What memory from your win/s has stuck with you to this day?
North: Where do you want to start? There are different types of Opens, and in ‘78, I felt like it was the next step in my maturation as a player. I had gotten better every year, and it seemed like winning a major championship was the next thing. I had a good week and played well. I really struggled the last three or four holes. I made a putt on 13 that my caddie and I were talking about if I could make it, I could make this one it would put us in great shape. I made it, and I never hit a shot after that. I was emotionally let down a little bit and just struggled to get in. In ‘85, it was a different story. I had been written off by people, had gone through two or three years of injuries, and I had worked really hard to get back. I played pretty well. I didn’t particularly like Oakland Hills from when I played the PGA there that David Graham won. But I got there and fell in love with the place. I missed the cut at Westchester, so I got there early. I was able to get some good practice in. I felt like I had a great game-plan of how to play the golf course and went out and executed. You’ve got to get lucky to win. A lot of weird things happened that week. The weather was awful. I think the Saturday round in the rain and the cold really went a long way to me winning. I was near the lead the last couple of days. I was in the last group on Sunday. I made the last putt. I didn’t think there was that much difference between the two. The difference in being one ahead or one or two behind, if you’re in the last group, isn’t that big of deal, you’ve just got to go out and perform. I struggled mightily on Sunday at Oakland Hills. I didn’t lay the club on it until the last four or five holes, but I hit some good shots coming down the stretch. It was enough to win. You’ve got to be awfully fortunate, lucky and have other guys do all sorts of weird things which usually happens in an Open.
Jacklin: It was the best week of golf of my life. I am proudest of the fact that I led from start to finish, and I increased my lead every day. Not many people can say that they did that in a major championship. And looking back over a lifetime in golf, it was the best I ever played in a major championship arena. That result really speaks for itself. My performance was the thing I can look back on and think that was the best week of my life. I was confident going in, but I was incredibly nervous. At the last reunion at Pebble Beach, I said prior to teeing off in the last round, I would have changed places with any form of humanity. But four hours later, I wouldn’t have changed places with anyone who has ever lived or who has ever lived since. It’s an incredible rollercoaster ride of emotion and pressure. I think I putted beautifully, but in the final round I missed a short putt on the 7th green for a birdie, then three-putted on the 8th, missing another short putt. I was pretty shook up at that time, and it was a pivotal time in the round. On the 9th green, I had a 25-footer that I hit much too hard, and it hit the center of the hole, jumped up in the air and dropped in. Had it missed the hole, it would have been another five feet by easily. Once that putt went in, all of the pressure rolled off, and I thought this was mine now. I actually enjoyed the last nine. Up until that point, it was nip and tuck. Had I not made that birdie on the 9th, only God knows what might have happened. I’m not a very religious chap, but I prayed that day. Not to win, but to have the strength to get through the ordeal. Fortunately, there were a couple of touch and go moments in that last round where they could have gone either way. But I stood my ground and got it done. I was thrilled about that. It doesn’t get any better than that. I remember vividly that night as I put my head on my pillow thinking I beat everybody going away that week, and that was enormous satisfaction when you’ve dedicated your life to being as good as you can. Winning is enough, but to do it in the way it was done was supremely satisfying.
Green: The (phone call informing him of an assassination threat called into the FBI) doesn’t stand out much. I knew it wasn’t a threat. I didn’t worry about it. I was just trying to play golf. The main thing I think about is on No. 18 I had a two-shot lead and was pretty sure I could bring it through. Then I drove it in the right rough, and everything I did not want to do, I did. I said whatever you do with your next shot, don’t go in that front left bunker. That’s what I did. Then I hit a three-foot putt to win by one shot. I almost blew the tournament. Before the putt, I asked my caddie what he thought, and he didn’t say anything. I looked at him again, and he stayed quiet. I don’t like a straight putt. I like to favor the left-center or right-center, not straight. I turned and said, “It’s straight isn’t it?” He said yes, and I thought this is just one more thing I don’t like. But things ended up alright.
4. How do Tour players view the US Open setups against PGA Championship layouts?
Kite: I prefer penal rough. A lot of players in the field really can’t drive the ball on line. This graduated rough, though — it’s almost like long fairway. Guys can get it on the green from it no problem, strong as they are. So to me, that takes emphasis off driving it in the fairway. I don’t like that at all. There is less of a premium on hitting it straight now than there was ever been in the game. Look at the stats: Driving accuracy is the least important stat on Tour. To some extent, the USGA is heading that way, too.
Green: The USGA is very fair with their pin placements. They have an 18-point system with six easy pins, six medium pins and six hard pins. They don’t have all 18 tough pins in one day. They make it a variety of it. It is tough, though. You don’t want to go through it every week, but once and awhile it’s fun.
Floyd: I would go more with the PGA, because there was less trickery. When you played the same golf courses — and a lot of PGAs and Opens are played on the same venues — the PGA setups were more fair.
North: I loved the way the USGA set the golf course up. My mentality was good for that kind of setup. I knew how to make pars, and you have to do that in the Open. I think this year we’re going to see Merion set up like an old-time Open. I think it’s going to be a great championship.
Jacklin: The great players, Nicklaus, Trevino, Palmer, Floyd, Miller, all of those guys who were the great players from my era, all relished the challenge. An Open Championship is the supreme examination. That’s what the USGA is trying to achieve, the supreme examination. Not just your golfing skills, but your temperament and patience, the whole nine yards. It’s going to be very interesting to see how they deal with it. I think the top players will deal with it pretty well. The two players I picked, I will imagine will be two that welcome that kind of a challenge. It plays into their game. They’re not muscle men. They’re thinkers.
5. What are your thoughts on how the anchoring ban process unfolded and what is your opinion of the ban?
Green: I think it’s about time. They’ve got to give players a chance to learn how to do it with a regular putter, so the timing of that is alright. They were on of things with the square grooves. That’s the biggest problem we have now is that the ball is going too far, and the grooves spin too much. I never used a belly putter. I don’t have a belly. I’m skinny.
Floyd: Personally, I’d say it’s been there so long now, I wonder why all of the sudden it pops up? It’s been there forever. As for why it came up now — I can’t answer. I just don’t know.
Jacklin: I agree. But why on earth it took them 25-30 years to decide this is beyond my imagination. The R&A and the USGA are supposed to shepherd the game, but what happened to the last 30 years. I feel bad for some of these young fellows who don’t know any different. Will someone like an Adam Scott, if this rule is put into play, be looked on as someone who didn’t really win a major? Probably. That would be my observation of it. Why after all this time? If it’s been wrong for 30 years, why didn’t it get addressed before? I know the people at the head of these organizations have changed, but the principles that these organizations run on haven’t changed. That will put the cat among the pigeons, the time factor. I have a great sympathy for some of these fellows who are 40 years old and were 10 years old when it was all alright and they have played with it for 30 years. We all know who they are. If I were them, I would be defending myself vigorously against the ruling. And I think that’s what we’re going to see. That’s going to muddy the water a bit. That’s just my opinion. I know in the spirit of the game, I’ve tried a long putter, and I never putted worth a damn with it.
Kite: I’m using a long putter, and I’m not opposed to banning it. But I don’t think that’s the biggest problem in the game right now. The bigger issue is the cost of the game and the length of time it takes to play. That’s what keeps people from playing golf, and I think that’s directly related to the length the ball is travelling. Nicklaus said 40 years ago that the ball was going to be the problem. We’ve only had these new ones the last 15 years or so, and it’s put a lot of stress on courses to keep up. They’ve got to maintain extra tees. They need to buy bigger properties. All that cost gets passed down to players — that’s what’s holding the game back. Maybe someday they’ll do something about the ball, the size of the clubhead, the COR. The game would be better for it.
Janzen: I have thought that anchoring is not a stroke for many years. Most players are for the ban. I think there are other issues that would be better for golf. The extra cost to keep up with the equipment advances would be a big benefit.
North: I think basically the decision was: is anchoring a stroke or not? it wasn’t about a long-putter, a short-putter, who’s using it, or the emotions of taking it away from a player who’s using it. None of that. It’s just is it a stroke or is it not a stroke. The USGA and R&A finally decided it wasn’t a stroke of golf and made a decision, and I hope everybody deals with and moves forward. I think it’s great we have a line drawn in the sand, and we’re going to move forward from there.