This month, the U.S. Open goes back to the future, returning to the brutal beast that is Oakmont. This is a departure. In recent years, the USGA has moved away from the traditional U.S. Open setup: eight-inch rough, skinny fairways, crazy-long layouts. They’ve revisited classic courses like Merion and Pinehurst No. 2, and links-style tracks such as Chambers Bay. This trend stops at Oakmont.
Even when it’s not hosting a major, Oakmont is one of the three most difficult courses in the world (along with Winged Foot and Pine Valley). If the rough is up this month, as expected, finding the fairway will be incredibly important. That’s Oakmont. It demands a lot: stellar shotmaking, physical stamina, and incredible composure between the ears. And I haven’t even mentioned the diabolical greens, perhaps the fastest in the world.
How can today’s best players slay this monster? To start, power and accuracy off the tee will be paramount. Players who put their drives on the short grass will be rewarded with shorter irons into the green, and thus a better chance to knock the ball closer to the hole. Wayward drives will be punished by rough that will make reaching the green in regulation a challenge. And hitting the wrong part of Oakmont’s quicksilver putting surfaces is akin to knocking one in the bunker. I’m not kidding. The greens are so large, fast and challenging that three-putts will be plentiful, even from a seemingly good leave. Players will need extreme precision to give themselves a makeable birdie putt or a stress-free two-putt for par.
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You’re probably wondering who has what it takes to triumph. I’ve played the course, and in order to raise the trophy, the winner will need a wise strategy, mental composure, utmost patience and extraordinary skills. Jordan Spieth isn’t as long as Jason Day or Rory McIlroy, but he’s a superb putter and a great strategist, and the flatstick will be a critically important weapon. Also, given the nature of Jordan’s shocking stumble at the Masters, he will no doubt have extra motivation to redeem himself. Rory and Jason have the raw ability to overpower the course with their drivers and 3-woods, and they’ll benefit from hitting shorter clubs into these difficult greens. I expect them to play well.
But players beyond the Big Three will have a real chance to claim the year’s second major. Remember who won the last time the U.S. Open visited Oakmont, in 2007: Angel Cabrera, who combined power and accuracy off the tee. Yes, hitting fairways will be key, but the champion will have to hit it way down the fairway. I’m betting that a player with a hot driver and a hot putter will win this year, too.
For decades, the U.S. Open has been called “golf’s toughest test.” This year at Oakmont, that sentiment couldn’t be more true.