OAKMONT, Pa. - It's a safe bet USGA officials watched the slaughter at this year's Masters at Augusta National and mumbled sinisterly amongst each other, "We'll do much better than that."
The Masters had uncharacteristically high scores this year, but of the four majors, the U.S. Open most consistently brings in the highest cards, regardless of venue.
It seems each U.S. Open tries to outdo the previous in terms of difficulty, and this year's Open at Oakmont, outside of Pittsburgh is no different.
The course has been lengthened since its last championship in 1994, when it played a humane 6,940 yards and a par 71. This year, it will play 7,230 yards, and par has been dropped to 70.
Crowds will surely surround the par-3 8th hole, playing a beastly 288 yards this year. A back hole location will put it closer to 300. This brute even had Tiger Woods reportedly hitting 3-woods to it in practice rounds. Others are hitting iron short intentionally to set up a chip shot. Things don't get much easier on the 477-yard uphill par 4 9th hole, and the 12th will play 667 yards this week.
Unlike Augusta, where players enter the week expecting birdies and a score around 10-under to win, the field knows shooting around par four straight days will put you in the driver's seat. The greens this week will be slicker than ever, and many are even predicting a higher score above par than the +5 needed by Geoff Ogilvy to win at Winged Foot last year.
Ogilvy will be paired with Woods the first two rounds together and should draw the biggest crowds. Rounding out the group will be US Amateur champion and Scotsman Richie Ramsey, who was the first British player to win the event in over a century. Europeans haven't come out on top in the U.S. Amateur since Tony Jacklin won 37 years ago.
Favorites this year include Ireland's Padraig Harrington, England's Justin Rose and Scotland's Colin Montgomerie. Monty, who lost in a playoff to Ernie Els here in 1994, will hope to bounce back after a disappointing bogey on the 18th hole to finish in second place last year.
If it's going to be a foreigner taking the trophy home, look to the southern hemisphere first. Last year's champ, Ogilvy, is from Australia, and it was a South African who took home the trophy the last time the Open was staged at Oakmont in 1994. Els won in a Monday 18-hole playoff over Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts.
Australian Adam Scott has been on fire so far in 2007, and Rory Sabbatini, another South African, has several top ten finishes and a recent win at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial - and also caused a minor stir after he dubbed the 2007 version of Tiger Woods "beatable".
Current 2007 FedEx Cup standings have Woods and Phil Mickelson No. 1 and 2 respectively, but you could argue it's Mickelson, not Woods, playing better golf coming into the U.S. Open.
All eyes will be on Mickelson's tee ball and decision-making. Critics say he plays too aggressive to ever win a U.S. Open - and his decision to hit driver on the 72nd hole of last year's U.S. Open has been golf's most scrutinized decision during the past year.
It's been a tumultuous year since then for Mickelson. He took some time off at the end of 2006, then came back rested and in better shape for 2007. He won at Pebble Beach, blew a final-hole lead at Riviera shortly after, dumped swing coach Rick Smith for Butch Harmon, then won the Player's Championship last month.
The one kink in Mickelson's chances is the wrist he tweaked in the first round of the Memorial Tournament, causing him to withdraw from the St. Jude's Championship. Mickelson commonly enters tournaments the week before majors, so this may throw off his rhythm. He's also not hitting many long shots in early practice rounds at Oakmont this week, sticking mostly to the short game and staying clear of the rough.
Woods on the other hand, hasn't won since Doral, and left many puzzled after an error-riddled back nine on Sunday at Augusta left the green jacket on the table for Zach Johnson to take his first major.
Like any tournament he enters, Woods is still the odds-on favorite, and it will also be the last U.S. Open that concludes on Father's Day where Woods himself won't be a proud parent - as wife Elin is expecting later this summer and could possibly sideline Tiger from the British Open.
Having already failed at Augusta, it would be hard to believe Woods will get shut out in majors entirely in 2007, especially after a scorching end to 2006. But especially after Johnson's unlikely win at Augusta, a lukewarm Woods and a hungry international field, the winner could come from anywhere.
But no golfer really defeats the U.S. Open. They survive it.
June 13, 2007
Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Channel Courses & Travel. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours.
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