OAKMONT, Pa - Thick, deep, rough is as much of a staple of the U.S. Open as the trophy given to those who can conquer it.
Only this year, this rough has taken a chunky divot out of itself before the first round even begins.
The perfect storm was in place at Oakmont Country Club this week. It's been a year since Phil Mickelson, self-proclaimed "idiot," double-bogeyed the 72nd hole to finish in second in last year's Open.
After quitting the 2006 season early, then bouncing back with two wins, including the Players Championship, the stage was set for the mother of all comebacks, especially with Tiger Woods not driving the ball accurately enough to be considered an overwhelming favorite this week.
But it's not going to happen. Mickelson hurt his wrist here a few weeks back practicing shots out of the thick, five-inch high rough and will be far from 100 percent entering the first round.
Of course, no one put a gun to his head and told him to hack away in thick rough all afternoon weeks before the Open. But if it didn't happen to Mickelson, it was going to happen to someone else.
And it did. David Howell withdrew this week after hurting his wrist in practice as well.
The USGA surely saw the unusually high, U.S. Open-like scores and difficult conditions at the Masters and felt threatened. It doesn't help that Carnoustie, one of the British Open's most notoriously difficult venues, is up next.
You have to wonder if bad wrists might become an epidemic this week, and if the quest to create the most difficult test in golf history year after year is becoming dangerous for golfers.
The USGA surely saw the unusually high, U.S. Open-like scores and difficult conditions at the Masters and felt threatened. It doesn't help that Carnoustie, one of the British Open's most notoriously difficult venues is up next.
As a result, the championship they've created this week at Oakmont has players and analysts dropping their jaws. They're predicting some scores in the 90s, and the eventual winner posting a score of much higher than last year's plus-5 (Geoff Ogilvy).
The rough will be a big reason why. Since the greens are so firm, players will need short irons and wedge approaches in order to hold the green. Just about everyone will be taking their share of heavy hacks out of it.
"It should be manageable," said a cautious Mickelson, referring to the pain he'll endure all week. "As long as I don't hit it into the rough."
Staring down the fairway, knowing five inches of heavy cabbage lies on either side, is stress enough. For Mickelson, it will be like seeing O.B. on both sides of 18 holes. Knowing he can't hit it into the rough because one or two hacks getting out might damage his wrist will devastate his psyche.
He's also skipped practice rounds most of the week. He played a few holes Tuesday and Wednesday, and that's it. He's not hitting balls on the range much. He won't be ready. He can't be.
This isn't football where you can head butt your locker and get by for three hours on adrenaline. It's a four-day grind that requires weeks of preparation. Players will need each facet of their game in tip-top shape to survive here. That was Mickelson's game more so than anyone else after the Player's Championship last month. But then he went to Oakmont, where things fell apart.
So the USGA has probably succeeded once again in securing its reputation as golf's hardest test.
But instead, it's Mickelson who has been bruised - and the possibility of a comeback for the ages is lost, probably somewhere out in Oakmont's gnarly grass.
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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