Battling major golf’s most fearsome beast at Oakmont
Daunting challenge awaits US Open hopefuls on Oakmont course reputed to be toughest test in America - where breaking par is a serious achievement
Published 14/06/2016 | 02:30
Who can tame the beast that is Oakmont Country Club, venue for the US Open championship this week?
The best golfers in the world are up for the challenge, but they know they can expect a severe examination of their nerve, their concentration and their perseverance - and that's before considering the quality of their golf game.
Renowned as arguably the toughest course in America - proudly so by the members - Oakmont has hosted the US Open eight times, starting in 1927 when Scottish-born Tommy Armour won the title.
The seven who followed Armour to glory at Oakmont are: Sam Parks Junior (1935), Ben Hogan (1953), Jack Nicklaus (1962), Johnny Miller (1973), Larry Nelson (1983), Ernie Els (1994), and Angel Cabrera (2007).
Old Man Par has undergone a number of changes in Oakmont's US Open history, but has always been a formidable adversary.
Par was 72 when Armour, Parks, Hogan and Nicklaus won at the Pennsylvania venue; it was 71 for Miller's victory, Nelson's and Els'; and it had been reduced to 70 by the time Cabrera won.
The historical severity of the test the course offers is evident from the winning scores relative to par. Armour was +13, beating Harry Cooper in a play-off in 1927. Parks finished +11 and won by two from Jim Thompson.
Hogan became the first of the Oakmont US Open winners to shoot in the 60s, but he did it only once that week - a 67 in round one - and ended on +1 for the tournament.
Despite that, the 'Wee Ice Mon' as he was dubbed by his Scottish admirers, won by six shots from runner-up Sam Snead.
Nicklaus, then the new kid on the block, and unpopular with 'Arnie's Army' because he defeated Arnold Palmer in the 1962 play-off, broke par just twice, shooting a second round of 70, and a 69 in the final round, to reach five under par 283 and tie with Palmer.
By 1973 the Oakmont par had been squeezed to 71, and Miller reached -5, 279, to edge out the long-forgotten John Schlee by a shot.
Miller's 63 in the final round, and indeed, the story of his epic win, remains the most fascinating of all the Oakmont US Opens.
It had everything: the blond, swashbuckling glamour of Miller; a mystery woman who did a 'Mystic Meg' and told a disbelieving and sceptical Miller he would win that week; and on the last day, when it most counted, a magnificent score that has not been matched since in the final round of a Major.
Miller recalled: "1973 was just a dream round. I'm out with different players and they go, how the heck did you shoot 63?
"But what they don't realise is that I only had 29 putts that round. That's probably as historic as any part of the round. I mean, you just don't shoot 63 at Oakmont with 29 putts. I hit the ninth green in two and every other green in regulation, and I never had a downhill putt in 18 holes.
"So it was, you know, sort of like a round that you were sleeping at night, and you were able to place the ball where you wanted in your dreams, and I just happened to do it during the daytime, for real, in the last round."
And what of the fortune teller?
"This lady was very accurate. She came up to me on Tuesday and said, 'You're going to win the US Open on the 18th green'.
"I go, 'yeah, hi, how are you doing? Do you want an autograph?' No. She didn't want an autograph, just wanted to tell me I was going to win the Open.
"I said, 'That's very nice of you to say,' and didn't think anything of it."
After each of the first three rounds, the woman came up and told him: "you're on track", but after a Saturday 76, five-over par, Miller was despondent.
"I was looking for the lady," he said. "You're wrong, I was going to tell her. I've blown myself out of this thing. "Sunday I did get a letter in my locker, no return address, just says, 'You are going to win the US Open.' From Iowa. I said, 'well, you're wrong, too, pal'."
But there was one more Twilight Zone incident: an inner voice, very clear in Miller's head, that three times, told him to open his stance for that final round.
"That clear voice said, 'Open it up'," he explained. "I thought, well I don't know if I really want to try this, but it was the most amazing round of golf, tee to green.
"That round of golf, every hole, right at the pin, dead underneath the hole, 18 times, average about nine feet from the hole.
"And you know, you can say what you want, sounds like I'm bragging but the bottom line, it was a crazy round. That's all I can tell you."
This week, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry - all of whom would dearly love to emulate Miller's 63 at least once this week, - are sharpening their focus for the battle to come.
McIlroy, 2011 winner, tees off on the first hole in round one on Thursday alongside Masters champion Danny Willett and his good friend Rickie Fowler early in the morning.
Lowry gets going in the next group at with Chris Kirk (USA) and and last year's Fry.Com Open winner Emiliano Grillo of Argentina.
McDowell also starts from the first tee. He will be accompanied by fellow US Open champions Geoff Ogilvy of Australia (2006), and the 2012 winner, Webb Simpson.