Dermot Gilleece: US Open success is all in the mind, not state of the course
Mental attitude is key to making the most of Chambers Bay
Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30
It has taken a remarkably insightful 21-year-old to put a professional perspective on the quirky challenge of Chambers Bay. "If you are going to talk negative about a place," said Jordan Spieth, "you're almost throwing yourself out to begin with because golf is a mental game."
Though poor form was clearly a factor in some of the more notable half-way casualties in the 115th US Open, there were others like Bubba Watson who handicapped themselves by their attitude to a venue which one observer likened to a 10-mile hike. Others talked of purgatory at Puget Sound.
One could imagine seasoned observers there, thinking back to events of 45 years ago while mumbling about sins of the father. Criticisms about Hazeltine National, scene of the 1970 US Open, have been given an eerily familiar ring by some of last week's outbursts.
"It lacked definition," said Jack Nicklaus, after an opening 81. Arnold Palmer settled for a more diplomatic, "I don't know what to say", after a 79. But Dave Hill, the eventual runner-up to Tony Jacklin, didn't hold back. On being asked what the course lacked, he growled: "Eighty acres of corn and a few cows. They ruined a good farm when they built this course."
The USGA later pleaded clerical error when a bank discovered that Hill's runner-up cheque for $15,000 hadn't been signed. But the player always thought of it as a devious reprimand.
What's the relevance of all of this? Well, it so happens that, as a new course at that time, Hazeltine was a surprise choice for the US Open. And it happened to have been designed by Robert Trent Jones, whose son, Robert Trent Jones Jnr, was the architect at Chambers Bay, which is also new to the US Open rota.
Though Bob Rosburg remarked caustically of Hazeltine's 13 dog-leg holes that it must have been designed in a kennel, the main problem on opening day lay with winds gusting up to 40 miles per hour.
And, given the number of scores in the 80s recorded in largely calm conditions over the last few days, one dreads to imagine what might happen if Pacific winds freshen on Chambers Bay.
Approach play to severely undulating greens is demanding such precision that one can only speculate as to how severe this challenge would become in high winds. One imagines the course being close to unplayable. Henrik Stenson likened the challenge of the greens to "putting on broccoli", which is fairly damning. Rory McIlroy has also been less than enamoured of them. Both of these players know enough about agronomy, however, to understand the problem there.
When it was opened as a public golf course in June 2007, Chambers Bay had fine, fescue greens. Since then, however, there has been a predictable intrusion by poa annua, or meadowgrass as we like to call it. And as our leading greenkeepers, like Aidan O'Hara of Mount Juliet will testify, it is hugely labour-intensive and therefore very costly to eliminate meadowgrass from greens.
This is a public golf course, not Augusta National, where no expense is spared in maintaining the bent-grass putting surfaces to the highest standards. And with the right mental attitude, as Spieth has been demonstrating, it remains possible to hole putts on a consistent basis, even those particularly precious ones from 10 to 15 feet.
So, don't be deceived by the patchy look to them on television. I happened to see a re-run the other night of Graeme McDowell's memorable US Open win at Pebble Beach, where the greens looked similarly patchy. Yet they putted beautifully, not least on the final day.
Meanwhile, this may be one of those Majors where physical endurance could become a crucial factor as we head towards the decisive final nine holes today. In one respect, fast fairways meant that length wasn't such an issue for older players such as Colin Montgomerie and Miguel Angel Jimenez. But it is significant that both men did their better scoring on the opening day, before the roller coaster of hills and slopes began to take its toll. In this context, we can assume that 45-year-olds, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, will be feeling the pinch.
As 34-year-old Justin Rose put it: "There's a big fitness element this week. A lot of us have been here preparing harder for this championship than many others, because there's an even bigger physical demand."
But most of all, as Spieth pointed out, it will challenge the mind.
Which reminds me of the Irish Open at Killarney in 1992, when player after player complained bitterly about the 17th hole and its treacherously firm shallow green which was disparaged locally as "Dr Billy O's Folly", after its co-designer, Dr Billy O'Sullivan.
A notable exception from the complainants was Nick Faldo. "It's difficult but it's playable and it's there," he said in calm acceptance of the challenge. And then proceeded to retain the title.
Sunday Indo Sport