Only the strong will survive
A long course and very little run means the US Open winner will earn the title, says Dermot Gilleece
Published 12/06/2011 | 05:00
A grand setting, fit for presidents, ambassadors, congressmen, industrial tycoons and movie stars, will play host this week to the 111th US Open. The lush terrain of Congressional CC is also where Graeme McDowell becomes the first Irishman to defend this title next Thursday in an elite gathering outside Washington DC.
Regrettably, an injured Tiger Woods will be missing for the first time since making his professional debut in the US Open at Congressional in 1997. His loss is profound, not only for the record viewing figures he has generated over the years, but for the unparalleled excitement he lends simply by his presence.
Still, the countless observers of this searching test will include one of Congressional's more celebrated members. Lyrically describing golf as "an extraordinary game that rose out of the Scottish mists," Bill Clinton, as US President in 1997, also promised a memorable staging as a treat for fans around the world.
And he was right. From that particular occasion, a punishing venue is remembered for the triumph of Ernie Els after going head-to-head with Colin Montgomerie down the stretch. Since then, an extensively upgraded layout will finish not with a 190-yard par-three but with a 523-yard downhill par-four over water, just as it did back in 1964 when Ken Venturi captured the title.
Further interest is sparked by the overall par of 71 which, though the same as Pebble Beach last year, still represents a departure for the USGA from its traditional love of par-70s, wherever possible. And it is going to play seriously long, even with Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and their ilk extracting maximum mileage from modern equipment. "This is a consequence of bent-grass fairways, humidity and heavy as opposed to sandy soil," said USGA executive director, Mike Davis.
Meanwhile, all 18 greens were recently reconstructed with a change from meadowgrass to bent, aimed at achieving putting surfaces which will be both uniform and slick. And as a reflection of the relentless pursuit of length, it will play to an overall yardage of 7,574 compared with 7,213 yards 14 years ago and 7,053 in 1964.
Shane Lowry, who came impressively through sectional qualifying at Walton Heath two weeks ago, joins McDowell, Pádraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy in a four-man Irish contingent. And though the Offalyman is a far better ball-striker than Harrington was when he made his US Open debut at Congressional in 1997, he might do well to note the Dubliner's reaction on that occasion.
"It's everything I expected a US Open course to be, particularly the rough which is genuine rough -- short-iron stuff," he said with feeling. "If you offered me 146, I'd grab it. This is the toughest course I've ever played; tougher even than Royal Co Down in a wind." Harrington carded 151 and missed the cut by seven strokes.
This is hardly ideal reading material even for McDowell, who displayed wonderful grit and composure when capturing the title last year. His recent form has been quite worrying, with some depressingly high numbers including a third-round 81 at Celtic Manor eight days ago on terrain which had been so productive for him during last October's Ryder Cup.
In fact, he had a wonderful start to this year when, in early January, a record-equalling final round of 62 at Kapalua gave him third place in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. But from March onwards, he seemed to lose his way. There was a final round of 75 in the WGC Cadillac Championship and an opening 80 in the Arnold Palmer Invitational a week later. Then came a closing 79 in the Players at Sawgrass and a missed cut after rounds of 75 and 72 in the BMW PGA at Wentworth.
Acknowledging the demands of Congressional, he said: "It's a great course; very tough. As to how I'll cope, I wouldn't have said my game necessarily suited Pebble and yet I won there." In truth, it is difficult to make any realistic assessment of McDowell's prospects until he sorts out his current swing problems.
"My swing is not particularly sound, technically," he admits about a method which was taught by his uncle, Uel Loughrey, but shaped by Atlantic winds sweeping Royal Portrush. "The important thing is that I have a good understanding of the fundamentals of the game. I don't want to analyse every shot that I hit. All I want to know is why I hit bad shots. The art of golf is about working the ball around and scoring, not about swinging the club perfectly."
This attitude is what has made him an outstanding player because his swing is, in fact, quirky and liable to deliver purple patches followed by troughs. The expert view is that with a shut clubface at the top of the backswing, certain physical adjustments must be made to bring the face back to square at impact, otherwise he is liable to find uncharted terrain, left.
It's essentially an issue of timing, which has clearly been off in recent weeks. And when things go wrong, he can't look to a textbook for the solution. Nor can he depend on his coach, Pete Cowen, prescribing some miraculous cure on the driving range. With a method based so much on feel, he has to work it out for himself. One shot in practice could do the trick.
Seve Ballesteros experienced comparable problems. In fact, he was in similar turmoil to McDowell in the build-up to the 1988 Open Championship at Royal Lytham. That was when his caddie, Ian Wright, recounted a fascinating incident from a practice round. "Out of the blue, Seve held up a four-iron off a hanging lie. Then he turned to me and said with a smile, 'I'm ready.'" By the end of the play, Ballesteros had won his fifth Major title.
After the disappointment of recent weeks, McDowell needs something good to happen within the next few days. If it does, he will be ready, mentally. "I'll go with the confidence that I can make it a great week," he said. "Even in handing the US Open trophy back, there will be the psychological lift of knowing it was mine for the last 12 months.
"When Thursday comes and goes, it will be great to have that first round under my belt and be off and running. Most importantly, I'll be going there hoping to compete and make a decent defence of the title."
Harrington, who was the only one of the four Irish competitors in action on the run into Congressional, is playing in the St Jude Classic in Memphis where he made the cut on the limit of 142 (two over par). McIlroy, who was generating heartwarming images from Haiti last week, has reason to be optimistic after a fifth-place finish behind Steve Stricker in the Memorial at Muirfield Village. Otherwise the Irish challenge will begin to take proper shape only when the championship gets under way.
Bookmakers seem to think Luke Donald has suddenly acquired prodigious power to complement his status as world number one. Otherwise, it's difficult to fathom how he can be rated among the favourites this week.
The last time a player of comparable skills captured this title was when Corey Pavin triumphed at Shinnecock Hills in 1995. It may be appropriate to note at this point that Shinnecock measured 6,944 yards -- formidable back then -- but the sandy terrain was firm and fast, in sharp contrast to what lies in store this week.
Ideally, the USGA's Davis would like to see people focusing on the drama of a tightly contested championship rather than on the scene of serious torment. "What you really want to do is give players an arena where they can perform and are rewarded for good shots and penalised for bad shots," he said.
"I think the 18th is now one of the top-four closing holes in all of the US Opens," he went on, grouping it with Pebble Beach, Oakmont and Merion, where the event is scheduled for 2013. "I'm like every other fan. I love it when it comes down to that 72nd; when somebody has to do something magical to win. And you hope that certain players are in the mix."
But significantly, he added: "I think this year's championship will suit a player who hits it high and long, because of the nature of the fairways." Which would explain Els, Montgomerie and Tom Lehman making up the top three in 1997. It also points to Phil Mickelson, Martin Kaymer, Dustin Johnson and McIlroy as possible front-runners this time around. They have the power and skill to handle a back nine containing three par-fours of 490 yards or longer. And for all his tidiness, it seems odd that Donald should lack accuracy off the tee, which is probably due to an irresistible urge to force shots in the quest of precious extra yards.
Even if Woods was never likely to be 100 per cent, the fact that he is totally out of the picture will do wonders for Mickelson's self-esteem. He will see himself as comfortably the best player in the field, if he functions to full capacity. And with his length off the tee, the odd wayward drive shouldn't be too costly, given his strength to muscle short-iron shots out of rough.
On the night before the 1964 championship at Congressional, Venturi received a letter from his parish priest, a Father Francis Kevin Murray. The reverend wrote: "Ask the Lord to let you play to the best of your ability. You are truly the new Ken Venturi, born out of suffering and turmoil but now wise and mature and battle-toughened."
Four rounds later, after holing the final putt for a four-stroke victory, Venturi dropped the blade, raised his arms skyward and exclaimed: "My God! I've won the Open." One suspects that in the heat of battle next Sunday afternoon, there will be competitors silently pleading for divine intervention.
Noting the physical demands Congressional placed on Venturi, the USGA's response afterwards was to abandon the established format of 36 holes on the final day. Yet 47 years on, it will remain a relentlessly forbidding challenge.
Over the closing holes on Sunday, however, some player will dig as deeply as McDowell did 12 months ago. And in a city of presidents, he will reach a coveted golfing peak.
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