Out of their comfort zone
Chambers Bay will provide a true test for aspiring champions, says Dermot Gilleece
With fresh challenges as the life-blood of competitive sport, the 115th US Open at a new venue offers special appeal.
We can certainly look to it lighting a fire for Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson among the leading contenders going into action on Thursday at Chambers Bay in Washington State.
Then there is the sharply contrasting sub-plot involving three-time champion Tiger Woods, whose objective will be simply to avoid further humiliation from a game which has been showing him only its brutally unforgiving side of late.
While Graeme McDowell, Shane Lowry and Darren Clarke complete the Irish challenge, a further flavour of these parts has been contributed by the Dublin company, Turfgrass Consultancy, who were responsible for the agronomy at this, their first Major venue.
Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jnr and stretching to 7,585 yards with a par of 70, Chambers Bay has, in the words of an American scribe, more variables than an algebra equation. Unusually large teeing areas offer considerable options in length, while firm approaches to wickedly undulating greens, effectively rule out target play, much loved on America's PGA Tour.
You can just imagine the USGA's Mike Davis, salivating at the choices open to him in setting up the course. Which prompted him to issue the warning last month of the need for thorough homework by any aspiring champion.
The fact that McIlroy saw it for the first time yesterday raised quite a few eyebrows. He spent most of last week working with his coach Michael Bannon at West Palm Beach before heading north for a PGA Championship media day on Friday at Whistling Straits, one of his duties as the title-holder from last August.
So, how did he react to the USGA official's warnings? "What's Mike Davis's handicap?" was his cheeky response, like a Kerryman answering a question with a question. As it happens, Davis plays off five, which means that in a head-to-head between the two of them off the back tees at Chambers Bay, McIlroy would be expected to give 13 strokes to the 1982 Pennsylvania State Junior champion. Who would your money be on?
Still, Davis insisted last week: "I was simply trying to be helpful by pointing out that preparation for this year's US Open might be more critical than any in recent memory, given the uniqueness of the golf course. I think things have gotten a little overblown, but the point is still valid.
"There's going to be some players who just love this ground game, who love the imagination, who embrace it. Then there's other players who just want predictability. They want something right in front of them.
"They don't want to have to guess what's going to happen with some unpredictable bounces.
"We may surprise them with something and examine how they think their way through it in the heat of battle. We really do feel that that's part of the test."
Pushed as to his preparation, which will include another full round today and possibly nine holes per day from tomorrow onwards, McIlroy went on: "With the way the PGA Tour is, no one is going to go out there and play 10 practice rounds. It's a bit of an unknown to most people and obviously you have to prepare, but you can fall into the trap of over-preparing.
"If you don't go out there and execute the shots on the week, all that preparation won't mean anything. At the end of it all, there's going to be somebody lifting the trophy and I'd much rather have my game in good shape going in there and play practice rounds the way I usually would. That should do well for me."
So, it's clear that McIlroy isn't buying into scare stories and fear of the unknown. And you can only imagine what his one-time hero Woods would trade for a slice of that confidence, given a current crisis that's been described as competitive stage-fright.
Typically, Jack Nicklaus put the Chambers Bay controversy into perspective when he said: "The course isn't supposed to suit your game. You are supposed to suit your game to the golf course." Which is precisely what Nicklaus did under Joe Carr's guidance, when becoming attuned to links terrain in his early challenges for the Open Championship."
As it happens, the Americans are insisting that Chambers Bay is a links, which it can't be as a course moulded from a quarry. Such erroneous comparisons are bound to be all the more intimidating, however, against the background of fairly fearsome television images from the Irish Open at Royal Co Down.
Either way, with plans to alternate the first and 18th holes as a par four or a par five; angled fairways placing a premium on lines off the tee; a grass mound in the middle of the 11th fairway and a 14th hole where a bunker has a grass insert in the middle, it is going to be interesting, to say the least. Especially if winds gather pace off the Pacific.
Observers have been marvelling at the fine fescue grass which will deliver slick green-speeds of 12 on the Stimpmeter, with the additional challenge of "noticeable grain". And there will be a belt of fescue rough at about three to four inches, graduating to taller stuff further off line. All the while, players may expect what has been described as a wonderful bounce off the terrain.
Looking at the last five stagings of the US Open, one is taken by the fascinating variety of the challenge, from Pebble Beach (McDowell) to Congressional (McIlroy), Olympic Club (Webb Simpson), Merion (Justin Rose) and Martin Kaymer (Pinehurst No. 2). In each case, a searching test produced an admirable winner, reflecting considerable credit on the course set-up skills of Davis.
In this context, Spieth is going to generate tremendous excitement, especially if he can repeat the remarkable skills which delivered an improbable Masters triumph two months ago. His 37-year-old bagman, Michael Greller, has invaluable knowledge of Chambers Bay, having done part-time caddying there while teaching maths at a school nearby.
But history is against the gifted young Texan, who will be 22 next month. Though as many as 15 players have completed the double of Masters and US Open titles, only five have done so in the same year. And Craig Wood (1941), Ben Hogan (1951, '53), Arnold Palmer (1960), Nicklaus (1972) and Woods (2002), were some way older than Spieth when the deed was done.
Still, superb putting skills of which young nerves are a crucial element, will enhance his prospects in notoriously severe circumstances. If Mickelson had even a small measure of Spieth's cool, measured temperament, he would probably have won this title by now.
Instead, he has been runner-up on six occasions. Set for his 45th birthday on Tuesday, he is attempting to become only the second person of that age to capture the trophy, so emulating Hale Irwin's 1990 success at Medinah, at a venerable 45 years and 15 days.
Difficult greens complexes and generous fairways at Chambers Bay should be very much to Mickelson's advantage, if he can manage to get the putter going. And one suspects he is fast running out of opportunities to complete the elusive career Grand Slam.
"The first time you play it, it's like St Andrews," he said of Chambers Bay.
"You don't know where to go. I can see why the first impression isn't as favourable for some, but I think the more you play it, the more you like it."
Meanwhile, a more searching look into history informs us that this is the centenary of a notable US Open staging in 1915. It was when the First World War in Europe caused the Open to be cancelled, so making the US Open the only Major championship that year. And it was won at Baltusrol by the amateur Jerome Travers, who later declined to defend the title, declaring it was impossible to earn a living while playing championship golf.
The admirably democratic nature of this event is reflected in an original list of 9,882 applicants being whittled down to 156 for this week's line-up. Among them are Lee Janzen and Retief Goosen, both two-time winners of the title, who came through qualifying so as to relive their greatest moments in the game.
Cutting through all the hyperbole, what is the essence of the Chambers Bay challenge?
Brooks Koepka, one of the more gifted young American challengers, probably captured it best when he said: "You can't relax on one shot. It's a US Open golf course and it's just hard. That's what it is."
Precisely as it should be, for the blue riband of American golf.
Sunday Indo Sport