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Precision the key for 'mental challenge' of US Open

As cagey Woods preaches strategy, swashbuckling Rahm oozes confidence

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Jon Rahm plays a tee-shot during a practice round prior to the 120th US Open Championship which starts tomorrow at Winged Foot

Jon Rahm plays a tee-shot during a practice round prior to the 120th US Open Championship which starts tomorrow at Winged Foot

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Jon Rahm plays a tee-shot during a practice round prior to the 120th US Open Championship which starts tomorrow at Winged Foot

Tiger Woods has three US Open trophies on his mantelpiece and while it's been 12 years since that epic win at Torrey Pines, the quest and the test remains the same each year. Precision.

Bar a handful of recent exceptions, the USGA prides itself on the fact that it requires the utmost in strategy and clear thinking from its champions and Winged Foot is as archetypal a US Open test as you will find anywhere with its length, its five-inch rough and rock-hard, undulating greens, making it a test that could cause Job himself to lose his cool.

Nobody knows better than Woods what's required on a course that Justin Thomas said can "eat you alive". But the game's most iconic player poses more questions that he provides answers these days given his unpredictable physical fitness and the decline in his putting.

The American (44) ranked close to last for strokes gained putting on the PGA Tour this season with his only advantage at Winged Foot his ability to judge a Major race and plot his way around the pitfalls.

Blowing

When asked how many drivers he might hit on a par-70 course that could measure up to 7,477 yards - "I think it's right up there next to Oakmont and I think Carnoustie as far as just sheer difficulty without even doing anything to it" - he spoke instead of tactics.

"I think a lot of that is dependent on which way the wind is blowing," said the old dog for the hard road, "... so I think that strategy-wise it's ebb and flow.

"For me in particular I'm trying to play to certain areas. Whatever club that is, could be five-wood, could be driver or a three-wood. I'm trying to play to a specific spot and then move on from there."

Woods was typically low-key in his responses which contrasted greatly with the energy and enthusiasm of a man that many believe is ready to claim his first Major.

Spain's Jon Rahm (25) rolled into town on a high having won two of the most difficult courses on tour in recent weeks - the Memorial at Muirfield Village and the Northern Trust at Olympia Fields.

World No 1 Dustin Johnson missed the cut in the former by shooting a pair of 80s, then watched Rahm steal the latter from under his nose by holing an outrageous putt in sudden-death.

For the big Basque, it's as much about rolling with the punches as it is about hitting fairways and greens.

"Just besides having a strategy, it's playing good golf," he said. "It's sort of like in boxing where Mike Tyson said everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. It's the same thing here. We all have a plan, but if you hit it sideways, you got to figure it out.

"And at the end of the day, there's going to be a lot of people playing really good golf. It just comes to mental strength, right, who can endure the most and who can endure until the end. It's that simple. Having done it in two tough tests like the Memorial and the BMW, I'm excited to start just because I know I can do it."

Rahm can move the ball both ways off the tee with ease but while much will depends on his comfort with the draw, he's got an exceptional short game, which could give him the edge over PGA Tour Player of the Year Johnson.

As for the difficulty of the course, he welcomes it and clearly believes his time has come.

"Well, I would say in the past maybe this type of golf wasn't my bread and butter, but again, based on the two events I've won this year, I'm pretty much ready," he said when asked how he rated his readiness to win a US Open.

"I've been able to dial it back when I needed to, and I've been able to play it properly when I needed to.

"I think I've always thought US Open is the type of golf course I can win on. I know my game can win on any golf course, but when you're playing good, again, it becomes a mental challenge, right, so I welcome those.

"Plus, I'm not going to lie to say this; there's always something extra special to be possibly the first Spanish player to win a US Open. That would be amazing."

Johnson loves to cut the ball and he will likely be hitting many two-irons to put himself in position on right-to left holes where he might run out of room given the firmness of the fairways.

But he's searching for nothing, which is a sign of a man in complete command of his game.

"I've got a lot of confidence in the game," the 2016 champion said when asked about having high expectations of himself in a course that's similar to Oakmont but with many more trees.

"The game is in good form right now, hopefully it stays in good form for the rest of the week, but it's one of those golf courses where it's very difficult and you need to be spot-on if you want to play well."

For the second Major in a row, defending US Open champion Gary Woodland and Open champion Shane Lowry will play together, this time with 2019 US Amateur champion Andy Ogletree.

Lowry arrives with little in the way of form having followed a tie for 66th in the US PGA with a tied 23rd finish in the Wyndham Championship and missed cuts in the Northern Trust and the Safeway Open.

The Clara man is a different animal in the US Open, however, and the big question mark is whether or not the new driver he put in the bag in the Napa Valley last week will allow him to sniff out Winged Foot's fairways.

"The key this week is you've got to drive the ball in the fairway," Woodland said.

"If you don't do that, you're going to be wedging out and you're going to be trying to hit wedges close because you're not going to be able to advance it too far out of the rough."

As for 2010 champion Graeme McDowell, he was seventh at halfway 14 years ago but when drawn with Phil Mickelson in the third round he shot 75 to the left-hander's 69, then closed with a 79 to finish tied 48th on 17-over.

Irish Independent