PINEHURST, NC - As the year's second major tees off on Thursday morning, here are a few things to consider:
The Golf Course
For the first time since the Second World War, there is no rough at the national championship. Instead, there is what's being called Native Areas. This is how Donald Ross created the course and this is how Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore restored it.
Rather than being one-dimensional and having to hack it out of the rough, hitting it off the fairway now means a bit of a lottery. You might end up with a perfectly clean, if somewhat sandy lie or you could end up in a tangle of the wiregrass. If that happens, it's like old times and you'll be hacking out to the fairway. Depending on whom you talk to, it's either a 50-50 or 60-40 or 80-20 situation that you'll get a good result in the scrub.
It will make for some interesting times.
The Phil Factor
We all know that Phil has been runner-up at the U.S. Open six times and that the first of those came here, at Pinehurst back in 1999. We also know that he wants to win this tournament more than any other, to complete the Grand Slam.
But we also know that Phil hasn't played very well this year and has struggled on the greens to the point that he's changed his grip coming into this week. He'll use the claw grip, which he says is better for the six to eight footers that will be key for this week.
As much as Phil will tell you everything is great, that he loves the course, that his game is coming around, you have to think that the odds aren't in his favour here.
Graham DeLaet will complete the Grand Slam here this week – not in terms of winning but just teeing it up in his fourth major. Sometimes we forget that he's still learning his chops in the majors and it's a big step up to the majors. Yes, he is ultra-talented with a game that is suited well to this type of set up. In some ways, what he doesn't know may actually help him.
In golf sense, DeLaet will always live and die by his putter and this week he is also going with a new putter grip, adopting a left-hand-low style that he says is working for him.
History is not on his side this week – the last time a first-time entrant won the Open was way back in 1913. Of course streaks are made to be broken.
Right now, Pinehurst No. 2 is baked out and dry. There is lots of run in the course and the greens are firm. But the weather forecast is for rain over the next four days, (although so far, predictions of rain haven't materialized). If that comes true, it will, as Rory McIlroy said, take the fire out of the course. It will aid the longer hitters and, if there are delays, make it tougher on those who have little patience. In short, it will change the number of golfers who can win this tournament and that's why a handful of players are doing the rain dance here this week.
It's a buzz word in golf. Along with creativity. But here at Pinehurst, there really is a need to think about just how you're going to hit a shot. With so many run-off areas around the greens, you're going to have to find the right way to get the ball close to the hole. So that means a) putting it up; b) chipping it close; c) use a hybrid to bump it; or d) some other club to get it close.
The guy who puts its beside the cup will be deemed the most imaginative golfer of the week (instead of the champion golfer of the year).
The greens at Pinehurst No. 2 aren't necessarily small in overall size, but the effective area that can be used is tiny. In fact, on some of them, less than 25 per cent of the overall space can be used for a pin. These are not unlike Augusta National's putting surfaces, where hitting the right area – not just the green -- is a requirement.
Some are more generous than others while a few are absolutely diabolical. McIlroy said the second is just such a green. He estimated that less than 20 per cent of the field will hit that green in regulation.
Who Will Win?
The golfer who will win this week is one who can drive it long as the course has some length. And it will be the player who can loft it way up in the air, as you'll need some height to hold the greens. And it will be the player who has some creativity (see above) for those missed green recovery shots, and it will be the golfer who has a hot putter. Put those all together and I think your winner will be . . . Sergio Garcia. (Second choice – Jason Day)