In the run up to the US Open at Bethpage last year there was only one likely winner. Tiger was on top form and the course seemed not only to have been built for him but also set up for his next stepping stone to a grand slam.
This year's US Open must be inducing anxiety attacks in the bookmakers offices for not only is the Tiger's form not what it was but also the number of hitherto unknowns who have come through this year is unprecedented. Olympia Fields in Chicago may well prove to be the burial ground of a legend as well as the birthplace of a new Zeus.
I doubt if there has ever been a more open Open. In the years BT (before Tiger) every likely candidate for the championship played in just about every tournament. Today, the big boys only come out to play when they absolutely have to, which means that form guide is at best guesswork. There is certainly little that one take away from the events of the weekend from both sides of the Atlantic for the most likely candidates for the laurels stayed at home.
At the Forest of Arden Greg Owen was the worthy winner of the British Masters. All that we learn from this event we knew already. Owen has proved to himself that he is not a choker - an appellation applied to him after he shredded a two stroke lead with five holes to play in the Portuguese Open eight weeks ago - and in consequence he is likely to go on to greater things.
Owen did not climb aboard the Falcon 900 private jet aircraft with Justin Rose and Darren Clarke at Birmingham bound for Chicago after the tournament. Instead he was faced with the ordeal of posing in academic gown and morter-board to receive his £250,000 cheque - this was doubtless a Tour innovation inspired by the presentation of a huge sword at the Bay Hill Invitational and a ridiculous conquistadors helmet at the Phoenix Open.
Dressing-up and being reduced to a clown may be good for the gate at Disney World but it is surely the sort of charade that we can do without in golf.
The Forest of Arden showed that Clarke is not yet at ease on the greens and Justin Rose does not yet have the consistency to meet the demands of a Major title. Colin Montgomerie remains the ultimate enigma. Only he can know why he forfeited the cavity-backed clubs with which he so long commandeered European Golf. Only he can know why he has to find an unsuspecting scapegoat for his errors. What he must know is that every broad shouldered Chicagoan will be waiting for his scowl to wind him up. Chicago is, in more senses than one, the windy city of America.
The Capital City Open on the banks of the Potomac taught us even less about current US form. Pod Harrington and Nicklas Fasth are clearly in good frames of mind and their early exit for the States may prove to stand them in good stead for Olympic Fields. Pod has the character and the current confidence to do it and is at least worth a top-10 bet. The Ryder Cup showed Fasth that he is as good as the best on the US tour and a continuing putting touch could see him to a place on the leader board.
Olympic Fields is not a long hitter's paradise. By today's standards the six par fours at over 440 yards on the back nine pose little problem. The long well shaped drive will be rewarded, but, at more than most US Open venues, it is the shaped shot to the green that will glean the rewards. Willie Park Jnr designed this course almost a hundred years ago and it has changed little in character if not in length. A burn winds through the old oak tree lined fairways and, in keeping with US Open tradition, the rough will be long and dense.
What is today termed 'round management' but what is simply thought, will be required to win here and it is for this reason that I find it hard to see past Tiger Woods retaining his title.
The front nine at Olympia are short holes by modern standards and one should expect to see some very early low scoring. The back nine, however, will be the test and those prepared to forfeit length and the risk of the rough with a high fading 3-wood will benefit. Woods is the ultimate master of this area of the game as he showed at St Andrews in 2000 when he surely played his best golf ever. His long putting touch was with him then and I see little sign that it has deserted him since.
Woods tees off with Els on Thursday morning in what may well prove to be an historic event. If the Tiger can come back from missed cuts and apparent indifference to take this title, then Beam, Perry and the other pretenders who have had their moments in the sun will have to restructure their collective psychology. Should Els return to the form with which he stormed the start of the season then the Tiger will be tested. Will Tiger pass the test? My money says yes.
|| 9 - JUNE 2003