Date: June 08, 2007

US Open preview

By Alistair Hogg The world&aposs best golfers head to Pennsylvania next week for the 107th US Open Championship at Oakmont. Australian Geoff Ogilvy will be among them, aiming to become the first player since Curtis Strange in 1989 to defend his title. Ogilvy&aposs win last year surprised many, possibly even Ogilvy himself who was two shots down with three holes to play at Winged Foot; but Phil Mickelson, Colin Montgomerie and Jim Furyk all faltered around him. However, Ogilvy, who turns 30 the week before this year&aposs tournament, still had to make two clutch pars (including a chip-in) and hold his nerve to win his first major. The event is the second major on the golfing calendar and traditionally the toughest with players predicting a winning score may even surpass 10-over the card. Oakmont is back to its mighty best as it hosts a record eighth US Open. The sprawling layout in Pittsburgh commonly ranks among the best golf courses in America and has previously hosted the US PGA Championship, US Women&aposs Open and the US Amateur, including Aussie Nick Flanagan&aposs triumph in 2003. The course has undergone a significant facelift in the last decade after criticisms that it was too leafy. In 1994 Oakmont course consultant Arthur Hills set about removing vast numbers of trees across the course but faced stiff resistance from members who argued it was compromising the integrity of the historic layout. As a result, tree removalist crews would work under the cover of darkness and remove all evidence of their work by daylight. Members eventually caught on to what was happening but many had changed their perceptions of the work after enjoying the clearer views and improved grass quality that came as a result of direct sunlight. Over the years, more than 5000 trees were removed as Oakmont made the decision that trees were a redundant feature of their panoramic layout. However just because the course is clearer doesn&apost mean it will be any easier to play. Oakmont still throws up a plethora of challenges, none more so than the par-five 12th, that will test even the most adept golfers. The 610m monster is the longest hole in US Open history. It has an amazing 17 bunkers, strategically placed to gobble up any wayward shots (there are a total of 178 on the course). Fortunately for players, the bunkering at Oakmont will not be as furrowed as it has been in previous eras. The deep sand ridges would not allow players to do much more than simply escape from the trap. Numerous commentators of the game have said how modern players don&apost mind being in the traps because they are so adept at stroking the ball out of the sand into a favourable position. The argument is that players should be discouraged from finding bunkers, rather than using them as safety nets when attacking the green from distance. Another hole many might struggle on is the par-three eighth. Normally it measures 230 metres, but a newly installed back tee has extended it to a whopping 263 metres. However if the pin is positioned toward the back of the green, the distance may even exceed 275 metres which is a stern test for any low iron or even fairway wood depending on how the wind blows. It will also make it the longest par-three in US Open history. The average fairway will be 24 metres in width which is the same as at Winged Foot last year, but it&aposs the rough that players need to be concerned about. The first cut on most holes exceeds seven centimetres which extends to over 15 centimetres in the second cut. In a recent press conference at Oakmont Country Club, US Golf Association championship committee chairman Jim Hyler said, “We want it to be hard, but we also want it to be fair.” Hyler also added that the course won&apost be set up to attract a record score, nor will it set out to put players through the rigorous test that was Winged Foot last year in which Ogilvy&aposs five-over won. “There are no target scores for a US Open,” he said. “We&aposre going to set up the course to be hard, but fair and whatever the (winning) score turns out to be is whatever it turns out to be.” Senior Director of Rules and Competitions, Mike Davis, is preparing to set up his 18th US Open and said the course will play 6611 metres to a par 70. Although there are many challenges and hazards through the course, there will be several opportunities for players to take risks and pick up shots throughout the tournament. “We think it&aposs great drama,” said Oakmont pro Bob Ford when asked about driveable par fours. “You&aposll see a lot of excitement here”, he added. “You&aposll see lots of birdies and eagles.” This philosophy is a stark contrast to the one seen at Augusta National for the recent Masters tournament which attracted widespread criticism for making a course that was too difficult to score on in a finish that lacked the usual drama and pizzazz. So although it is one of the hardest courses in the United States, Oakmont will provide plenty of excitement as 156 of the world&aposs best players tackle the beast from Thursday June 14. Joining Ogilvy at Oakmont are 17 other Australians including Peter Lonard, MFS Australian Open Champion John Senden and evergreen Steve Elkington who was the last Aussie to win a major before Ogilvy&aposs triumph last year. Marcus Fraser will also join the field after successfully negotiating last week&aposs qualifying. As a boost for Australian golf fans, Network Ten has announced at least 21 hours of live high-definition coverage from Oakmont. Click here for more information.