Meraj Shah: Winning the US Open is all about the power of the human will

Long-hitter Cameron Champ will be hoping to become the first amateur to win the US Open in 84 years.

There’s an interesting anecdote about Jack Nicklaus and Major Championships: after practice rounds, Nicklaus would take note of the players who came in to the locker room complaining about the golf course. He’d knock their names off his list of contenders to watch out for. His rationale was straightforward: you’re not going to win if you’re whining about the golf course. The golf course is not going to change, but if you approach it as a challenge, then you’re in with a chance.

Earlier this week, the course—Erin Hills in Wisconsin—hosting the US Open, did, in fact, change a wee bit: the USGA, the governing body for golf in the US and which organises the ‘toughest test in golf’, sent in mowing teams on the eve of the first round of the tournament to trim the fescue abutting a few fairways. The move was seemingly prompted (subsequently denied by the USGA) by a deluge of players, including Kevin Na, Lee Westwood and Wesley Bryan, who took to social media to air their disapproval of the thickness of this gnarly grass in the first cut, and rough. Fescue is a bit like gorse, but more tangled and thick; apparently, as Na demonstrated in a video, you could drop a ball into the thick stuff at Erin Hills, and still struggle to find it.

Not everyone was happy with the development, especially Rory McIlroy who responded angrily at the pre-tournament press conference: “We have 60-yard fairways from left to right. These are the widest fairways we’ve ever played in a US Open. Even the first and second cut (of intermediate rough) is another 10 yards on top of that,” McIlroy said on Tuesday, adding, that players unable to hit the (wide) fairways ought to “pack their bags and go home”. McIlroy is arguably the finest driver of the golf ball, combining prodigious length with accuracy, and the Ulsterman was obviously incensed by a move that he felt was taking away some of his edge over the field.

As it turned out, McIlroy was unable to bring his A-game to the fore, and is possibly already back in northern Ireland after missing the cut. For all the predictions and odds on players who’re expected to do well at brutal long courses, things haven’t progressed according to script at the 2017 US Open. Joining McIlRoy is the top-ranked player in the world—Dustin Johnson. The punters must hate Johnson—possibly the most athletic man ever to wield a golf club—who has come a cropper at a Major Championship where he started as the undisputed favourite. Johnson missed the cut after totalling four-over for the opening rounds. Although by no means is that as much of a shocker as his last-minute withdrawal from the Player’s Championship a couple of months back, it still underscores the mercurial nature of Johnson’s play. Johnson can take solace, if any, in the fact that joining him on the exit roll are some of the best players on the planet, including Jason Day, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Jason Dufner, Adam Scott, and Danny Willett.

Erin Hills is, for the record, the longest course ever to host the US Open. At 7,839 yards, with hard baked greens, it fits the stereotype of the kind of venues the event has been held on in the past decade. What no one counted on, however, was the weather changing the equation in favour of the players: the rain when it came on Wednesday night, softened the greens leading to a glut of par-breaking scores that you never see in a US Open. Leading the charge at seven-under after the opening round was Rickie Fowler who was replaced at the top by a quartet—Englishmen Paul Casey and Tommy Fleetwood, and long-hitting Americans Brooks Koepka and Biran Harman—after the second round. Casey and Fleetwood are two of four international players in the top 10 along with Korean Si Woo Kim (who’s won on the PGA Tour twice this year) and Hideki Matsuyama from Japan. The biggest surprise in the top 10 at the turn is amateur Cameron Champ who’s tied-eighth after two rounds; amateurs, who don’t make any prize money usually tend to attack golf courses more than the pros who’re more likely to play the consolidation game. Champ has employed his fearlessness to full effect over the opening two days, but how that strategy works over the weekend at a US Open, where aggression rarely pays dividends remains to be seen. An analysis of Champs’ stats over the first two days throw up an interesting insight into what’s worked for him at Erin Hills. Champ ranks 66th in fairways hit; 40th in Greens-in-regulation; 20th in putting; and, you guessed it, first in driving distance, averaging 340 yards off the tee.

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I have to admit that I’m a bit of on the fence when it comes to the US Open’s penchant for insanely long golf courses—a trend that’s only intensified over the past decade. The USGA’s contention is that the tournament needs to represent the ‘toughest test in golf.’ While I have no ambiguity in lashing out at the indiscriminate distances the golf ball is able to fly these days, or for that matter, the rise of ‘air golf’ (as opposed to the links-style play, which encourages creativity around the greens), there is some merit in the USGA’s argument. I mean, at least on the USPGA Tour, the entire season is choc-a-bloc with venues that are set up to encourage scoring and birdies—great for players and spectators alike. Perhaps there is a case for just one tournament that pushes the frontiers; that makes life difficult for the pros; tests their mental fortitude and tenacity to rise above adversity. Who can forget Tiger Woods’ 18-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines in 2008; battling the course on an injured knee, Woods scripted what will be remembered as his most astonishing achievement. That wasn’t just a Major Championship win—it was a triumph of the human spirit, against all odds. The players need, to paraphrase an old American Indian axiom, ‘saddle up, and stop sniffling.’ And that’s why, there was really no reason to trim the fescue.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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