Favourites' graveyard has many ghosts

 

THEY HAVE a couple of names for this place, where you can sneak views of the Golden Gate Bridge from various vantage points. One is its official name, the Olympic Club; the other is an unofficial moniker, the Graveyard of Legends.

In past US Opens, legendary figures of the magnitude of Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Payne Stewart were all, in turn, denied their destiny here. All had one hand on the trophy. All had it snatched from their grasp.

For this 112th edition of the US Open on the Lake Course, those lumbered with favouritism are a mix of those who have savoured Major glory – Tiger, Rory, Phil – and those who haven’t – Luke, Lee and Jason – but all head into this season’s second Major facing the same challenge: an undulating tree-lined track that would likely test the patience of a saint with its multitude of doglegs and cambered fairways. The last man standing will have earned his crown!

“It’s going to be all about mental,” observed US Masters champion Bubba Watson. For sure, the mental game – especially patience – will be vital. But, as ever at a US Open where driving accuracy is important, the real key will come down to the short game and to putting in particular.

Indeed, those setting off in the quest for the US Open trophy know it will be a grind. Rory McIlroy, seeking to become the first player to successfully defend the famed trophy since Curtis Strange in 1989, and the other 155 players in the field, are faced by one of the toughest starts anywhere in the game.

The opening six holes, framed by towering pines and cypress trees, were described as “just brutal, brutal holes” by former champion Johnny Miller who added: “I’ve never seen a tougher opening stretch of holes anywhere in the history of major championship golf.”

Phil Mickelson, for one, opined that the stretch was “not unplayable” but the consensus is that anyone who manages to come through those opening holes at level par will be doing well. As Lee Westwood put it: “you just try and get off to a steady start and not make too many mistakes, (try) to come out of it unscathed and try to pick up a few birdies on the way in,” adding, tongue in cheek, “because it gets so much easier after that.”

“Pretty damn tough, aren’t they?” conceded Pádraig Harrington, who showed signs that his game has come around in a top-15 finish in last week’s St Jude Classic. The Dubliner also spent a lot of time over the past few days working with Dr Bob Rotella, his mind guru, on getting a pre-shot trigger thought.

The fact is the Olympic lay-out will ask serious questions. History, though, suggests it is not always the usual suspects who provide the answers. And the intrigue about this particular US Open is the golfing rehabilitation of Tiger Woods, coming here on the back of his win at the Memorial, along with signs that McIlroy has rediscovered the pep in his step that deserted him in a miserable run through May.

Unlike his preparations for the Masters at Augusta, when he took three weeks off ahead of the championship, McIlroy’s approach this time – albeit forced on him by circumstances – has been entirely different in that it will be his fourth straight week playing competitively. Any tiredness?

“I feel fresh, like it’s worked out well for me . . . . it’s not like it’s my fourth tournament in a row and I’ve been in contention four weeks in a row and it drains you and takes a lot out of you mentally and physically,” he said.

McIlroy’s form since his win in the Honda Classic in March has been disappointing: a run of t-40th/2nd/MC/MC/MC/t-7th and a concession that he’d taken his eye off the ball has brought a response which has seen him work tirelessly on the range and in the gym. He has also picked the brains of Jack Nicklaus – “it’s great when you have the opportunity to sit down with arguably the best player that’s ever lived” – and come here with a refreshed, keener approach.

Ditto for Woods, it must be said. After his disappointing performance at Augusta, Woods’s work with coach Sean Foley has reaped dividends, and the addition of a left-to-right shaped shot in his armoury will be effective on this course.

But there are a host of contenders. Rather strangely, Luke Donald – whose game, you’d imagine, was made for US Opens – has never played well in this championship and has yet to even manage a top-10. “I feel like I’m good at plodding my way around a golf course,” observed Donald, the world number one.

Westwood, for his part, has his sights set on a first Major title. As he seeks to put the icing on the cake of an illustrious career that has one major hole in it, he said: “I can’t figure out what’s my kind of golf course and what isn’t any more. I think my game seems to be fairly suited to most.”

The Englishman tops the greens-in-regulation on the US Tour and that statistic bodes well.

This so-called graveyard for favourites has many ghosts. Tiger. Rory. Phil. Luke. Lee. Bubba. Jason Dufner, too, who has earned the right to join them this season, should tread with care. All it takes is for an Aaron Baddeley or a Colt Knost or someone of that ilk to emerge from the pack to continue the legend of past unheralded champions. The cast of usual suspects, those favourites, might not like it; but it could happen.