Few will pass this exam at Oakmont


Early last century, when HC Fownes created this devilishly difficult course, he didn't have much sympathy for those who flinched at the task of attempting to conquer it. "Let the clumsy, the spineless and the alibi-makers stand aside," he retorted when quizzed of its level of difficulty.

And, down through the years, Oakmont has produced a series of champions - among them Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus - who refused to be intimidated and who ultimately prevailed.

Who will follow in such esteemed footsteps in this, the eighth staging of the US Open at Oakmont? For sure, the one left standing will require fortitude, accuracy off the tee, creative shot-making, a hot putter . . . and, you suspect, an element of luck on a course that Rory Sabbatini has referred to as, "Shinnecock Hills on steroids".

Indeed, the locker-room consensus is that an over-par total - perhaps three, maybe four or even five-over - will win, although, as Padraig Harrington put it, "generally when we get in to play a golf course, we figure out how to play it".

Yes, it will break the hearts of many, but someone will find a way to conquer it.

This 107th US Open, though, promises to be intriguing on a number of fronts. The course, as ever under the USGA set-up, will pose questions that most will be unable to answer, but the intrigue goes beyond that.

Phil Mickelson's welfare, for one, is a concern.

Although Lefty, wearing a brace on his injured left wrist, insists he will compete, he couldn't manage a full 18 holes in practice (again limiting himself to nine holes yesterday), and you must wonder if he'll be able to commit on shots from the rough.

As ever, Tiger Woods comes into the championship as favourite; but not of the runaway variety. In his last three majors, Woods has gone 1st-1st-2nd in a run that has taken in the British Open, US PGA and US Masters. And, yet, the US Open is the one major that consistently gives him most problems.

Admittedly, Woods has won two, in 2000 and 2002, but the nature of the traditional tough set-up hasn't allowed him to exert his will as he would wish.

Of those in the field, only Ernie Els knows what it is like to win at Oakmont. But the course has changed considerably since his victory in the 1994 US Open.

The upshot of the deforestation programme that led to some 5,000 trees being uprooted is that there is more of a linksy feel to the course, with the fairways firmer and the greens playing faster.

"This is serious US Open golf here, these are the toughest greens we'll ever play," said Els.

Ultimately, it will come down to who manages the greens best - firstly with approach shots that hold the putting surface, then, crucially, with the blade in hand.

On this point, Mickelson leads the US Tour statistics on putting this season, followed by Justin Rose. And, on a point of information, Harrington is ranked fourth.

Although he missed the cut in St Jude last week, his first since the US PGA last August, Harrington has prepared well. He has reverted to his old Odyssey two-ball putter and, a year on from getting into the thick of the action at Winged Foot, the Dubliner believes he is mentally and physically ready.

"I'm going to try and bring my best game in. If I'm in the position (to win) at the end of the week, with a few holes to go, I'll feel as good as anybody in that position."

Harrington pointed to his win in the Irish Open as a confidence-booster. "The best way of winning is to keep giving yourself opportunities. It's a numbers game. The more chances you have, the more chances you're going to have to win.

"My whole goal with any major, now and into the future, is to give myself the best chance of being there on the back nine in the final round. If I'm in that position, anything can happen," he said.

And, like all of the other top European players, the Luke Donalds and Paul Caseys, Henrik Stensons and Sergio Garcias, Harrington is only too aware of the perennial question regarding their failures to win a major.

Harrington remarked: "At the end of the day, who knows who is going to win this tournament? If the Europeans had won the last 25, would we have a better or less chance of winning? The law of averages says a European will win one eventually."

The stark statistic is that no European has won a major since Paul Lawrie in the British Open in 1999, and no European has won the US Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970. Could it be time for the law of averages to right itself?

It could happen, and Harrington, with four top-10 finishes in nine US Open appearances, is perhaps better equipped than anyone to end those respective droughts.

One thing for sure, the next four days will appeal only to those who grind. Men like Harrington. Men like Jim Furyk. Men like Stewart Cink.

And, perhaps ominously, men like Tiger Woods.