Layout promises wide Open contest

 

Golf US Open: Down by the first hole here, you'll find the kind of sign - with letters burned into the wood in much the same way as cattle were branded in the old cowboy movies - which says simply: "Olympia Fields Home of Champions."

By Sunday evening, that much will be true; but what sort of champion emerges from this 103rd staging of the US Open Championship is a matter of some conjecture.

In many ways, the jury is out on how the course will measure up to the task of finding the perfect champion. Davis Love III described it as a "classic course", and others concurred, but, on the flip side of the coin, its critics haven't hung back.

One American journalist this week rather unkindly referred to the North Course as "a goat track, a course devoid of charm, character and calamity". Not that you'll find Padraig Harrington - one of 17 Europeans in the field, and the one deemed most likely to end the European drought in this particular championship, which goes back to Tony Jacklin's win in 1970 - agreeing with such sentiments.

"Who called it that?" enquired Harrington, whilst walking down the fifth fairway during his second practice round yesterday. "This is a great course, one that can be quite brutal because there is no let-up. You are forced to think on every tee-shot and you can't afford to miss the fairway."

Ernie Els, too, is impressed, and he knows a thing or two about what it takes to win a US Open. "It's a classic course," insisted the South African, winner of this major in 1994 and 1997. "If you get under par, you'll have a really good tournament."

Olympia Fields has been home to champions since Jack Hutchinson won the Western Open in 1920 but it has not played host to a US Open since 1928, when Johnny Farrell beat Bobby Jones in a play-off. Tiger Woods, who defends a title he won for the second time at Bethpage Black last year, is again the favourite - isn't he always? - and, yet, there is much evidence to suggest this title is wide open, with any number of prospective winners.

The main argument for this is that the driver, although not taken out of the bag, will have a reduced influence as players are forced to think their way around the course. In short, you don't have to be especially long off the tee to conquer the course: the key part is to keep to the fairways, to find the greens - more undulating than traditional US Open courses - and, once there, to avoid getting bitten on greens that read 13 on the stimpmetre. It's the sort of golf that Woods likes to describe as "plodding your way around". In true USGA fashion, however, the course itself is in pristine condition.

The rough was cropped for the last time on Tuesday evening. At its deepest, it will measure three-and-a-half inches throughout the championship and the intermediate rough will be one and a quarter inches, while other hazards that require to be negotiated include a creek that runs through the course. Up to yesterday, tree surgeons were removing branches that overhung greens, all part of the master plan to unveil a worthy winner.

Who that winner will be is the intriguing factor. Woods hasn't won since the Bay Hill Invitational in March - and has had only one top-10 finish in his four outings since then - which doesn't quite amount to a slump, but does suggest he may be more vulnerable than usual in a major.

Then, there is Mike Weir, the Canadian who is attempting to join an elite club whose members have followed up a win at the US Masters by adding the US Open title.

Only five players have won both in the same year - Craig Wood in 1941, Ben Hogan in 1951 and 1953, Arnold Palmer in 1960, Jack Nicklaus in 1972 and Tiger Woods in 2002.

After Woods won the Masters in 2001 and 2002, people thought he had a chance at winning the Grand Slam. There's not much talk of Weir doing the same, but he remarked: "I'm not insulted. Tiger is a guy who won four majors in succession, so it is a legitimate question. For me, it was my first major . . . but I feel there is a possibility I could do it, win the Grand Slam. Things have to fall into place and the stars have to line up, but we'll see what happens this weekend. You never rule anything out."

The hottest player on the US Tour these days is Kenny Perry - who has won his last two tournaments - while Love is top of the moneylist over here. This will be Love's second tournament since his brother-in-law - who was being investigated by the FBI for allegedly taking money from Love's account - killed himself, and Love still hasn't got over the tragedy. "I think it will be a welcome challenge for me to get out and play a tournament that keeps me distracted for a while. If the US Open doesn't get you concentrating, nothing is going to."

As in any US Open, there is a premium on accuracy - but Darren Clarke and Phil Mickelson are among those who have decided that safety first does not best suit their chances of winning. Clarke believes the driver is his best club in the bag and intends to use it - "I don't want to play anyone else's game," he remarked - and he believes if the strategy works he has a chance of winning his first major. "And if it doesn't work out," he added, "it means I'll have a short weekend . . . but I am not interested in simply making the cut, in finishing 24th or 25th."

For Harrington, this is a major test in more ways than one. He is now the acknowledged top player on the European Tour and, as such, carries the main hopes of producing a long-overdue European winner. "I'm quite looking forward to the challenge," he insisted. "I think I will enjoy the test of it." After missing the cut in the US Masters, this is his chance for atonement.