by Jeff Skinner
The USGA’s biggest and best party of the year is all set to kick into high gear tomorrow and as usual there are a ton of great storylines. The 111th U.S. Open may be headlined by the most ‘marquee’ of marquee groupings (Tiger, Phil and Bubba) but there is so much more to watch this week at The Olympic Club.
First of all there is the course itself. U.S. Open courses are always one of the stars of the tournament and this week will be no different. The Olympic Club Lake Course has had an amazing Open history with Hogan losing to Fleck, Palmer choking to Casper, Simpson topping Watson and Janzen beating a frustrated Stewart. The course has been changed quite a bit with new bent grass greens, hundreds of trees removed and of course the required ‘lengthening’. According to some of the players there are some holes that are on the edge and a few that could be dangerous. There’s no debate that this will be a very tough test and a score near par may just win it. And that’s just the way the USGA likes it.
The USGA also isn’t afraid to have some fun with their opening pairings as is evidenced by them teaming up three of the biggest draws in golf. Tiger, Phil and Bubba will play the first two rounds together and while that will be a heck of a lot of fun for those watching on television I can’t imagine what a mess it will be on the course. The groupings immediately in front and behind this trio will have a tough time with all the movement of the fans struggling to get a glimpse of this big three. Phil called the pairing ‘fabulous’ and Tiger said that they have had some good duels. But I see this causing problems for Bubba. Since his return he seems to have reverted to the ‘old Bubba’ who is easily disturbed and annoyed by distractions. He may be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And for those fans trying to follow this trio: good luck.
Another pairing has world 1,2,3 with Luke, Rory and Lee all together for day one and two. Each has their own cross to bear this week. Luke is still hearing it because he may be number one but is still missing that elusive major. Rory is trying to right his ship that saw him miss three straight cuts and then blow his chance to win in Memphis with two water balls during his closing charge. Then there his Westwood, one of the best ball strikers in the world whose putter refuses to let him claim a major championship. I honestly think that no player needs a major more than Lee and with the new Olympic Club greens rolling as true as any greens this could be Westwood’s chance to finally close the deal.
By now you’ve seen the amazing putt of Dennis Miller (not the comedian) that hung on the lip and then finally dropped to put the 42 year old club professional into his first Open. Miller is one of those feel good stories. He’s the director of golf at a very busy club in Ohio and how did he celebrate getting into the Open? He had an outing of 300 golfers he needed to manage the next day so it was right back to work for him. But you can’t help but love a “regular Joe” story like this. Miller puts the “Open” in the U.S. Open Championship.
Casey Martin is back at the Open which in 1998 was the scene of the historic battle between Martin and the PGA Tour when he sued for the right to be able to use a golf cart because of a disability with his leg. Now, Martin who is the golf coach at Oregon is back and seems to be more of a returning hero, quite a different scene from 1998 when his case fractured the golf world. Martin is a personable, gregarious man that had the press eating out of his hand during his press conference and is truly one of the feel good stories of the week.
Speaking of “feel good” how about the story of Andy Zhang. He’s the fourteen year old that will set a new record as the youngest player ever to participate in the Open when he starts on Thursday. He made it through qualifying and was in San Fran as an alternate and when Paul Casey withdrew, Zhang was in. But get this straight, Andy isn’t some video game playing, casual golfer he means business. He’s been attending the Leadbetter Academy in Florida for four years now and can hit it plenty long. His mom will have to drive the courtesy car he gets this week but I don’t think Andy has a problem with that.
We go from the youngest player to the oldest and here is another feel good story for sure. Michael Allen of Champions Tour fame (3 wins and 2 PGA Tour wins) grew up at Olympic Club and was a member since he was fourteen years old but he never qualified for the previous Opens at Olympic. This year he was determined to get back to his old club which he estimates he played 2,000 rounds on. Well, he qualified and there isn’t a player in the field that relishes his position more than Allen. His gallery may rival Tiger and Phil’s and if there is a home field advantage at Olympic Allen is the guy who has it.