• Taming the Beast

    2020 US Open
    2020 US Open

    Two of the last three US Opens have been low scoring, but this one at Winged Foot might be different, writes GARY LEMKE.


    Tiger Woods is the greatest front-runner golf has ever seen. Some might say he’s the greatest golfer, period. But as we head into the second men’s Major of 2020 it is worth dwelling on one of the statistics that make him the GOAT for so many people. The sport does throw up some fascinating trends and one of them is that very few men’s golfers win a Major wire-to-wire.

    This was again illustrated at The PGA Championship in August, where Jason Day and Brendon Todd posted first-round 65s at TPC Harding – yet both slipped back and finished fourth and 17th respectively. In the history of men’s Majors, on only 26 of the 452 occasions, less than 6%, that the first-round leader has gone on to win, leading throughout. And Woods, who has won 15 Majors, has led from start to finish in four of them. Raymond Floyd won three Majors from the front and Rory McIlroy did it twice. No one else has managed to do so more than once.

    Collin Morikawa, who came through to win his first Major at The PGA Championship, had opened with a 69 at TPC Harding, as did Dustin Johnson, who finished tie-second.

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    Yet, as we approach the US Open, history tells us this is the tournament where it’s most likely to happen. Five times in the past 20 years the first-round leader as gone on to lead all the way. By contrast, it’s happened twice at the PGA Championship and Open Championship and only once (Jordan Spieth in 2015) at The Masters.

    So, the books tell us that if Woods or McIlroy are leading after the first round of the US Open at Winged Foot, you might want to put a wager on them going on to record another of these rare occurrences. There are three other active players who have experience of going wire to wire – Spieth, Martin Kaymer (2014 US Open) and Brooks Koepka (2019 PGA Championship).

    But, that’s before we start looking a little deeper at where this year’s US Open is being staged. Winged Foot has hosted the Major five times, the most recent being in 2006 when Australia’s Geoff Ogilvy won the only Major of his career. He did so from climbing the leaderboard from a first-round seventh to third after 54 holes before a closing round of 72 saw him hold off Jim Furyk, Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie by one stroke.

    It made for wild viewing. Ogilvy’s 72-hole total of 285 was five over par and some say he was gifted the title when Mickelson made a double-bogey on the final hole. A par would have been good enough to see ‘Lefty’ win by a stroke and a bogey would have set up a Monday 18-hole playoff.

    ‘I am still in shock that I did that. I just can’t believe that I did that. I am such an idiot,’ Mickelson said hours later. ‘The biggest reason this is so disappointing is that this is a tournament that I dreamed of winning as a kid. I spent countless hours practising, dreaming of winning this tournament. I came out here months in advance to get ready and had it right there in my hand, man. It was right there and I let it go.’ It remains the only Major Mickelson has not won.

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    Ogilvy had the grace to admit, ‘I think I was the beneficiary of a little bit of charity.’

    The previous occasion the US Open was staged at Winged Foot was in 1984 when Fuzzy Zoeller prevailed over Greg Norman in the Monday playoff. The pair had been the only players to finish the regular 72 in red numbers. Ten years before that Hale Irwin had won at Winged Foot with a seven-over-par total; Gary Player was tie seventh at 13-over. The tournament was turned into a book by Dick Schaap. The Massacre At Winged Foot was rather a dramatic title but sportswriters do have a reputation for overdoing the hyperbole. Still, it should give some indication of what awaits the field when they tee it up at this course outside New York this month.

    Before that, Bill Caspar had shot two-over in winning in 1959, while Bobby Jones was six-over after 72 when he won in 1929 via a play-off.

    One of the sacrifices made to ensure this year’s US Open goes ahead, albeit in its later spot on the calendar, is to have the field in that ‘bio-bubble’ which has become part of post-Covid-19 lockdowns, meaning there won’t be any spectators.

    ‘Without a crowd it definitely plays very differently,’ said Morikawa after his victory at TPC Harding. ‘But whether crowds were here or not, I still had to get it done.’

    Why is Winged Foot such a challenging course when set up under US Open conditions? The answer is the greens. Only Augusta National and Crystal Downs are in a similar class with a set of 18 unique surfaces that contain combinations of humps, ridges, spines and false fronts. Game management is critical on this course and when approaching the green, position ‘A’ is to ensure your balls settle below the hole.

    The fairways are notoriously narrow and the course layout is dotted with dogleg holes. Draws are required on holes 1, 4, 5, 14, 16 and 18, while fades are needed on 2, 8, 11, 15 and 17. And for added measure there are deep bunkers left and right of every green except the 18th. Ultimately, the steadiest player with the hottest putter wins this particular race. It’s not a course you can ‘bomb’ from the tee, although the game has moved on since the last US Open was held at Winged Foot 14 years ago to know that some will be trying to do just that.

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    Leading the putting stats of those who are in the US Open field after the PGA Championship was Matthew Fitzpatrick, followed by Kevin Na, Kristoffer Ventura, Matt Kuchar and Bryson DeChambeau. Christiaan Bezuidenhout was in 11th place on that particular list, despite missing the cut at the PGA Championship by one stroke. Those who are fond of a bet should bear these putting statistics in mind when looking for value.

    It seems unlikely we will see a wire-to-wire winner at Winged Foot. Before Koepka achieved that at the 2019 PGA Championship we had to go back to Spieth at the 2015 Masters – at that stage he was the best putter in the game – while both Kaymer and McIlroy went start to finish in 2014 at the US Open and Open Championship, respectively.

    When Retief Goosen won the 2001 US Open at Southern Hills Country Club he led all the way, although needed the Monday playoff to see off Mark Brooks. The South African missed a two-footer to win his first Major on the 72nd hole to fall into the playoff. Drama? If you’re looking for it, the US Open is where to find it. This year will be no different.

    However, the tournament also produced probably the greatest display of front-running golf has ever seen.

    Woods opened with a 65 at Pebble Beach in 2000 – eventual runner-up Ernie Els was nine shots back after his 74. That 65 was followed by a round of 69, which took him 13 clear of Els at the halfway stage, before the weekend saw Woods post totals of 71 and 67 for a 72-hole total of 272, 12-under-par. Els and Miguel Angel Jiminez were in a tie for second, 15 shots behind on three-over 287. The top 10 also included golfers of the ability of Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood, Nick Faldo, David Duval and Vijay Singh. We are unlikely to see total domination like we did back in June 20 years ago.

    Woods is now 44 and seemingly marooned on 15 Major titles. Yes, he won last year’s Masters to end an 11-year Major drought but his performance at TPC Harding showed he is a shadow of his former self. ‘It’s just a lack of tournament golf,’ Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava, said. ‘When you’re under the gun and grinding and every shot actually counts, that makes a difference. I don’t know what he did and didn’t do over the five [lockdown] months. I know he played some golf with his son and practised some.’

    Ordinarily, one would think that Winged Foot will bring Woods into the picture with its narrow fairways, fierce rough and tricky greens. But the reality is that that his driving has become erratic and the operations on his back have taken a toll. The long irons aren’t fired with the laser accuracy of yesteryear and the strain on his back in getting out of the rough will make things tough.

    Then again, this is the US Open, not a run-of-the-mill tournament where approach shots are like golfers taking aim at the bull on a dartboard. This is not target golf, which is why no lead is ever a comfortable one.

    LEFTY IS RIGHT

    There are two things missing from Phil Mickelson’s CV. One of that he has never won the US Open despite being runner-up six times and the other is that he has never been ranked No 1 in the world. The second won’t happen and the first, well, as long as you’ve got a ticket you’ve got a chance. ‘You can’t win if you don’t play, so you’ve got to be in the tournament to have a chance to win,’ he said. ‘I’m also realistic. A US Open is going to be more difficult for me now than it probably was because I drive it the way I drive it, and so that week in 2006 my short game was the best it’s been in my career and I got up-and-down from everywhere. I know that I’ll have to do the same and hopefully drive it better.’

    LOWEST WINNING SCORES
    (Past 60 years)
    -16 Rory McIlroy (2011), Brooks Koepka (2017)
    -13 Gary Woodland (2019)
    -12 Tiger Woods (2000)
    -9 Martin Kaymer (2014)

    HIGHEST WINNING SCORES
    (Past 60 years. Bold denotes played at Winged Foot)
    +9 Julius Boris (1963)
    +7 Hale Irwin (1974)
    +5 Geoff Ogilvy (2006), Angel Cabrera (2007)
    +3 Lou Graham (1973)
    +2 Gary Player (1965), Jack Nicklaus (1972)

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