JOHN MCHENRY: Too many players are beaten before they tee off

When we watch the very best sportstars in action we are consumed by their ability to produce brilliant moments of magic when it matters most. The higher the stage, the more memorable the feat.

Who can forget Zinedine Zidane’s individual performance for France when winning the 1998 World Cup final or Tiger Woods’ remarkable chip-in on the 16th hole that laid the foundation for his play-off win at the US masters in 2005 or indeed Ireland’s emotive rout of England in Croke Park in 2007? All huge occasions and memories forever etched into our minds.

Producing a key moment in any sporting arena at the highest level is rarely a once-off moment. It is a combination of vision and self–belief, expertly executed after countless hours of practice and incremental refinement behind closed doors.

While the most successful players are defined by the tiniest margins, the greatest players have separated themselves from the pack by their ability to seize that one chance, that one moment while others ponder, perhaps too afraid to make a mistake.

Perennial winners always find a way and with that comes a psychological advantage.

The majority of players starting out at Shinnecock Hills today have no chance of winning as they are either overawed by the status of the tournament, the course set-up or by the knowledge they cannot sustain a competitive challenge against the very best for all 72 holes.

For the favourites starting out their priority is to create a flexible tournament strategy that maximises the strengths of their game.

For the more one-dimensional players like Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, who are heavily influenced by momentum, it means playing with enough controlled aggression each round so that they make more birdies than bogies. 

For them it’s all about the win. Nothing else really counts but Shinnecock will quickly crush them if they show too much impatience.

Justin Rose, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth, on the other hand, are more complete golfers who can adopt different game strategies as required. Of the three, Rose, already a US Open Champion at Merion in 2013, is the form player but is nowhere near as accomplished when it comes to ‘delivering’ on the highest stage.

As impressive as Tiger’s comeback has been this year, he has struggled once in contention. I feel that his best chance to add to his major tally will come in the next two majors of the year.

Spieth, on the other hand, has become one of the most proficient players at finding a way to get himself into contention in the major championships in recent years. His short-range putting stats say he hasn’t much of a chance this week but you can’t count him out on any course that rigorously challenges a player’s shot-making ability, his course management, and his composure under pressure.

For those converted golf fans, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the US Open, the major most often dubbed ‘golf’s toughest test’ where the very best battle it out with fiendishly difficult layouts devised by the USGA.

It is one of golf’s most high profile events, where the world’s best players struggle to cope with a game that’s bordering on unfair — as was witnessed in the last round at Shinnecock Hills in 2004 when the players averaged 78.7 shots on the day.

Is this a good advert for an organisation challenged with growing the game amongst a younger generation who see easier and less time-consuming pastimes elsewhere?

The answer, of course, is an emphatic yes. Just as there are lesser tournaments, there should always be national championships where the best players and teams in the world pit their wits against each other.

This week it would be great to see a new star emerging from the pack, much like Rory McIlroy did when winning so impressively at Congressional in 2011, but don’t expect any favours from Mike Davis and the USGA.

That said, Phil Mickelson believes that the right balance has been struck in terms of the course set-up which suggests that good scores are there to be had but only if all facets of your game are on song.

That most probably means a golf course that is fair but severe and even penal if you wander too far off the preferred line. It means that the players must place a premium on positioning the golf ball and adjusting their strategies, if they want to attack the hole.

With the weather set fair and dry, it remains to be seen how much water the USGA are prepared to give the greens over the duration of the tournament.

The course will be allowed to dry out but by how much? That and the placement of the pin positions depend exclusively on how the USGA interpret the scoring.

Let’s just hope that the lessons have been learned and they don’t need to resort to any form of gimmickry as they did in 2004 at Shinnecock to keep scores down.

One fears that the intimidation and trepidation has already begun to seep into many of the players’ psyches.

Let the fun and games begin!

On the box 

  Sky Sports US Open will have over 40 hours of live coverage and a range of programming dedicated to the US Open at Shinnecock Hills.

Full live coverage starts at 4.30pm on all four days.

  Thursday: 1pm to 12.30am 

  Friday: 1pm to 12.30am 

  Saturday: 4.30pm to 12.30am 

  Sunday: 4.30pm to midnight.


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