Oakmont awaits man of steel to lift US Open trophy

Whoever lifts the US Open trophy in Pittsburgh this weekend, he will need to be a man of steel in the nerves department to triumph in a city once described as “hell with the lid taken off.”

Oakmont awaits man of steel to lift US Open trophy

Home to American icons from Andy Warhol to Charles Bronson and the backdrop for big screen hits like The Silence of the Lambs and Night of the Living Dead, it is no longer a maelstrom of soot, molten iron and coal-dusted mushroom clouds.

Belching blast furnaces made it “orange by night and grey by day”. Pittsburgh is America’s blue collar heartland, giving the world the first Big Mac and legendary American football quarterbacks from Dan Marino and Joe Montana to Joe Namath and Jim Kelly.

As of Sunday night, the City of Champions is also home to ice hockey’s Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

No American course has hosted as many US Opens — this will be No 9 — and it’s set to test every facet of the games of the current Big Three (Four) of Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy (and Rickie Fowler) as Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell.

Whatever about McIlroy’s majestic long game, he will need the short game and putting touch of golfing genius to conquer a course that combines the long, the short with the simply nasty.

The fairways have so much firmness and camber that finding them is nearly impossible and while there are those that believe that attack is the best form of defence from the tee, jungle like heavy rough and deep bunkers, which have been opened up to tee shots with clever mowing, await the wayward.

Play too safe, on the other hand, and you are faced with daunting approach shots to greens are so fast and undulating — half of them also slope from front to back rather than the other way around — that McDowell said they make Augusta’s look benign by comparison.

It’s little wonder then that Johnny Miller, who closed with an amazing 63 to win there in 1973, rates it as the best in the world.

Superman is the most famous man of steel of them all and McIlroy will need to produce a performance in the superhero bracket to see off holder Spieth, world No 1 Day and the in-form Dustin Johnson to name just three.

It’s Oakmont’s fearsome greens that give it teeth and McIlroy is confident with putter in hand for the first time in over a year after going back to his traditional grip following a three-month experiment with left below right.

McIlroy had the best putting performance of his career as he finished fourth at the Memorial and he could not have sounded happier about the turnaround following a bad week on the greens in an otherwise dream week at the Irish Open.

“Oakmont looks like an awesome golf course,” said the world No.3, who ended a six-month victory drought with an Irish Open triumph last month.

“It’s going to be tough. It looks unbelievably hard and it will reward very good ball-striking.

“I remember seeing a bit of it in 2007 when Angel Cabrera won. I would say that you are probably going to expect a similar score of five over to win this year — if conditions are the way they want them to be.”

McIlroy played the course on Monday and Tuesday last and won a member guest team event. He’ll be wary of the challenge posed by Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Rickie Fowler, Branden Grace, and Phil Mickelson, who is seeking the final leg of the career Grand Slam in a US Open.

“I’ve played Oakmont the last two days, and I really think it is the hardest golf course we’ve ever played,” Mickelson said this week.

“They don’t know what the weather is going to be next week, if it’s going to be dry or if it’s going to be wet.

“So what they do is they let the rough grow long, and if it is wet, they’ll leave it like that, and if it’s dry they’ll thin it out. So yesterday the rough was extremely long, I guess, and challenging.

“It’s a very fair test, even though it’s hard. But a lot of golf courses, when they challenge you tee to green the way Oakmont does, it usually has a little bit of a reprieve on the greens.

“You really don’t at Oakmont. They’re some of the most undulating, fast, difficult greens to putt. It really is the hardest golf course I think we’ve played.”

While players can hit fairway woods and irons for position off the tee, McIlroy’s long, straight driving can give him an edge and allow him to go into the tough greens with shorter irons.

No-one in the field knows how to get the job done at Oakmont better than Els, who won after a 20-hole play-off here as a 24 year old in 1994, seeing off Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie.

Revealing his secret, Els said: “Well, it starts really from the tee. The better position you have in the fairway, the better you can either attack the flag or the greens or play it safe.

“The thing you have to do is try and keep yourself under the hole. If that’s playing away from the flag, you know, try and do that. I remember in ‘94, I was No. 1 in greens in regulation.

“The more greens you hit over here this week, the better you’re going to score.

“Even if you go with a 3-iron off the tee, make sure you hit the fairway and then try and hit it on the green. This is serious US Open golf here this week. It’s at its best.

“If you’re going to miss a shot here, whether it’s with a 3-wood off the tee into the rough or a driver into the rough, you’re not getting to the green with your second shot.”

Tiger Woods is absent this year but having finished second to Angel Cabrera in 2007, he believed the greens were the key. Woods said: “You’re really going to have to play well from tee-to-green, and then the fun really begins.”

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