Now comes a shot at redemption. Now that the U.S. Open is here, so is the first chance to erase the memory of a meltdown of epic proportions, one that shook the golf world. This is the opportunity to right the ship and leave all the shock and embarrassment behind.
All of that could apply to Jordan Spieth, of course, after his collapse on the back nine at the Masters. But the one really in need of a comeback this week at Oakmont Country Club outside Pittsburgh is the U.S. Open itself. Returning to such familiar ground could erase the jagged memories of the 2015 tournament, which, by many measures, was a debacle.
The course at Chambers Bay, a new course, might not have been ready for its first shot at hosting the toughest test in golf. It appeared extremely burned out on TV, to the point where viewers said they could not see golf balls on the greens. Golfers dealt with greens that were not entirely smooth. Spectators endured severe problems walking from here to there. Then there was the matter of Fox televising the national championship for the first time, to mostly bad reviews.
At best, it was a bumpy ride for all concerned. It got so bad that Spieth, who won when Dustin Johnson missed a short potential playoff-forcing putt on the final hole, was essentially asked on national TV to praise the whole week and he diplomatically complimented the fans.
Everything will be different this week with a return to Oakmont, which has held the U.S. Open eight times (and the PGA Championship three times).
“We go back to an old friend this year,” Curtis Strange, the most recent repeat Open winner, said on a conference call hosted by Fox, for which he will be an analyst. “One that is very, very difficult. One that is very fair.
“Certainly, at Chambers Bay there was a number of question marks,” Strange said, adding that Oakmont is a vivid contrast. “It’s a traditional, tough U.S. Open golf course. A big part of the story line is that people will know what they’re looking at. They have seen it before many times. They can’t wait for Oakmont to see how the best in the world play it — versus last year, which was the great unknown.”
This time, the greatest unknown is who will be best at dealing with possibly glasslike greens — Oakmont inspired the Stimpmeter, which measures green speeds — and a host of other familiar challenges.
“The bunkers at Oakmont are so deep that probably 75 percent of the time, you’re going to have to lay up out of them,” said Paul Azinger, who has replaced Greg Norman as the lead analyst for Fox. “But really, in the end, it’s about the greens. They’re the fastest in the world. You can’t really predict when the ball is going to stop rolling there.”
Phil Mickelson said this week, having practiced there, “I real ly think it is the hardest course we’ve ever played.”
But he said it respectfully, not ruefully, as he had spoken of Oakmont in 2007. Back then, before Angel Cabrera won with a score of 5 over par, Mickelson used a salty phrase about the U.S. Golf Association’s setup. He had injured his wrist trying to hit out of thick rough in a practice round. He made no mention of anything like that this time, which might mean the course actually will be more benign.
Oakmont is deliberately difficult, even between Opens. Members like it that way. W.C. Fownes, son of course architect Henry Fownes, once said, “A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost.” Current membership evoked the spirit of the elder Fownes by removing nearly all of the trees on the property, restoring the original wide-open look.
Despite all the talk of hardship, Oakmont is perhaps best known for a record low score. Johnny Miller won the 1973 U.S. Open there with the first 63 shot in a major. Some say it was the greatest golf round ever played. In any case, it showed that anything can happen.
Plus, people who have been there recently say Oakmont is decidedly green, unlike Chambers Bay. Joe Buck, the lead announcer for Fox, vigorously defended everything about the previous Open, citing the fact that Spieth triumphed. As for his own network’s maiden performance, he said during the conference call: “I refuse to come on here and apologize for 2015. That’s ridiculous.”
Yet it would be hard to argue against Oakmont representing the comeback story of the year. As Strange said, “Everything is going to be better because we’re at a grand old place to play golf.”