I made a dramatic change Wednesday to my morning routine. Instead of tuning into the Golf Channel, I listened on a conference call with two Golf Channel analysts.
Told you it was a bold move. The topic was this week’s U.S. Open, which has prompted buzz due to the location (first Open staged in the Pacific Northwest) and the unique golf course (links-style Chambers Bay near Tacoma).
Golf Channel’s Frank Nobilo recently spent three days at Chambers Bay and he understands all the fuss.
“I don’t think Chambers Bay will disappoint,” Nobilo said. “It is going to be radically different from a lot of U.S. Opens that are played on the East Coast, the Winged Foots, the Oakmonts, the Merions, even though a lot of those (courses) have links characteristics.
“This is probably going to look more linksy than this year’s (British) Open championship.”
Notah Begay, Nobilo’s Golf Channel colleague, hasn’t yet seen the course but he’s certainly heard about it.
“There are a lot more questions than answers right now in just my discussions with a variety of players,” he said. “Players that have played there are going to be at a monumental advantage, based on the feedback I’ve gotten.”
Beyond the geography and the course, the 115th national championship is stuffed with story lines that can be summarized in one word. Rory. Phil. Jordan. Tiger. Bubba. Sergio. Dustin. Rickie. Perhaps someone else?
The world will be watching to see who reaches the winner’s circle at a track very few of the competitors will have toured prior to tournament week. The uncertainty, the unfamiliarity and the unknowns inherent to links golf should create an interesting leaderboard.
Past champions McIlroy and Webb Simpson took shots at USGA executive director Mike Davis’ statement that those who show up Monday, play a practice round or two and rely on their caddy’s yardage book are “done.”
But many, including Woods and Mickelson, heard Davis and spent time preparing at Chambers Bay. Even McIlroy was scheduled to arrive Saturday for a practice round.
Nobilo and Begay cited several factors that will be crucial for contending players. One, embrace the course instead of griping about it.
“It’s going to be the guy that really falls in love with the course that’s got form,” Nobilo said. “You have to see things that maybe other people don’t see, that a bounce is favorable as opposed to unfavorable.”
Added Begay: “The players that believe they can play there and believe that the course fits their game are going to have a huge advantage over the ones that start complaining Tuesday and Wednesday, because I think there’s going to be a lot of unruly bounces, unpredictable.”
Two, the course should favor players who can hit the ball 9 miles long and 9 miles high.
“When you talk about links greens, there’s normally a natural access into them,” Nobilo said. “If you stand in the middle of the green and look, like a fire escape, where’s the best way to get out or get in, that’s ideally where you’d like to drive the ball so that you have access into the green.”
He added that the best way to approach Chambers Bay’s undulating putting surfaces protected by green-side bunkers is “to go high because you can land the ball softly.”
Length off the tee should come into play on a handful of par-4s that will stretch beyond 500 yards, including No. 14 that has a fairway bunker in the landing zone for average-length drivers.
If it was, say, 2008, Nobilo’s and Begay’s keys would be right in Woods’ wheelhouse. That was the year Woods claimed his last major in a memorable duel with Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines. These days, Woods is No. 181 in the world golf rankings and No. 196 in the FedEx Cup standings.
Woods has encountered injury, chipping yips, misdirected driving and an uncooperative putter. He hasn’t shot in the 60s in his last nine rounds.
Nobilo pointed out that McIlroy missed two straight cuts after thumping the field at the Wells Fargo Championship.
“It’s a blip on the radar,” Nobilo said. “People are still talking about Tiger’s chipping at the start of the year like it was yesterday. It’s such a totally different environment. It’s a bit of a maze he’s having to go through.”
“He has to stay healthy,” said Begay, who was Woods’ teammate at Stanford. “And the other big factor is motivation. He’s won 79 times, 14 majors. He beat everybody everywhere around the world and it’s tough to find the motivation to go out and do it again.”
Begay insisted Woods will win another major, but it seems doubtful Chambers Bay is the place he rediscovers his championship form.
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