THE shadow of Severiano Ballesteros will loom large over Congressional in June and make the US Open a Major like no other in recent memory.
As the first time the golfing world has come together since the Spaniard’s death last month, this will indeed be an emotional week in Maryland.
Famously, Seve and the US Open were not natural bedfellows. It was somehow fitting that while his blend of artistry and inspiration brought him so much success at Augusta and by the seaside, the US Open and PGA both eluded him.
The easiest way of explaining this would be to imagine Seve regularly finding himself in knee-high bund so lush even the most creative escape artist in the game’s history was helpless to do anything more than hack out sideways.
Especially if you share the wildly held belief that the five-time Major winner’s driving was always wild and unreliable.
But Bernard Gallacher, who captained him three times in the Ryder Cup and played alongside him on the European Tour for many years, begs to differ:
“Seve was a marvellously long, straight driver of the ball and that’s why he did so well at Augusta, and why he did so well at Wentworth when he won five World Matchplays and three Opens,” he said. “He only became erratic later on and it was very sudden.”
A glance at his career record in the game’s most demanding Major would seem to bear this out – three times in the 1980s he finished inside the top five. This was in an era when accuracy really did matter at the US Open, when the likes of Curtis Strange, Scott Simpson, Hale Irwin, Andy North and Larry Nelson triumphed.
Yet times have changed, as a glance down the list of recent champions makes very clear.
The 21st Century has seen (in no particular order) the likes of Tiger Woods, Retief Goosen, Geoff Ogilvy, Angel Cabrera, Lucas Glover and Graeme McDowell emerge victorious, while Phil Mickelson has been runner-up five times.
In other words, the image of this championship as one in which patient plodders thrive is as out-dated as the 1-irons that were once considered essential from the tee.
Things have changed. And there is every reason to believe that, had Seve been at his best in a different era, he would have been a serial contender in the third weekend in June.
hings have changed. And there is every reason to believe that, had Seve been at his best in a different era, he would have been a serial contender in the third weekend in June. It is hard to identify the exact tipping point when US Opens stopped being boring, though 2004 at Shinnecock Hills might be a good place to start. That was when one of the host nation’s very finest courses was sent to and beyond the brink by a sadistic set-up that turned the greens brown and led to emergency watering during the final round when it became apparent the players could not actually get the ball to stop on some of the putting surfaces.
A year later, at what is many good judges’ idea of the very best course in America, NBC’s Johnny Miller described the task facing the players on Donald Ross’s upturned-saucer style greens at Pinehurst No 2 as “like trying to hit a ball on top of a VW Beetle”.
It can hardly be a coincidence that things started to get better at the same time Mike Davis become responsible for course set-up.
Earlier this year, Davis was named the United States Golf Association’s (USGA) executive. Happily, this promotion will not preclude him from continuing to prepare the host venue.
“Obviously, Mike has done a terrific job with the US Open set-up and we’d be nuts if we pulled him out of that,” said Jim Hyler, the USGA’s president.
It is not stretching the point to suggest Davis’s unique approach has transformed the US Open.
You sense his most difficult job was to convince some of his colleagues at the USGA that things did not have to be that way ➤
at their flagship event; that it was possible to set the ultimate examination paper without risking the tournament descending into mind-numbing dullness or, like at Shinnecock, farce.
Out went the obsession with a par of 70, and the rigidity of set up, once the pride of the USGA, whereby the course was played from the very tips in every round.
In came progressively graded rough, so the player further off line would suffer proportionally more. The drivable par 4 is now a part of the US Open, with the players tempted into making a potentially calamitous mistake.
Davis thinks outside the box – so a par 3 can play 240 yards one day and 160 the next. A par 5 may be a 620-yard three-shotter for days one, two and three only to be shortened by 60 yards and brought within range for the final round.
Do not think he has made the paper any more generous – the winning score in both 2006 at Winged Foot and 2007 at Oakmont was +5. But he has brought imagination back in play.
So while Congressional stretches to a mighty 7,574 yards from the new back tees, it will almost certainly play at least a little bit shorter depending on the conditions – and Davis’ whim.
Expect it to suit those with a little stardust in their games – and the ability to hang in when the going gets tough, as it surely will. That list must still begin with the name of Tiger Woods, presuming the reccurrence of a knee problem is not as alarming as it may sound. Taken as a whole, his golf at Augusta was the best we have seen from him since 2009 and so it is no surprise to see him as favourite.
The British challenge will be led by Lee Westwood, safely installed as world No 1 again for the foreseeable future – or at least until one of the other top 10 players strings a couple of solid weeks together. The Englishman categorically has the game to win a US Open, and there is no time like the present for him to land that elusive Major. If not Westwood, then many will fancy Luke Donald. For different reasons, you could argue Augusta is unlikely to be either of this pair’s favourite Major but despite having to treat the majority of par 5s as three-shotters, Donald still got into contention at the Masters.
That was encouraging, but less so was his 8-iron to the 12th in the final round when right in the thick of things. That ended up in Rae’s Creek, sunk along with any realistic chances of the Green Jacket, though to his credit Donald did rally to finish alongside Woods and Geoff Ogilvy.
Speaking of whom, the 2006 champion is back to somewhere near his best and his phlegmatic attitude and smooth putting stroke still look to this observer like they will lead to further Majors.
Regardless of which men end up on the leaderboard though, two things are certain. One is that Davis will ensure that challenge is stern and unyielding but fair and varied. The second is that the name of Severiano Ballesteros will be in all our minds and hearts throughout the week. ◆
Colin Montgomerie set the early pace 14 years ago with a best-of-the-week 65 only to fall back into the pack by following it with a 76.
Back came the Scot with a 67, which left him three behind perennial US Open bridesmaid Tom Lehman, with Ernie Els between them.
With two holes left to play Els and Monty were tied. Monty left himself with five feet for par but backed off, distracted by the noise from the nearby 18th green, and missed, handing Els the lead – and a second US Open.