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Dublin: 9°C Monday 17 May 2021

In the swing: Open season as golf's big hitters try to tame Congressional beast

Neil Cullen gives his thoughts on the second Major of the season, the US Open.

Image: Evan Vucci/AP/Press Association Images

CAN ANYONE REMEMBER the last time we went into a US Open without being told “this is the longest course in US Open history”? They just get longer and longer, and Congressional Country Club, the venue for this weekend’s US Open, is an absolute beast.

The course measures 7,574 yards, which in itself is very long, but it’s actually only a par 71 as opposed to the standard par 72. This means there are some serious golf holes.

Anyone who has memories of the 1997 US Open played at the same venue might as well forget them. It’s a completely different course.

It closed in 2009 for the greens to be rebuilt. Sub-air systems and soil moisture measuring systems were added and the grass was changed from Poa annua to bentgrass, which according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia is “desirable grass for golf course tees, fairways and greens.”

“What about the rough,” I hear you ask. Fescue grass – there’s only one word to describe it, dense.

Various other adjustments have also been made from new tee-boxes to new doglegs. One hole, the 10th, even plays in the opposite direction now and the sequence of holes has been changed to make a new finishing hole. The 18th is now a 523 yard par 4 while the par 5 ninth reaches a staggering 636 yards.

Ernie Els managed to tame the beast the last time the US Open was played at Congressional and he tees it up alongside two other elder statesmen of the Tour, Davis Love III and Jim Furyk.

The USGA certainly know how to get the fans going for the US Open and this year, they have provided us with some mouth-watering pairings. It is the one Major of the year where the crowd tends to be boisterous and make the players know they’re there. The marquee groups for the first two rounds have to be the trios Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, and Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy.

The top three ranked players in the world all playing together, you surely won’t need a second invitation to follow that one. As for the second grouping, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the winner came out of this group. Even if it doesn’t, you’re sure to be entertained by the skills these guys have to offer and the aggressive style with which they play the game.

You look through the field and there really is no obvious favourite. Nobody has given us a reason to believe they have the best credentials or are in the best run of form to win this. Lee Westwood current stands at the head of the betting at around 11/1, but that’s hardly a convincing price for a favourite.

But the US Open is a tournament that rarely produces a surprise winner. You look at the last 20 winners and the overwhelming majority are household names. 2009 winner Lucas Glover may still have to convince some, but he is a player for whom another Major victory would not be a surprise.

This year, purely on the basis of the length of the course and the way it’s set up, you’d have to think it will favour the long hitters. This could spell trouble for Luke Donald, arguably the form player of the year. You feel that an average driving distance of 279.9 yards won’t be a match for the likes of Dustin Johnson (307.1 yards) or even Phil Mickelson (297.6 yards) on such a long golf course.

It would be no surprise, in fact, if Dustin Johnson was to emerge victorious this week. His length gives him a crucial advantage. Not only that, but you get the sense it is only a matter of time before he win a Major. In last year’s US Open at Pebble Beach, he lead by three shots going into the final round but blew up with a closing 82 to finish tied eight. At the USPGA Championship at Whistling Straights, he looked set for redemption, only to be cruelly denied by a penalty on the 72nd hole for grounding his club in one of the thousands of bunkers on the course.

He was able to bounce back after Pebble Beach, it is his time to show he can do the same following Whistling Straights.

Honourable mention

This week’s honourable mention goes to none other than this year’s US Open website. Some of this week’s pairing have a distinctly national feel to them; take Miguel Angel Jimenez, Sergio Garcia, Alvaro Quiros or Francesco Molinari, Edoardo Molinari, Matteo Manassero, and the website devotes a page to stand-out pairing. The description of the three Swedes was particularly amusing…

“Henrik Stenson, Johan Edfors, Fredrik Jacobson — When these three Swedes aren’t discussing their favorite ABBA songs, they’ll probably be talking about Volvos.”

Read more of Neil Cullen’s weekly golf column >

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