June 10, 2014

Loran Smith: Can Watson stay between the lines at U.S. Open?

The U.S. Open, America’s national championship of golf, starts Thurs-day at Pinehurst Resort’s No. 2 course, where as much pre-tournament attention has been paid to those missing from the field as those who will be competing for the title.

It was here in 1999 that Payne Stewart won his last major before dying in a plane crash four months later. The storyline of that tournament, however, had to do with Phil Mickelson’s greater commitment to his family than to winning the U.S. Open.

With his pregnant wife Amy back home in California, Mickelson had his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, carry a beeper in his bag during the weekend rounds. He repeatedly told the media that if the beeper sounded and the news was that Amy was in labor, he would head to the airport and fly home for the birth of Amanda, his first child — even if he were leading the tournament.

Mickelson lost the tournament when Stewart birdied the last hole with an 18-foot putt, and Mickelson made it home in time for Amanda’s birth. A victory at the U.S. Open has eluded Phil, who seems destined for runner-up finishes at the only major championship he has not won. He has finished second six times, including last year, when he held at least a share of the read at the end of each of the first three rounds.

This year’s tournament will not include Tiger Woods, who continues to suffer from injuries and will miss his second straight major after sitting out the Masters in April. A bad back is not good for a golfer, especially one whose goal is to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships.

An interesting vignette about a comment Tiger made to Payne Stewart at Pinehurst in 1999 surfaced in a magazine story this week. Tiger said that when he got into golf course design, he would build 9,000-yard courses, which would essentially eliminate all other competitors.  Stewart’s response was that if it involved U.S. Open courses, he still would have to hit the ball in the fairway.

That might be a problem for Masters winner Bubba Watson, the professional most likely to overpower a golf course today.

He is one of eight former University of Georgia golfers in the field. Although disappointed by not winning at Memorial two weekends ago, where he wound up third, Watson said his game is in good order and his confidence is high as he enters the U.S. Open. If he can find the fairway off the tee, he has the game to win the championship.

It will likely come down to the par-3 holes, which feature signature Donald Ross greens. Even good shots to the green have a way of rolling off the sides unless the shot is rigidly accurate. A good shot, but not quite good enough, takes away pars and rolls to locations where up and down — even with a putter — is a challenge.

However, Watson would seem to have an advantage on the front nine’s two featured holes. For this week, No. 4 will be a  529-yard par-4 hole with a downhill tee shot. With accuracy, this is the kind of hole where Watson’s distance could give him an advantage. The fifth hole has been altered into a 579-yard par-5 hole. Again, with accuracy, Watson will have an advantage on the field.

The U.S. Open is played in summertime, which in this part of the world means there will be heavy humidity and the threat of thundershowers. Without rain, the prevailing view is that the firm, sloping greens will require the most accurate of shotmaking to gain the opportunity to make par, which often wins the tournament.  Even with rain, Pinehurst officials believe that they will be able to keep the greens firm.

In addition to Watson, there will be an anxious group of former Bulldogs in the field, including Erik Compton, Harris English, Russell Henley, Kevin Kisner, Chris Kirk, Hudson Swafford and Brendan Todd. Henley (from Macon, Ga.), Kirk (from St. Simons, Ga.) and Todd (from Atlanta) form a featured grouping in that respect.

They will play together for the first two rounds, no doubt amid cheers of “Go Dawgs!” from a gallery that will be peppered with Georgia fans.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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