Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette
Tiger Woods tees off on No. 3 at Oakmont yesterday in a practice round for the 107th U.S. Open.
They are the greatest names in the history of the game, the best of their era, the pre-eminent players in a sport where greatness is measured by major championships -- both the amount the player wins and the course on which they are contested.
It is at Oakmont Country Club, where the 107th U.S. Open will be played starting Thursday, that Tiger Woods will try to join the list of great champions on a course in which he has never played a competitive round. And don't think for a minute the people at Oakmont don't want him to join that list.
Oakmont has played host to 17 major championships since it was founded in 1903, and three of the former champions are, arguably, the three greatest players in golf history -- Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus. The membership, most of them, anyway, would love nothing more than to add Woods -- the most dominating player of his time -- to the club's proud honor roll. Woods would like to oblige, too, especially after missing the cut in last year's U.S. Open at Winged Foot -- his first missed cut in a major tournament since turning professional. And he would like to do it at Oakmont, which is hosting its eighth U.S. Open championship, more than any other club in America.
"That golf course is going to be one of the toughest tests we've ever played in a U.S. Open," Woods said. "The speed and the rough ... it will be everything you want. The only thing that will help the scores is if it rains a little and slows it down."
Yesterday, on the first day of U.S. Open week, there wasn't anything slow about Oakmont, which Woods quickly discovered. Playing in the second practice group of the day, Woods putted greens that rolled at 14.6 on the Stimpmeter -- nearly a foot faster than they will roll for the tournament -- and watched the fairways regain some of their bounce after a Saturday thunderstorm.
Even though the United States Golf Association had the second cut of primary rough lowered from 5 1/2 inches to 5 inches, course superintendent John Zimmers said the grass is standing straight up like a porcupine's quills, thanks to mowers that literally suck the grass into an upright position. But whether Woods can win at Oakmont -- he has 12 major titles, after all, second only to Nicklaus -- is not the most pressing question. Rather, of more significance, is this: Is he too old to win at Oakmont?
Recent history would suggest he is. Three of the past four U.S. Open championships at Oakmont have produced winners who were 24 years old or younger -- Jack Nicklaus in 1962 (22), Johnny Miller in 1973 (23) and Ernie Els in 1994 (24). The lone exception was Larry Nelson, who was 35 when he won the 1983 U.S. Open.
Woods, at 31, might be an Oakmont graybeard. Still, no player in the field of 156 has played Oakmont more times in the past six weeks than Woods (6).
"After you go one time through the course, you get your lines," Woods said. "The first time through, you don't know where some of the lines are, but after playing a couple times you understand where you want to be and the shot shape you need to have and what club you're going to need off the tee."
Woods figures it out quickly, evident by his two Open victories -- at Pebble Beach in 2000 and Bethpage Black in 2002 -- and two other top-three finishes. Woods believes Oakmont will play tougher than Bethpage because of the slope of the fairways and the speed of the greens.
He said after a practice round last week that 4-over 284 would be the winning score at Oakmont if they played the U.S. Open right then.
"He's very dominant and he's been up there more than any other player, more consistently," said two-time U.S. Open winner Els. "But, also, if you can win tournaments with him in the field and with him around, you know that you've beaten the best field ever to have played probably.
"He's probably on his way to being the best player ever to have played the game. If you win tournaments with him in the field, you've really accomplished something. If you can win consistently with him around, you're really performing well."
All of which is why Oakmont, collectively, is pulling for Woods to join its list of former champions: Jones won the 1927 U.S. Amateur at Oakmont, at a time when the event was considered a major; Hogan won the 1953 U.S. Open, becoming the third player to win four Open titles; and Nicklaus beat Arnold Palmer in the 1962 Open, the first of his 18 major titles.
As the world's No. 1 player, Woods is so dominant that his lead on Phil Mickelson, the No. 2 player, is more than double (788.09 to 379.35 points) in the world rankings.
"He has won 57 or so events, and if I play for another 10 years and I'm fortunate enough to win 20 [more] events and win seven more majors, which would be incredible, I would have 50 wins and 10 majors, and I still wouldn't be where he's at," Mickelson said. "I love the fact that I get to play against probably the best player that ever lived and compete against him in his prime. Not many players can say they have a chance to do that."
Oakmont is waiting.Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette
Tiger Woods putts on No. 1 yesterday at Oakmont. Woods is searching for his 13th major victory.
Click photo for larger image.
Ernie Els and J.J. Henry discuss Oakmont with PG golf writer Gerry Dulac:
Sizing up the legendary course.
Blog: Rough Shots
Gerry Dulac can be reached at email@example.com .