OAKMONT, United States: World No.1 Jason Day will lead golf’s young stars in seeking to join a who’s who of champions produced by Oakmont when the US Open tees off Thursday (Friday in Manila) on the rugged course near Pittsburgh.
Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus have all tasted major success at Oakmont. Johnny Miller delivered a sublime 63 to win the 1973 US Open there, where South African Ernie Els captured the first of his four major titles in a US Open playoff in 1994.
Reigning US Open champion Jordan Spieth, recalling Argentinian Angel Cabrera’s “ball-striking clinic” en route to the title in 2007 — the last time Oakmont hosted the championship — said the course was not one to be trifled with.
“The person who is in full control of their entire game will win this US Open,” Spieth predicted.
Australia’s Day, second-ranked Spieth and world number three Rory McIlroy each boasts a victory in recent weeks.
Day was impressive in winning the Players Championship in May, the 28-year-old Aussie notching a second wire-to-wire victory of the season after leading start to finish at Bay Hill.
Day’s impressive victory run over the past 10 months includes his first major title at the US PGA Championship last August.
The 28-year-old admitted he feels the weight of expectations that come with the number one ranking.
The spotlight is even more intense on golf’s new “Big Three” with 14-time major champion Tiger Woods, who is missing the US Open for the third time in six years as he continues to recover from back surgery last year.
Five-time major champion Phil Mickelson brings a veteran presence, a six-time US Open runner-up trying to gain the one major to elude him and complete a career Grand Slam.
Chances are, however, that youth will be served, and Day said he is embracing the pressure.
“I’m number one in the world. I’m probably one of the favorites to win this week. That’s a lot of pressure, but it’s good pressure to have,” he said. “That’s the kind of pressure that you’ve got to enjoy and love.”
“Enjoy” isn’t a word heard often in connection with Oakmont, and McIlroy said “trepidation” was more what came to mind contemplating the tilted fairways defined by punitive rough, the treacherous bunkers and glassy, undulating greens.
“You have to be prepared for that. You have to be prepared for how mentally demanding it’s going to be, how much concentration you’re going to need out there.”
Spieth, who shot to number one in the world on the back of Masters and US Open triumphs last year, has struggled mightily at times in 2016 — most notably with a final-round meltdown at Augusta National.
But the 22-year-old American kept the pressure on Day with a US tour title at Colonial in May and insists he has “moved on” from his Augusta agony.
As defending champion Spieth tees off in a traditional pairing at 8:35 am (12:35 GMT) Thursday with US Amateur champion Bryson DeChambeau, with reigning British Open champion Zach Johnson completing the group.
McIlroy (8:24) launches his campaign alongside Masters champion Danny Willett of England and world number five Rickie Fowler, while Day tees off at 2:20 pm alongside major winners Louis Oosthuizen of South African and Australian Adam Scott.
Once again the US Golf Association is gearing up for a US Open that produces “the most complete test in golf”.
In the Oakmont course itself, the USGA has the perfect partner: a 7,219-yard, par-70 layout whose 200-odd bunkers included the distinctive “Church Pews” bunker between the third and fourth fairways and greens so fast that the 1935 edition of the US Open inspired the invention of the Stimpmeter.
“You can’t let your mind slip on these greens for one moment, or else you’re going to be left with possibly a 10- to 15-footer on the next putt, if not worse,” Spieth said. “I think they putt very similar to Augusta and, at some places, are more severe.”
Golfers will have a clear view of the entire intimidating array after Oakmont’s campaign to remove thousands more trees — continuing a trend the club had begun even before the 2007 US Open.
US Open contenders will again have to contend with the mammoth par-three eighth, stretched to 288 yards with a new back tee in 2007, and the second-longest par-five in the 667-yard 12th.
“It makes strategy so much more important,” said England’s Justin Rose, the 2013 US Open winner. “Having the greens as severe as they are, yes, it’s a putting test, but it’s also a strategic test for your iron play to keep hitting it in the right spot below the hole.
“I like the way it sets up from that point of view.”