I’ve been looking forward to this week for a very long time. It’s the 118th playing of the US Open, at renowned Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island. I had my first look at the course on Tuesday, guided round by my Sirius/XM colleague and friend, the experienced broadcaster Fred Albers, who has had the pleasure of playing here a number of times. I liked it from the off despite having to listen to his detailed descriptions of the birdies he had the last time he played.
So much about it is reminiscent of the Irish/Scottish courses that populated my youthful amateur tournament play – the tall waving marram grasses and the glorious lack of really tall vegetation, in other words, trees, and of course, the ever present stiff-ish breeze that Dad would have scathingly labelled a mere zephyr. Here is a course and set-up that looks to be testing but fair, examining every aspect of a player’s skill and asking a few questions also of their mental resilience and calmness under fire.
This is the fifth time the National Championship of the United States has been held at this venue and a good week is needed to erase the memories of the 2004 edition when the organising body, the US Golf Association, “lost” the greens, the 7th in particular, and had to resort to watering the putting surfaces in between pairings. It was almost farcical but only one man was laughing at the end of the week and that was South African Retief Goosen who scooped his second US Open title in three years.
Retief is not here this week but his caddy from 2004, genial Irishman Colin Byrne, is back and I bumped into him as he was preparing to usher his current charge Rafa Cabrera Bello round the course. He can recall every shot and every putt of 2004 – particularly on the final nine when Retief amazingly needed only 11 shots with the flat stick. “How’s the course playing this year?,” I asked. “It’s tough, very tough,” he said, and I realised yet again that it is not only the players who are tested to the limit – the caddies are too. And that makes me wonder if you can, indeed, overcome a challenge such as this with simply your best buddy on the bag as opposed to a seasoned looper like Colin. (Sorry Rory.) If there’s nothing to choose between combatants coming down the stretch, the marginal gain that can make the difference can certainly be the caddy. So, I like the chances of Rafa with Colin, Justin Rose with Mark Fulcher or Henrik Stenson with Gavin Lord. This test requires a team – and they both need their “A” game.
As the crow flies we are about ninety miles from Quaker Ridge Golf Club, scene of last weekend’s terribly one-sided Curtis Cup match. The final score was 17 points to 3 in favour of the Americans and that included a first ever whitewash in the singles. As I was making my way round during my first recce of the course I was hailed by none other than Valerie Hassett, former president of the Irish Ladies’ Golf Union and former British Amateur Senior Champion and Scottish senior international Fiona de Vries, both of whom had been out to support the teams in the match. They had caught the train from New York to the specially built Shinnecock station and were getting a feel of the place before flying home to catch the action on telly. There seems to be much to ponder after this last contest, particularly the question as to whether the GB&I side should become Europe, as happened to the Ryder Cup back in 1979 at the suggestion of Jack Nicklaus.
I may be inclined to go along with that notion although I’m sure it’d meet with vehement opposition. Time to revisit that suggestion after the post mortems are concluded, I think.
I am often asked for my tip for any major I am attending. I have a 100% record in this – I am always wrong. In fact, I’m wrong in most things, so the Curtis Cup will probably have a good chance of remaining purely a GB&I team and Rafa, Justin Rose and Henrik will all have poor weeks this week and not contend. Ah, so maybe Rory with best buddy Harry on the bag will be striding up the 72nd to victory? Well, I could live with THAT. Couldn’t you?