Long Road Ahead
The U.S. Women's Open at Oakmont promises to be one of the toughest in the tournament's history
OAKMONT, Pa. -- Perhaps the best confrontation to watch this week at the U.S. Women's Open outside Pittsburgh is not among the players but rather the competitors collectively against the course. Remember, the last time the men played an Open at Oakmont GC, Angel Cabrera won in 2007 with the robust total of five-over-par 285, one stroke better than either Tiger Woods or Jim Furyk could manage. Anyone like 300 in the over/under pool?
No course has held more major championships than Oakmont, and no course has so consistently identified great champions. Among those to win the nine U.S. Opens, five U.S. Amateur and three PGA Championships played here are Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller and Ernie Els.
The only other time the women have taken on Oakmont, two Hall of Famers, Patty Sheehan and Juli Inkster, met in a playoff -- with Sheehan winning after they finished 72 holes tied at even par 280. The course will max out at 6,613 yards this year -- although USGA set-up guru Mike Davis likes to surprise players by moving tees around -- and to a par of 71, with the 477-yard ninth hole being switched from a par-4 to a par-5 for the women.
Certainly Davis, who has yet to whiff on a course setup since taking over not long after the debacle at Shinnecock in the 2004 U.S. Open, will be tested this week to make a course that is both true to the brutal nature of Oakmont yet not embarrassingly difficult for the women. In the weird "let's bet on anything" world that caddies inhabit, the over/under on the cut number has been set at 12 over par. The betting on the winning score has ranged as high as 14 over par, with one caddie who was part of an Open win saying he likes eight over.
Davis was hard at work well before this week. A new tee was built on No. 2 so its can play at 325-yards and at 265 yards, a tempting try-to-drive-me distance. A new tee was also built on No. 17 so it can play as a 260-yard par 4. Remember how cool it was in 2007 when both Woods and Furyk came to 17 needing a birdie to catch Cabrera, tried to drive the green and made bogeys?
The par-3 eighth hole, which played at more than 280 yards for the men in 2007, will be anywhere from 225 to 252 this week. No. 16 will play as long as 209 yards and as short as 134 yards. The par-5 12th hole will play at 602 yards, the longest hole in the history of women's golf.
Even if the rough is not knee high, it is lush and thick. And the greens, well, it's Oakmont. They are steeply contoured and frighteningly fast. The winner this week likely will be the person who hits fairways and chips and putts the best. That bodes well for Cristie Kerr, who is also the hottest player on the LPGA right now, or accurate drivers like Jiyai Shin, Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel.
"I'm doing a lot of things right now," said Kerr, who has won two of her last three starts including the LPGA Championship by 12 strokes. "I just have to keep my expectations down. Being a hero is not going to win this U.S. Open. You have to take your medicine. There are a lot of bunkers where you are just going to have to play out sideways. It's going to take a lot of patience. The winner will be anywhere from four-over par to 10 over, unless someone plays out of their mind."
"It's tough," Pressel said with a laugh as she made the turn Tuesday in her practice round. "It depends on what they do with the pins as the week goes on, but I don't think anyone is going to go under par. You really have to think your way around out there. Take this hole (No. 9). You can get there in two but you're better off laying up so you can control where you place the ball on the green with a wedge. It's not often you practice putts with 20-foot breaks, but that's what you get here if you are not smart -- and sometimes even if you are."
Creamer agrees that no one will likely be under par come the Sunday evening trophy presentation. "You need it all here," says Creamer, who is still recovering from surgery on her left thumb and for the first time this week was able to practice hitting balls off the turf on the range. "There are just so many good things about this place. It demands that you have it all. You have to be a shotmaker and you need imagination and you have to remain patient."
And then there is the weather. "It's going to be a hot and steamy week," said John Zimmers, the Oakmont superintendent since 2000. "In the last 11 days, we've had 3 1/2 inches of rain, an average high of 86 degrees, with an average of 89 percent humidity. We've had seven inches of rain over the last 30 days. We have fans out to help dry up the course, we vented the greens to get more air in them, and if we can miss more of the hit-or-miss thunderstorms that keep popping up, we should be able to dry out and firm up." Probably not what the players want to hear.
The temperatures climbed into the mid 90s on Monday and are expected to stay that hot at least through Thursday's opening round. The humidity is brutal -- reminiscent of the 1994 U.S. Open here when Colin Montgomerie famously wore black in the Monday playoff, and shot 42 on the front nine.
"In the USGA's eyes, Oakmont is the gold standard for championship golf," Davis says. "It also happens to be one of the very best conditioned courses I've ever seen. People constantly talk negatively about Poa greens -- and I always counter with 'you ought to see Oakmont's and you would change your tune.'"
One of Davis' innovations is the graduated rough. This week, the first cut is 6 feet wide at 1 1/2 inches high, the second cut is 20 feet wide at 2 1/4 inches high, and the rough is 3 1/4 - 3 1/2 inches tall from there. "This place is in fantastic shape," says Creamer. "Not a blade of grass if our of place."
You got to wonder if the players will be in such a generous mood after 72 holes under U.S. Open conditions. This is Oakmont, an extremely difficult course that does a good job of producing great champions.