OAKMONT, Pa. — We’ve all heard of the hot putter winning tournaments. But at the U.S. Open, and particularly at Oakmont, there’s a good chance it will be the “hot driver.” The driver has always been rewarded at Oakmont. Ben Hogan in his prime was the best combination of accuracy and length. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were not quite as accurate but even longer, and in their historic playoff in 1962, they were the best drivers in the game. Johnny Miller caught a perfect swing thought at Oakmont in 1973 that gave him more speed and accuracy, and, particularly during his 63, unleashed some of the purest drives of his life. Angel Cabrera rode some of the most powerful driving ever seen in the U.S. Open to victory in 2007. In the final round, he hit a 397-yard drive on the par-5 12th, and then essentially put the tournament away on the strength of two bombs: a 340-yarder on the par-4 15th that led to a 9-iron from 160 yards to a foot, and his closing 346-yarder on the par-4 18th that left only a pitching wedge for an easy par. Just as Tiger Woods’ 12-foot birdie on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines in 2008 is perhaps the greatest putt in the history of the U.S. Open, Cabrera’s collective work that Sunday is the arguably the greatest driving. With the rain that hit Oakmont hard on Thursday, the fairways will be marginally softer the next two days. It will make the holes play slightly longer, but it will also make the targets off the tee effectively wider. Which means, for the man with the skill and the nerve, an opportunity to take advantage with the driver. What will that mean? Well, I’m betting we will see the game’s best drivers try to separate themselves with the big dog. At the moment, an impressive group of power players including Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott, Lee Westwood and Scott Piercy seem to be following that strategy. Shorter hitters are not exempt from gaining advantage. The best part of early leader Andrew Landry’s game is being aggressively straight with his driver, and the same could be said of perennial U.S. Open challenger—and runner-up in 2007—Jim Furyk. All this is built on the foundational idea that because of the severity of the rough (which the rain also made thicker) hitting fairways and greens are the key at Oakmont. But it starts with the tee shot. At a U.S. Open, the difference in difficulty between hitting a green from the fairway and doing so from the rough is stark. The lack of spin, the loss of directional and distance control, and the firmness and speed of the putting surface means “hitting” the green doesn’t mean it will stay on. That difference isn’t as great week-to-week on the PGA Tour, where the “playability” of shorter rough allows for the bomb-and-gouge style, where distance, not accuracy, is the priority. “These guys would be a lot better drivers than they are if more courses were set up like U.S. Opens,” said Lee Trevino, champion in 1968 and 1971, over the phone on Friday. “But because of the way the courses are set up, all they care about is hitting it long.” Still, Oakmont throws in an extra wrinkle. Because of combination of extreme speed and very subtle breaks, nobody makes a lot of putts at Oakmont. Putts in the 15-foot range don’t chase into the hole like they do on the slower and relatively flat greens of the British Open. So to make birdies at Oakmont, more than almost any course, approaches need to get inside 10 feet, what Dave Pelz first called the “magic circle.” That’s a big ask with mid- or long irons (what was most magical about Miller’s 63 was how he hit so many such shots stiff). It’s much more possible with short irons and wedges crisply struck from the fairway, or with an exceptional strike, from the six-foot wide first cut of rough. And it’s almost the only way to get close to the hole with any regularity on the progressively firmer greens Oakmont will provide over the weekend. The only way to get a lot of short-range approaches at Oakmont is by hitting driver off the tee. Before the rain, the fairways were running too fast to try to consistently keep a driver in the fairway. It meant most players had decided on a strategy of more fairway woods, hybrids and long irons off the tee, because the punishment for going into rough would be too great. But with the rain, the risk has been lessened and the reward could make all the difference.
“With the way the golf course is, with it being so soft, I might just go out there in the second round and hit a lot of drivers and try to be aggressive as I possible can,” said Rory McIlroy, who’ll need a low number to offset his opening 77. It will take some courage and boldness, because wet rough that has grown thicker doles out even more punishment. But the guy who is willing to hit more drivers instead of irons will give himself the best chance to do something special. Trevino, one of the straightest and best drivers in championships history, would love to see the longest club again take a vital role in the U.S. Open. “Hitting the driver with control was always the best way to separate yourself in the Open,” he said over the phone on Friday. “Keep putting it in the fairway and you can wear people out. That’s the way you have a chance to make a few more birdies, but even more important, it’s the best way to keep your birdies by not making bogeys. I was not the longest, but in a U.S. Open, where the course is fast and a lot of guys are hitting less club or steering it, hitting a driver straight makes you long.” Bottom line, long and straight works exponentially well at Oakmont. It argues for the winner being someone wielding a hot driver.