With U.S. Open week here, Golf Channel analysts Brandel Chamblee and Frank Nobilo open up in a Q&A, with their thoughts on the season's second major championship at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.
Give us a couple names of who could play the role of Jack Fleck this week at The Olympic Club?
Chamblee: When Jack Fleck beat Ben Hogan in the 1955 U.S. Open, Hogan had won four of the last six U.S.Opens he had played and was in the middle of 12 consecutive top-10s in our national championship. He was considered the most accurate player in history, golf’s most intimidating man and by most, the greatest player of all time. Jack was a middle-aged war veteran who had spent 10 years upon his return from WWII, playing professional golf, with no hint of success and no reason to be playing. Tiger Woods is step-for-step today what Ben Hogan was then and it is almost unimaginable someone as obscure as Jack Fleck was in 1955 beating Tiger head-to-head in a playoff at the U.S. Open. The likes of Kevin Streelman, Shane Bertsch or Charlie Wi come to mind, none of whom have won on Tour and have had very little success in majors. Problem is, none of them are on the Nike staff alongside Tiger, which of course was the footnote of all footnotes to Fleck’s victory over Hogan, with clubs hand delivered to him earlier in the week by Mr. Hogan himself. That’s why my money is on Kevin Chappel this week.
Nobilo: Fleck was 33 when he won the U.S. Open and winless on the Tour. One guy who fits the bill is Steve Marino (32), who played just about every tour imaginable before getting on the big tour and has played in enough majors to have an inkling of what to expect. Wouldn't be an unthinkable thing for his first win on the PGA Tour to be a major. Peter Hanson (34) is another that hasn't taken the direct route to success, playing Swedish, Challenge, European and now PGA tours. He’s playing the best golf of his life right now and looking for first U.S. win.
How does The Olympic Club set up vs. traditional U.S. Open venues and whom does it favor?
Chamblee: Olympic has in each of the four U.S. Opens played there, allowed two players to separate themselves by week’s end because it demands of players what few courses do. In order to find the fairways there, a player cannot just play “their” shot. On some holes it is a must to shape the ball only one way to find the fairway and then an opposite way to find another. Olympic will intimidate early and then keep players off balance throughout the round with small greens, uneven lies and a return to a more traditional U.S. Open setup. Tiger Woods, with his newfound accuracy will have few challengers, but straight driving Graeme McDowell and Keegan Bradley could add to their major cache this week.
Nobilo: Olympic, while being a great test, has a very unbalanced flow. The course puts both hands on your throat early (the first six holes) then, when you can hardly breathe, lets off ever so gently and gives you three very birdiable holes to finish. It requires a very strong mind to deal with the hardship up front and often being over par early. Small firm greens require soft, high accurate iron play. Thick juicy rough around the greens means chipping out of poor lies will be a regular issue. Slopes on fairways running opposite of the direction to the dogleg gives even the straightest drivers a problem. No surprise it suits the two players playing the best right now Luke Donald and Tiger Woods.
Will Phil Mickelson ever win a U.S. Open?
Chamblee: Phil Mickelson’s style of play has never been a good fit for the U.S. Open, so while some may be surprised that he has never won our national championship, one of the most baffling things about Phil, to me, is that he has managed to finish second place five times. In 2006, at Winged Foot, Phil’s most famous collapse, he only hit 29 fairways for the week; I suppose if he had hit 30 he would’ve won. The last time the U.S. Open was at Olympic Phil only hit 30 fairways and still finished in the top 10. There is a sense that his time has come and gone in the U.S. Open and like Sam Snead, his legacy, in part, will be that he was one of the best of all time who failed to win this major.
Nobilo: Tough to win a U.S. Open in your prime let alone in your 40s. Not only is time running out for Phil but all the things that make him great - the go for broke mentality and desire to hit driver more often than most - doesn't lend itself to running out the string of pars often required to win a U.S. Open. Like Snead, he will more than likely forever be snakebit at golf's toughest test.
How will Tiger Woods fare?
Chamblee: Tiger Woods’ newfound accuracy and confidence will make him the favorite at Olympic and by Sunday, I doubt if there are more than a few players who will have a chance to beat him. He is in ONE way better than he was for two of his three U.S. Open wins. He is a better driver of the ball than he was, by quite a bit, in 2008 and by a little bit in 2002. In no other way is he better, and in a few notable ways he will struggle at Olympic. Shaping the ball both ways off the tee, a must at Olympic, is still hard for Tiger and with his short irons he has never been worse. With stiffer penalties for a missed green this week, he will pay a penalty for those short-iron misses. He resorts to mechanics when he misses a shot or makes a bogey now far more than ever before, hence the reason he is 136th in the bounce-back stat, which, is the worst of his career. When he played more by feel in 1999-2002 he owned this stat. All of these issues are the larger part of why his scoring average is much higher than it was in ’08, ’02 and ’00, the three years he won the U.S. Open. Still, if not him, then who? The answer to that question is a small list and none of them has the accumulated advantages of owning 14 major titles.
Nobilo: Tiger Woods has a great chance to add to his major haul this week. Improved tee to green play plus his ability to hit the high soft landing iron approach will be well suited to Olympic’s small greens. Two recent wins on tough courses will continue to add confidence to his short game, which had been down a notch or two from his halcyon years.
Is Rory McIlroy more likely to defend his U.S. Open title or miss the cut?
Chamblee: Willie Anderson, John McDermott, Bobby Jones, Ralph Guldahl, Ben Hogan and Curtis Strange are the only men to successfully defend a U.S. Open so just from a historical standpoint, Rory McIlroy is a bad bet to win back-to-back titles. The infrequency of the occurrence is testament to the difficulty of having fate kiss you on the shoulder two years in a row. On the other hand, McIlroy’s early success in majors is reminiscent of Bobby Jones and perhaps he will show us all again just how special he is.
Nobilo: In the last 60-plus years only two players have ever successfully defended their U.S. Open wins. The easy money is for the weekend siesta as opposed to the defense for Rory. But if there is one thing we learned about Rory last year is that he became a better player after the Sunday at Augusta than before. Consequently there is no reason to think his latest play won’t add more steel to the machine. Last year is a tough act to follow but I don't see him taking an early exit.
What will the lead headline be Sunday evening when it’s all over?
Chamblee: Olympic, Giant Killer, Again
Nobilo: Brit Takes the Torch at Olympic