BETHESDA, Md. – Steve Stricker will go through a typical session on the practice range before he tees off Thursday in the U.S. Open, with one twist. When he’s done, he plans to take out a long iron and pretend to be hitting his opening tee shot.
It might be one of the toughest shots he faces all day.
Because the U.S. Open has gone to a two-tee start, half the field will begin their round at Congressional on No. 10, one of the most daunting holes on the course. It’s a par 3 that measures 218 yards and can play even longer.
The green is shallow, with a large lake in front and bunkers beyond.
“You spend a little bit more time hitting the club that you may be hitting off the 10th tee,” Stricker said. “It could be a 3-iron, 4-iron or 5-iron, something like that. I might even find out the yardage before I go to the range.”
It’s only the third time at a major in the last 10 years that a round begins on a par 3. Everyone started on the 206-yard opening hole at Royal Lytham & St. Annes at the 2001 British Open. The 10th hole at Winged Foot for the 2006 U.S. Open also was a par 3, although this one measured a mere 188 yards with no water.
Royal Lytham is best known for Ian Woosnam not realizing he had two drivers in his bag when he started the final round tied for the lead and opened with a birdie. There was no need for a driver on the first hole, so he didn’t notice. He was penalized two shots.
“Starting a round on 10, I can’t see too many tougher holes to start on, especially off that back tee,” Ernie Els said. “You might have to come off the range, hit your putts and then go to your first hole of the day, which could be a 4 iron over water and a bunker at the back.”
The 10th hole was No. 18 for the last U.S. Open at Congressional in 1997, although it now goes the opposite direction. That means the old 17th hole is now the closing hole.
Phil Mickelson loves the new 18th hole. The new 10th? Not so much.
“As I was saying earlier about how 18 is a brilliantly designed golf hole, I think 10 is the exact opposite, because the average guy can’t play that hole,” Mickelson said. “He can’t carry that water and get it stopped on that green. So when I play that hole, 3 is a great score. I’ll take 3 every day, and if I happen to make a 4, so be it.”
Stricker hopes starting on a par 3 in one of the two opening rounds brings back good memories. It was at Winged Foot when he began to emerge from his slump, and he had the 36-hole lead that year.
As for starting there Thursday?
“This is a good par 3,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the first hole or the 10th hole, it’s a good one. Par is important.”
RORY & LEBRON: Even the U.S. Open isn’t immune from LeBron James analysis.
The first questions directed at Rory McIlroy on Tuesday concerned the golfer’s favorite NBA team, the Miami Heat. McIlroy and James are sponsored by the same watch company, so they’re texting acquaintances. McIlroy also makes it to a few games every year.
McIlroy was credited for the way he handled his final round slide at The Masters in April, so he was asked what advice he might give James to help handle the Heat’s demise against the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA finals.
“I think he’s been unfairly scrutinized,” McIlroy said. “Everyone is going to have bad days, if it’s on a golf course or on a basketball court. And with sports these days everything is overanalyzed, stats here, stats there, how has your team combined points in the last quarter of the finals or whatever. It’s just one of those things.
“If people keep talking about having a bad last quarter all the time, it’s going to sort of get to you. But he’s got plenty more chances to win the finals. And I’m sure the Heat will have a chance to win it again next year.”
DON’T CALL HIM TIGER’S REPLACEMENT: It’s perplexing enough to Michael Whitehead that people are actually asking for his autograph after his practice rounds ahead of this week’s U.S. Open.
It’s even more surreal when he’s hears the fans whisper, “That’s Tiger’s replacement.”
Whitehead is the Rice University graduate who’ll make the professional debut this week, having made the U.S. Open field as an alternate after Woods withdrew due to injury.
“Everybody keeps calling me Tiger’s replacement,” Whitehead said. “I walk around the golf course: ‘Tiger’s replacement.’ I’m not Tiger’s replacement, I’m just the guy that got in when Tiger withdrew. Yeah, Woods and Whitehead in the same article. I’m glad he listened to his doctor this time.”
Even his fellow players during his practice rounds talk about it.
“I figure I got more press this way than if I just qualified,” said Whitehead, who was given his own solo news conference Tuesday at the tournament’s media center.
Whitehead graduated May 14 with a degree in sports management. He has the full complement of family and friends in town, with enough Rice connections that he’s dubbed Congressional the “Owls’ Nest.” He’ll start Thursday morning at the 10th hole, his jitters complicated by an opening par 3 tee shot over a lake.
“I don’t think they’re accentuated because of the hole,” he said. “They’re accentuated because it’s the U.S. Open and I’m about to hit my first shot as a professional in a real tournament. Hopefully I just make solid contact.”
MEMBERSHIP HAS ITS PRIVILEGES: So much has changed from when Ernie Els won the U.S. Open at Congressional in 1997. He has built a golf course in the area called Whiskey Creek. And he’s now a member at Congressional.
“I’m one of the guys,” he said.
Els doesn’t take advantage of his membership. The only time he came back after that U.S. Open was to play a PGA Tour event at Congressional in 2005. He played last week, but so did several other players in the field.
Still, membership at Congressional brings a little extra support. He said some of the members were cheering loudly for him when he teed off on No. 10 during a practice round.
So how did this membership come about?
“It’s easy,” Els said. “You’ve just got to win a U.S. Open.”
He also was made a member at Oakmont, where he won the U.S. Open in 1994.
PRESIDENTIAL VISIT: Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III are going to the White House on Wednesday to meet with President Barrack Obama.
“It’s not my first time to the White House, but it’s my first time to meet Obama, so I’m pretty excited about that,” Mickelson said. “Amy is coming in early just for that.”
Obama and Mickelson both play golf left-handed, with one of them just slightly better than the other. Asked if he would give Obama a putting lesson, Mickelson said he was more interested in helping him with his basketball.
DIVOTS: One big difference between a U.S. Open and a regular PGA Tour event is the roping. For the AT&T National two years ago, as is the case at most tour events, the ropes to keep the gallery back are about 10 yards beyond the fairway. For the U.S. Open, they are closer to 30 yards in spots. That gives the U.S. Open room to allow for gradual heights of rough. … If one streak continues, another could end for Luke Donald this week. He has 10 consecutive finishes in the top 10, but he has yet to finish in the top 10 at a U.S. Open.