The U.S. Open at Bethpage State Park's treacherous Black course in Farmingdale, N.Y., will start Thursday and many golf followers are conceding the championship to Tiger Woods. Sure, he could win his second straight U.S. Open and he could win it by a big margin if he's on. But ... and we'll get to that in a moment.
Look, everybody knows that Woods at his best can't be beaten. There's a simple reason. No other golfer at his best can match Woods. So it's game over if Woods has his A game.
He could also win with his B game. He's that good. The guy's won 14 majors and he won the U.S. Open last year when he was grimacing on many shots because of the pain he felt in his left leg. He had his left knee reconstructed soon after the tournament ended, took eight months off to rehab, and has won twice since returning.
So Woods is a lock, right? Wrong.
He's not a lock not because no golfer has won back-to-back U.S. Opens since Curtis Strange in 1988 and 1989. No, that's not the reason. The reason is that the U.S. Open is golf's most exacting championship.
Strangely enough, that brings more golfers into the roster of possible winners. Bethpage Black won't be only a bombers' course, because accuracy is paramount at every U.S. Open. That will be true even with graduated rough. Players will be penalized in a manner proportional to the errors they make.
The further off-line a drive goes, the harsher the penalty. But players will at least have a chance to recover when they miss a fairway only by a little. Woods has shown over the course of his amazing career that he can get to greens from deep rough that other players can't. He's that strong and so he can hold the clubface on line through high rough.
Players who aren't that strong can't do that. Their goal, then, becomes to avoid the rough entirely. And if they miss the fairway by a little, they can still play shots out of the shorter rough, two and three-quarters inches deep, just off the fairway.
Players who don't smash the ball will therefore have a decent chance, even though the course at its maximum length can play 7,426 yards.
Golfers who play strategic golf and who have top-notch short games at Bethpage Black could well be in contention come next Sunday afternoon.
This means players such as David Toms, Zach Johnson, Luke Donald, and Mike Weir can be there at the end, and there's no reason one of them couldn't win. These players are all mentally tough. Toms, Johnson and Weir have won majors. Bethpage offers them a more than decent chance to win their second, and Donald his first.
They, of course, are not the only mid-length golfers who manage their games well. But they jump out as a foursome of players who could get in the mix at Bethpage. That's all down to Mike Davis, the USGA's Senior Director of Rules and Competitions. He's been in charge of course setup for the U.S. Open since 2005, and he's on record as saying he advocates risk-reward and choice.
Golf watchers in U.S. Open pools, then, should look at golfers who know themselves and know how to manage their games. The U.S. Open at Bethpage Black could be about a lot more players than Woods.
It could be, and likely will be.
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