Planet Golf — 16 June 2015 by Bob Sherwin
U.S. Open Notes: Rory is ready

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wa. – If anyone doesn’t believe that Rory McIIroy could win his fifth major – at the U.S. Open this week at Chambers Bay – that there’s one person to ask with sufficient knowledge to provide reassurance.

Rory McIIroy.

McIIroy, the world’s No. 1 player, oozed confidence Tuesday in his first press conference after playing a couple rounds here. He’s not just happy to be here. He’s not here to enjoy the experience. He’s not here for show. He’s here to win and he’s convincing.

“I think a place like this can separate the field a lot,” McIIroy said. “This is the sort of golf course that if you’re just slightly off, it’ll magnify that. But it’ll really reward people that are hitting good shots and are confident and their short games are sharp. I definitely think this is the sort of golf course that you could see the guys that are really playing well and are confident with the setup and how they approach it, they could really separate themselves from the rest of the field.”

Despite his two missed cuts this month in European events, which he blames on mental fatigue, McIIroy’s game is sharp. He hit his drives and approaches as high as anyone in the game, a much needed element here. And he putts for dough, having playing in seven PGA Tour events this season, with six made cuts, five top-10 finishes and two victories.

McIIroy also hits it long – ranked eighth in driving distance on the Tour at 305.5 yards. If he can average that kind of length – with reasonable accuracy – he can avoid many of the obstacles and pitfalls at Chambers.

“It’s a very long golf course. You’re wanting to hit shorter irons into these greens. Some of these greens, where I’m hitting maybe a 6- or a 7-iron in, a lot of the field are going to be going in with 5- and 4-irons,” he said. “It’s tough enough going in there with the clubs I’m going in with. Yeah, I mean, I completely agree with Jason (Day). Guys that hit the ball a long way – I think if you can carry the ball like 295, 300 in the air this week, you’re going to have a big advantage.”

McIIroy is not unlike Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James, who said this week that he was still confident his team could win the NBA title “because I’m the best player in the world.” McIIroy is the best golfer in the world and has been for the past 85 weeks.

“I think when LeBron talks about that, that’s not confidence, that’s a fact, I guess, when you look at how he’s carried his team in these Finals,” McIIroy added. “And I guess for me I feel the same way, when I look at the World Rankings and I see my name up at the top. If you look back at the last four or five years, I guess I’ve won more majors than anyone else in that time period. So do I feel like the best player in the world? Yes. And obviously I want to go out every week and try to back that up and show that.”

TIGER HALFWAY THERE?

Tiger Woods has won half the battle in his attempt to recover from his golf malaise and win his 15th major title.

It’s a good thing that he likes the course, Chambers Bay, site of the 115th U.S. Open that begins Thursday.

Tiger Woods was in a good mood during the U.S. Open press conference Tuesday

Tiger Woods was in a good mood during the U.S. Open press conference Tuesday

The other half of the battle is yet unforeseen. There is no indication that he can play it at a championship caliber. After all, just a week ago he shot an 85, the worst professional round of his career.

“It’s certainly different for a U.S. Open, that’s for sure,” said Woods during Tuesday’s news conference. “We normally play pretty traditional golf courses where back of the tee is narrow, fairways are high and from fast greens. They have that here, but some of the holes you can move up a hundred yards.

“And the greens are getting firm, but it’s more of the shape of the golf course. There’s so many different ways that you can play it, and sometimes you have to be able to play it. I think one of the more dramatic things I’ve noticed is how different it plays from morning to afternoon. It gets so much faster and drier. You just feel it as the day wears on how much this golf course can dry out, and it certainly will. The morning times versus afternoon times, it’s very different.”

Woods insists that his favorite style of courses both to play and to design is links. What makes this 8-year-old course different from other links course is the changes in elevation, dropping 190 feet from the higher reaches down to the edges of the Puget Sound.

“To win a Major Championship, you’re going to have to be patient. This one in particular, because there are so many different variables,” he said. “Unlike any links golf that we play, we don’t have elevation changes like this. So that’s a variable that’s certainly very different. You’re going to get some funky bounces out there. The ball is going to roll and catch slopes. You’re going to see guys hit terrible golf shots and end up in kicking range from the hole.

“You’re going to see some different things this week than you have probably any other Major Championship that we play.”

What also might make Chambers different is the steady progression all week to firm-and-quite-fast. That’s part of the design of the course but if it gets too much of either one – it has not rained in the area for weeks – then it can border on unfair.

That firmness is what has the players chirping this week during their practice rounds. That firmness is also the concern of the tournament officials, specifically Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director. Davis is in charge of how the course sets up. He sets the yet undisclosed pin and tee positions, giving him the power to control the degree of difficulty.

“We don’t know, none of us, none of you guys in this room, none of the players, know what Mike is going to do on the setup,” Woods said. “And so it’s hard to predict that…if it’s into the wind, put them all the way back. If it’s downwind, put them all the way up. We don’t know what Mike is going to do on the different winds and the different days. So, yeah, we could say that the long hitters have an advantage, but maybe not. Depends on what Mike does.

“There’s three or four different tee shots on almost every hole. Basically Mike has an opportunity to play basically 36 holes and 36 different options, somewhere around there,” he added. “So many different options that it’s harder to, I think — one of the harder Opens or any championship to prepare for given that there’s so many variables.”

It’s been quite a while since anyone has suggested Woods has an advantage, even after winning 79 PGA Tour titles – 14 of them Majors. He hasn’t won a Major since 2008, the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.

He has not won a tournament since 2013. If fact, he misses more cuts than he makes. He did make the cut at Memorial two weeks ago and followed that with his 85 on Saturday.

“Sometimes you have to make a shift, and I did,” said Woods, now on his fourth swing instructor. “And short-term suffering for long-term gain. I’ve done this before when I’ve made changes in the past I’ve struggled through it. I’ve come out on the good side. But I had to make those — it’s more of a commitment than anything else. I had to make a commitment, and I have. And things are starting to come together piece by piece.”

Those pieces, he believes, may add up to something this week. He said said he hit the ball well Tuesday in practice.

“It’s getting better every day. I’m starting to get the feel for, more than anything, for this golf course and what I need to do off the tees and where to miss it around the greens to certain pins,” he said. “That’s the feel of this golf course and trying to understand that to each pin location.”

HOMETOWN BOY LEADS OFF

Michael Putnam, who grew up and still lives just a short distance away from Chambers Bay, has the honor of hitting the first competitive drive Thursday at 7 a.m. off the first tee.

He believes he can also hit the final shot late Sunday night as well.

“When I was here early last week, they had the trophy out doing some shoots with FOX and I saw the trophy on the 18th green,” Putnam said. “After my practice round I walked up, took a look at it and realized this would be the best place for me to ever win a U.S. Open in my entire career, in my entire life.

“And I feel like I’ve got a good chance. I’ve been well rested, taking the last week off, coming in and playing practice rounds last week, and taking it easy on the golf course this week, knowing that a lot of guys are mentally struggling out there trying to figure this place out. And hopefully it will be just a little bit of an advantage going into the week.”

It has been seven years since the USGA announced that the Open would be played at Chambers and for seven years Putnam has been deflecting questions over how he might do on what is, essentially, his home course. He looked forward to it but hasn’t not had the season to earn him an exemption. He nearly missed his dream chance.

However, Putnam earned his way here by sharing medalist honors at a sectional qualifier in Columbus, Ohio last week. This is his fourth U.S. Open.

“On Monday last week I guess I answered some of those questions by getting in the field,” he said. “It’s awesome for the city of University Place and for this area, the whole Pacific Northwest, to host the biggest golf tournament in the world.”

Putnam, who also was the first to hit a golf ball on the course when it opened in 2007, has played the course more than 30 times. His older brother, his caddy Joel Putnam, has been a caddy here and logged more than 500 totes around the course.

“Definitely knowing the bounces off hills and on the greens is what’s going to separate the guys this week,” he said. “And I’ve played enough rounds to feel like I know if I hit a ball here, it’s going to bounce there. So it’s going to come in handy to me on some of the pin positions they’re going to have. My brother Joel…has seen the good, the bad, the ugly with all the amateurs that come and play. He knows the golf course, probably every square inch of it. He’s going to have some good knowledge for us out there when the tournament starts.

“But the first couple of rounds last week, when we got out here, he definitely asserted that he knew what he was talking about because he’s seen it all. And I was kind of challenging him on a few things, on a few points. But we were about 50/50 who was right and wrong on that deal.”

NOTES: All those slopes, contours and swales that you are going to see on TV at Chambers Bay were built into the course by the Robert Trent Jones II, his right-hand man Bruce Charlton and the Jones design team. But the guy who had his hand in the dirt and his foot on the tractor pedal was Jay Blasi, the on-course shaper. His handiwork – literally – is on display all week. Blasi, who has his own design firm now, said, “the neat thing is they’re (golfers) standing there in the fairway and they look left, they look right, they look up and they look down then look at their caddy and think, ‘anyway would work.’ And I’m the back in the rough doing cartwheels.”

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Bob Sherwin

Bob grew up in Cleveland, an underdog city with perennial underdog teams, and that gave him an appreciation and an affinity for the grinders in golf, guys such as Rocco Mediate, Jhonattan Vegas and star-crossed John Daly. This is the 44th year for Bob as a sportswriter, the first 34 working for newspapers throughout the west, Tucson (Daily Star), San Francisco (Examiner) and Seattle (Times), and the past 10 years as a freelancer. He has covered just about every sport, including golf tournaments, Tucson Open, Bing Crosby/AT&T Pro-Am, the 1998 PGA Championship, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open, the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the annual Champions Tour Boeing Classic. He also writes articles for golf magazines. For most of his 20 years at the Seattle Times his primary beat was the Mariners. He then picked up Washington men's basketball in the winter. He also was the beat writer for the Sonics, including 1996 when they played the Bulls for the NBA title. After a lifetime hacking on public courses, he finally gave in and joined a country club in 2011, the Members Club of Aldarra near Seattle. He won't win the club championship any time soon with his 14 handicap and default-swing slice but he does have a pair of aces – 37 years apart – and in 2009 came agonizingly close to his ultimate golf goal of scoring in the 70s when he finished with an even 80. He lives in Seattle, and spends part of his winters in Marco Island, Fla.

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