Tuesday, June 10

Little room for error at the Open

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. -- The USGA makes an effort to make the U.S. Open the most testing tournament of the year, but believe it or not I think it can be one of the easiest to win -- if you have the right mindset.

Mark O'Meara
U.S. Open veterans Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara know how important putting will be this week.

That might sound silly, but think about it: At the Open, there are a whole lot of guys who come in thinking they can't win. That works very much in favor of the confident players. From the field of 156, you can start eliminating the following groups from contention before the first ball is struck:

  • Most of the amateurs.
  • Some who have never played at the site of the event.
  • Guys who have never played in a U.S. Open.
  • Players who haven't had success in big tournaments.

    Then there's a whole group of players who get frustrated right away. You hear them talking on Tuesday about the greens being too fast or the rough too deep. You can take most of them out of the equation as well.

    All of a sudden, there are only 20 or 25 guys you have to beat instead of the 155 you started with. Compare that to a regular tour event, where there can be a lot more competition because most of the players believe they have a chance to win.

    Why do so many players come in to the U.S. Open with their tails between their legs? It's due mostly to the USGA's reputation for making this event one of the most taxing of the year, both physically and mentally.

    The Open can be particularly testing around the greens, where you're forced to hit a lot of awkward pitch shots you don't practice a lot. And once you reach the putting surface, you're in for more trouble. One of the keys to winning this title is your ability to make the clutch 5-to-8-foot putts. The greens are usually so fast that even if you're 25 feet from the hole, you often leave yourself tough 5-footers. You don't necessarily have to make a lot of long putts to win the Open, but you've got to make those tough short ones.

    How I prepared for the Open
    I usually started mentally preparing for the U.S. Open about a month beforehand. Quite often, I didn't play very well in the weeks leading up to it because my focus was totally on the Open, not the event I was playing that particular week.

    I played pretty well in the Open every year, not just the years I won. Besides the two victories, I finished in the top 15 five other times. I felt like this tournament really fit my mentality.

    Basically, I just went out and tried to play the shot in front of me. It seems oversimplified, but that's how I tried to approach it.

    Generally, the U.S. Open is all about eliminating mistakes. Usually, the course is so difficult you can't make a ton of birdies if you've fallen behind, so it's important to make two bogeys or less per day -- and avoid the doubles. But above all that, you just really have to keep your patience.

    If you bogey your first two or three holes, a lot of weeks you're in big trouble. But at an Open you might be OK if you just stay calm, don't try anything crazy and keep making pars. Tiger Woods showed that last year at Bethpage Black when he three-putted the first two holes on Sunday. He didn't panic, he stayed cool, kept grinding and everything took care of itself.

    The USGA's philosophy has been to play a wonderful golf course, and to set it up to identify the player that's playing the best that week. Sometimes it's not the best player in the world, and sometimes it is. If you go back to look at the names of the players who have won it, it's a pretty good list of players. Very few of the top players haven't won an Open, so obviously the USGA has figured out something that works.

    This event really challenges every part of your game. You have to drive the ball well, hit good long irons, get the ball high in the air so you can stop it on the speedy greens, and you definitely need to be able to putt. Nothing comes easy at an Open, and that's the way it should be.

    Two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North serves as an analyst for ESPN, and will provide on-course analysis at Olympia Fields during the first and second rounds.

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    Andy North


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