Golf

Sans Woods, all the talk has finally focused on next-generation greats

Woods
Woods AP

The 116th U.S. Open will take place at Oakmont Country Club, the most famous and frequented site for this major golf championship.

It is an appropriate time to glean a little history — to talk about the stars who have come and gone through this iconic piece of property.

Arnold Palmer still reverberates through these parts as the hometown king. Jack Nicklaus is still “the Golden Bear” who won his first professional tournament at the 1962 U.S. Open. And 11 years after that, Johnny Miller’s final-round 63 is still praised as arguably the best in tournament history.

What, no Tiger Woods?

Woods had a golden opportunity to win the last U.S. Open contested at Oakmont, in 2007, tying for second behind winner Angel Cabrera.

The next year at the Torrey Pines South Course, Woods captured his third U.S. Open title in a playoff against Rocco Mediate.

Now, after a series of injuries and personal catastrophes, the most recent memory of the 14-time major champion at a U.S. Open was him being an inmate in “Chambers Basement” — the deep fairway bunker in the middle of the 18th-hole fairway at Chambers Bay.

Woods shot a first-round 80 that day last year, his worst score at the national open. He went on to miss the cut, then played two more months before shutting it down in September for microdiscectomy surgery.

He hasn’t been seen in competitive golf since.

Woods has missed majors before because of injury — the British Open and PGA Championship in 2008 after reconstructive knee surgery, and the 2014 Masters and U.S. Open because of recurring back ailments.

Each time in his absence, the rest of the world’s best golfers had to field questions about Woods’ absence, and how it impacted the game.

This week, there has been none of that.

Each of today’s stars — top-ranked Jason Day, reigning U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth, top European player Rory McIlroy, among others — has held a pretournament news conference.

Not once were any of them asked about Woods not being at Oakmont.

Not once did any of them offer a comment about Woods on their own.

It is the first time in a long while that his presence hasn’t been openly discussed at a U.S. Open, prompting an important question:

Has everyone moved on to life after Woods, focusing solely on today’s great players?

It appears the torch has been passed:

▪ Day is the new prince of golf. He is the reigning PGA Championship winner, captured the WGC-Dell Match Play Championships and held off the chasers at The Players Championship.

Currently he holds the No. 1 ranking — something he has had his struggles adjusting to.

“I’ve never been more stressed in my life than right now,” Day said. “It’s just because being No. 1 in the world — having a lot of expectations on you, having to practice so hard to keep that No. 1 spot, trying to win as many tournaments as I can — puts a lot of stress and pressure on your shoulders.

“So it is what it is. People ask me how I feel, I usually tell them how I feel, and that’s just me being honest.”

Having won seven times in the past 11 months, Day is the clear favorite this week at Oakmont.

“The biggest thing for me was to really understand I could win multiple times in a year, not just once,” Day said. “Really winning multiple times is a very dominant player.”

▪ A year ago, Spieth and Tacoma-area caddie Michael Greller conquered Chambers Bay to win the U.S. Open for the first time.

Since the start of the 2015 season, Spieth has won eight tournaments, staking his claim as the best young American golfer on the planet.

Recently, even though he won the Dean & Deluca Invitational three weeks ago, he hasn’t been in the best form. In fact, he has tweaked his golf swing to try to hit the ball straighter off the tee.

But he has proven to be a proud and worthy U.S. Open champion, applauded wherever he goes as a gentleman of the sport, and a killer inside the ropes.

“Wearing the U.S. Open champion … flag, I guess is the easiest way to put it, has been a tremendous honor for me,” Spieth said. “I was fortunate enough to win a couple of USGA (amateur) championships as a junior. To win the ultimate one — the highest honor in the USGA — has been fantastic.”

▪ In the majors McIlroy has won, par was never a factor. The Northern Ireland native was 16 under at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club, 13 under at the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, 17 under at the 2014 British Open at Royal Liverpool and 16 under at the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club.

Naturally it has brought up questions about McIlroy’s ability to grind out victories on stingy courses such as Oakmont, where 5 over by Cabrera won the last U.S. Open staged here.

“I’d be very proud if I won on a golf course like this,” McIlroy said. “The majors that I have won have been soft and under par … but to be able to win on a course like this, with the conditions the way they are, it would probably be my biggest accomplishment in the game.”

McIlroy may be the premier ball-striker in the game — he ranks No. 1 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained off the tee. Putting has been an issue in 2016. He ranks 155th in total putting.

But he is coming off a win at the Irish Open a month ago.

“I feel good,” McIlroy said. “My recent play has been pretty good, so I feel confident coming in here.”

116th U.S. Open Championship

At Oakmont Country Club, Oakmont, Pa.

Course: 7,219 yards, par 70.

Defending champion: Jordan Spieth, United States.

Field: 156 golfers. The 36-hole cut will take the lowest 60 scores and ties.

FAVORITE — Jason Day, Australia: Any golfer with seven victories in the past 11 months, including a major at the PGA Championship, should be the guy picked to win. Long hitter has the short-game nerve and creativity to successfully escape harrowing Oakmont greens with crucial up-and-down pars.

CONTENDER — Patrick Reed, United States: Doesn’t he remind you of another swashbuckler who hailed from these parts? Has a PGA Tour-best nine top-10 finishes this season — and was a co-leader after 36 holes last season at Chambers Bay. He ranks second in scrambling — and No. 1 in no-fear attitude.

DARK HORSE — Jim Furyk, United States: He normally wouldn’t be listed here, but he missed the first four months of this season with a wrist injury (and three months after surgery). The Pennsylvania native was in the hunt right down to the last hole at Oakmont in 2007, finishing tied for second to Angel Cabrera.

THE PICK — Matt Kuchar, United States: The guy is overdue, and has played some of the best golf of his career over the past 2 ½ months (six top-10 finishes in his past eight starts). He ranks in the top 50 in every strokes-gained category, from driving to putting, on the PGA Tour. Last player to win the U.S. Open as his first major was Justin Rose in 2013 at Merion East.

Todd Milles: tmilles@thenewstribune.com

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