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On the Road with Ernie: US Open Preview

In this edition of "On the Road," Ernie previews this week's U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club, including an in-depth look at the course, final preparations he's making and how he feels going into the season's second major.

Any major championship signals a huge week in golf; for fans and for players obviously. But this is very special for me. Being a two-time former champion, in 1994 and 1997, I always come to a US Open with a little extra in-built confidence. I know what it takes to get the job done and I’m hoping those positive vibes will help lift my game to the level I’ve been striving towards since coming back from injury in December. Now really is the time to step it up!

It wasn’t an easy decision to pull-out of last week’s Barclays Classic. Like I said in my report last Wednesday, I hate to let anyone down. But I really feel that it was the right decision. At the Memorial the week before my knee was bothering me a bit. Nothing too serious, but I just felt that with Westchester being a very hilly course, it might not be the smartest move to play there and risk making my knee worse for this week’s US Open. Anyway, after a week at home it feels fine again.

Also, missing the Barclays gave me an opportunity to quietly work on my game; you know, just spend some time on my own each day – basically, getting down to business. It was exactly the kind of week I needed, especially with the weather being so amazing in London. Now I feel great and I’m really excited about this week.

I flew out to New York on Sunday morning and started my preparations at Winged Foot that same afternoon, playing nine holes.

Coming up this week…

Major Championship golf returns this week to Winged Foot for the first time since the 1997 US PGA Championship, won by Davis Love III. They say par is a good score in the US Open. Well, that old adage could have been invented for this golf course. Winged Foot is a proper, grown-up test of golf; a classic design with tree-lined fairways, severe slopes on the greens and deep bunkers for added protection.

The history of previous US Open here is interesting, because you read about players describing the course with a mixture of awe and fear – not a word I’d use, but there you go. Anyway, it’s always played very tough. When Hale Irwin won the 1974 US Open here, he didn’t break par in any of his four rounds. It was brutal that year. He didn’t win that golf tournament; he just survived it better than everyone else!

They say that particular championship was something of a turning point and that in many ways it influenced the way all future US Open courses would be set-up. Former USGA president Sandy Tatum sums it up today, as he always has done, with the simple phrase: “We’re not trying to humiliate the best players in the world. We’re simply trying to identify who they are”. That’s okay. I’m fine with that. As long as they don’t go over the top like they did at Shinnecock two years ago. I mean, everyone agreed that was just a bit crazy.

West Course at Winged Foot

I always like my chances when par is a good score; many of the best wins of my career have come on layouts such as that. The US Open is that kind of week. It tests every facet of your game to the maximum. On first impressions, Winged Foot has all the hallmarks of another classic US Open examination. For 51 weeks of the year this course has some sharp teeth anyway, but for this week they’ve sharpened them up a little bit more. It measures 7,264 yards, with two halves of 35 for a strict par of 70. It’s long; almost 300 yards longer than the set-up for the 1997 US PGA. And for all you number-crunchers out there, here are another couple of impressive stats. Winged Foot this year has one of the longest par-5s in the history of championship golf; the 640-yard 12th. And it has the longest par-4 in a US Open ever; the 514-yard 9th.

The greens are playing very firm, which is what you expect at a US Open, and running at about 12 on the USGA’s ‘Stimpmeter’. That’s fast. It means it’s important to be able to control your distance with your approach shots, so you can keep the ball below the hole on those greens which slope towards the front.

Rough

I’d say the rough is as thick and deep as anything I’ve ever seen. To give you an idea, this is how the USGA grades the rough. Fairway widths range from about 22 yards to a maximum of 28. Either side is a six-foot wide strip of intermediate rough running the length of each hole, and that’s set to 1½ inches. Next, there’s a 20-foot band of first cut – or ‘primary rough’ as they call it – which is about 3 inches deep. Then beyond that is the second cut of deepest rough; that’s 5 inches deep, at least. In fact, on the short par-4 6th hole, the primary rough will be as high as 6-8 inches.

Trust me, anyone who hits it in the rough too many times is not going to figure in the equation come Sunday evening. Like I said, this is classic US Open stuff. The primary name of the game is patience. You can’t go after a golf course like this; not in my view, anyway. If you’re too aggressive, it’s just going to bite you in the behind. And bite you hard! You’ve got to focus on putting the ball in the fairway and then playing very smart with your approach shots. With the way the rough is around these greens, there are some spots where you just can’t afford to miss it.

And it almost goes without saying you have to make your share of putts to win a US Open. Both times I won this championship I had a good week on the greens. In particular, I holed out well from inside 10 feet. I put in some serious hours on the practice putting green last week. That, combined with the fact that I usually love putting on firm and fast greens, will hopefully make the difference this week for me. As you know I’ve been playing some really good golf this year. I’m happy with the way I’m swinging the club and I’m hitting the ball pretty solid; I just need that final piece to fall into place.

Okay, that’s almost it for now. I’m about to head off to the golf course for a practice round. Just time for me to say in the first two rounds I’m paired with Chris di Marco and KJ Choi, which is a nice draw for me.

I can’t wait to get started now. I’ll be giving it 100 per cent every shot, every putt, and every step of the way.

I’ll tell you all about what happens in my report next week.

Bye for now.

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