Can Tiger Woods win the 109th United States Open at Bethpage State Park's Black Course? Yes he can.
Will Tiger Woods win the 109th United States Open at Bethpage State Park's Black Course? Maybe.
The conversation in this era of golf has to begin and end with Woods. I found it ironic that while even injured the conversation centered on whether or not there should be some sort of asterisk associated with Padraig Harrington's major championship victories because Tiger wasn't in the field due to injury.
How wild is that? You discredit what a player has accomplished and achieved by questioning whether a player who was injured and unable to compete would have beaten him, if healthy.
Well, now Tiger is back on the prowl.
I was working for the PGA Tour Network at The Memorial a couple of weeks ago when Woods put together a final round charge to secure his 67th overall victory and his fourth Memorial title. And from the front row seat, it was pretty impressive. Even Jack Nicklaus himself predicted that Tiger should win at Bethpage.
Tiger looks focused, prepared and healthy -- a three-fold combination that he hasn't always had at his disposal this season coming back from surgery on his left knee. Now it appears that all the pieces are in place, healthy and functioning. It's a matter of execution.
Bethpage Black was a big-boy golf course in 2002 and it has grown some 200-plus yards since the Open was last played. Now a par-70 at more than 7,400 yards, it is up the USGA not to lose this course to conditioning, set-up or weather this week.
On the front side, of the 3,649 yards going out from the clubhouse, the longest hole is the Par-4 seventh, a 525-yard beast that has grown 36 yards longer with the addition of a new box.
The seventh now holds the distinction of being the longest par-4 in US Open history. The seventh also plays longer than the 517-yard par-five fourth a true risk/reward hole in that how it plays will be determined by the player's tee shot.
The inward nine, some 3,777 yards long, begins with the 508-yard par-four 10th hole followed shortly by the 504-yard, par four, 12th hole, which is then backed up by the 605-yard, par five, 13th hole.
There is no easy stretch at Bethpage and in fact there is only one par-four that is less than 400 yards and that would be the 389-yard par four second hole. In fact, if you were looking for a series of scoring holes, it would have be Nos. 1 through 4, but make no mistake, there will be no "gimmies" at Bethpage, especially if there is weather. Any and all players will earn their keep on the Black.
Tiger Woods is just one of the many fascinating story lines that will be revolving around Farmingdale, New York this week.
There was a record 9,086 entries received by the USGA for the chance to secure one of the 156 spots in the field for this year's Open. Some of the names, Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, you're familiar with. Others, Josh Brock, Angelo Que, Sangmoon Bae, not so much, but beginning Thursday morning on the first and 10th tees, every player starts with a peg in the ground and an even scorecard, ready or not for the day to come and the action to pass.
* Tiger Woods. Tiger says his knee feels great. Tiger says he's practicing like he's used to. Tiger says he's putting a nice roll on the ball. Tiger says he really likes Elaine (okay, I made that one up). But how many times have we heard Tiger say something and then find out later that it wasn't necessarily the case. It's hard to gauge where Tiger's game really is. Muirfield Village was a hard track, but the fairways were generous and the rough was not penal at all. Yes The Striped One hit every fairway on Sunday at the Memorial, but he did also use a lot of three- and five-metals for the week from the tee box. If we take Tiger on his word and the knee is stronger allowing for him to be more aggressive through the ball producing a better, more accurate strike, then it all comes down to putting and there is no one better in the game right now who delivers in the clutch when he has to, than Tiger Woods.
* Phil Mickelson. Emotion is a funny thing and it affects each person differently. There is pain in joy and sadness and there is no doubt that Lefty will be the sentimental favorite this week in New York. Fans love the connection that PM has with the good golf fans of this fair metropolis. Those same golf fans feel Lefty's pain and will back him up and down each long fairway and guarded green. The question may be, can Phil keep his emotions in check for a hole, for a nine, for a round, for a week? There will be a lot of sympathy and empathy poured out for Lefty but will the constant reminders of their support for him, for Amy and for his family be too much to bear or instead be the boost that he needs to claim his first US Open.
* Geoff Ogilvy. Has had a great year already. Has multiple wins, has gone low at tournaments, has played well under demanding circumstances and already has a US Open to his credit. Will be mentioned in the mix for some time, but when is it time to claim another major? His US Open win came in the New York area on a very difficult golf course but some will say it was handed to him. This one could be his for the taking.
* Paul Casey. Finally has won on the PGA TOUR at Houston. Solid game, not electrifying but certainly has the talent to win a major. Currently number three in the world rankings but really what does that mean when it comes to Major Championship play? Is it a burden or a blessing to be mathematically noted as the third best player in the world behind Tiger and Phil? Is it more important to believe in your heart and mind that you're right there, deserving to be at the top, or to have someone tell you how good they think you are? A US Open win answers a lot of silly questions.
* Jim Furyk. Already has a US Open win in Chicago and most recently finished second to Tiger at The Memorial. Hard to believe that he hasn't won on TOUR since 2007. Been close several times, but can he close the deal? Not many have won multiple US Opens, especially in the Tiger Woods era.
* Angel Cabrera. The only player in 2009 who has a shot at the Grand Slam. Went out and won the Masters. A power player with a streaky putting stroke who if he gets it rolling early, will ride the wave all week long. Searching for his second US Open and his third major.
* Padraig Harrington. Been G-R-I-N-D-I-N-G on the range all season long to implement changes to his game. The changes may be there but the results have not been so far. Bethpage is long, narrow and if the weather forecasts are correct, wet and windy for at least the first two days. No doubt Harrington can grind with the best of them but his game has to be in sync to eke out a win.
This being the US Open, there will be other names that pop up here and there on the first page of the leader board or make a run on Thursday or Friday. It almost always happens at the US Open. But who would be who could be this year's Rocco Mediate? Well, when Rocco teed it up last year at Torrey Pines he was ranked 158th in the World Golf Rankings.
At No. 158 heading into this year's event at Bethpage Black is Thomas Bjorn of Denmark. He's not in the Open this year, but another of the "B's" who's also in the 150s in the WGR is in the mix at Bethpage. Matt Bettencourt, who held the 54-hole lead at Jack's place two weeks ago is ranked No. 152 in the world and just could turn that final round experience at The Memorial into something special at the Open.
The USGA always has a little bit of fun with the tee times come Open time. I picture a group from the competition committee sitting around, just as you would for your fantasy football league, throwing around ideas about who should be with whom in a group. Some of the gems from this year's pairing sheet:
* 8:06 am Thursday #1 tee: Tiger Woods, Padraig Harrington, Angel Cabrera. Woods won the '08 Open, Paddy the '08 British & '08 PGA, then Angel won the '09 Masters. Next?
* 8:17 am Thursday #1 tee: Ryan Moore, Ben Crane, Eric Axley. Three, how shall we say, very deliberate players following Tiger's group. Allows for a lot of space between.
*7:44 am Thursday #10 tee: Henrik Stenson, Robert Karlsson, Steve Stricker. Stenson and Karlsson are both from Sweden, Stricker looks like he could be from Sweden. Or is it that Strick is from Madison, Wisconsin and Stenson and Karlsson look like they could be from Stoughton?
* 7:55 am Thursday #10 tee: Geoff Ogilvy, Jim Furyk, Paul Casey. One member of this group does not have a US Open trophy at home...that they won.
* 8:17 am Thursday #10 tee: Andres Romero, Eduardo Romero, Miguel Angel Jimenez. Oh to be a Spanish fly on the wall if only for the bantering back and forth in this group.
*1:25 pm Thursday #1 tee: Sergio Garcia, Camilo Villegas, Adam Scott. This group is for the ladies.
* 1:47 pm Thursday #1 tee: Rocco Mediate, Kenny Perry, Tom Lehman. The all-almost-won-a-US Open group.
* 1:03 pm Thursday #10 tee: David Duval, David Toms, Darren Clarke. The 3-D group.
* 1:14 pm Thursday #10 tee: Anthony Kim, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson. The Young Guns Group
* 1:25 pm Thursday #10 tee: Soren Kjeldsen, Soren Hansen, Peter Hanson. The golfing foursome of Soren-Soren-Hansen & Hanson.
* 1:36 pm Thursday #10 tee: Retief Goosen, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson. One member of this group doesn't own a US Open, while two members of this group have two and could easily share.
* 2:09 pm Thursday #10 tee: Thomas Levet, Jean-Francois Lucquin, Raphael Jacquelin. The French Fries, French Toast and French Onion soup group.
The only thing missing is Jean van de Velde.
The only thing certain in this the 109th playing of the United States Open at Bethpage Black is that the United States Golf Association is going to give every opportunity for Old Man Par to come out on top when all is said and done on Father's Day this Sunday.
There will not be many, if any, under par scores at this US Open, especially if the rains come early in the week and The Black plays all of its 7,400 plus yards. If Tiger is on, it's his to win. If not there is no one in the field who is a clear cut favorite, again, especially with the expected conditions on a demanding, challenging golf course with players under extreme pressure to perform. The three "Ps" are key this week; patience, persistence and pars will be the rule of the day, every day, Thursday through Sunday.
Add it all up and it should be a dandy from start to finish.