With the US Open almost upon us, we sat down with three-time Ryder Cup captain and Golf Care ambassador, Bernard Gallacher, to get his thoughts on the upcoming major.
US Open greens are notorious for being difficult. We’ve had the ‘broccoli’ in 2015, then the ‘melon-twister’ in 2016. This year’s problem surface at the US Open seems to be the rough, which players have already dubbed ‘the cabbage’. Do the USGA have an issue?
The USGA’s clear aim is to try to provide the toughest golf course of the majors. At Chambers Bay they tried to do something different with the fescue grass and that didn’t come off. People didn’t even like the design of that golf course either, especially as it was in a part of America that doesn’t particularly like golf.
To be fair to the USGA, they’ve tried to mix it up by playing on traditional championship golf courses one year, and public golf courses the next. Chambers Bay, Oakmont, Erin Hills this year and then Shinnecock Hills next year – they’re trying to do what’s best for golf by broadening its appeal, taking it to different parts of America. It is the US Open after all – it shouldn’t be reserved for exclusive private golf clubs.
Erin Hills is a pretty new golf course by American standards, it was only built in 2006 – it’s not a traditional country club-type course. It’s a public golf course, albeit an expensive one. However, the USGA are trying to be inclusive with their courses, so this represents a big test. They need this to go well.
How do you think the course will play?
The course can play over 8,000 yards, but this year I think they’re settling for about 7,800 – which is still a long course. The fairways are going to be very narrow, and extremely bouncy. The greens are going to be fast. And on top of everything else, it will be pretty windy, the players are going to have to cope with a stiff breeze all week. Look for some high scoring, I’d say!
What are the USGA trying to achieve by making such a fiendish course?
The ultimate goal is to find the world’s most complete golfer – and by definition the best golfer. Every part of a golfer’s game will be tested to the limit, and that’s where the USGA are starting from. Driving, iron shots, bunker play, in the wind, out of the wind, chipping, putting, everything. They want a champion that has really earned it – more so than any other major. That’s what the USGA have always been about.
Image credit: Erin Hills
Who do you think that will be best suited to?
It’s always difficult to pick an obvious winner, but there are a few players that stand out. I’d say Sergio Garcia first of all, simply because there is such a premium on ball-striking and tee-to-green play at any US Open and evidently at Erin Hills. On the back of his Masters win, you have to think that Sergio will be full of confidence and looking to try and win his second major – particularly on a golf course that will play to his strengths.
Until recently, it was his putting that’s been holding him back. Now he’s found a technique that works for him, the sky is the limit – particularly with the major monkey off his back. I think he’ll be relishing attacking this course. If he has a good week on the greens, he’ll be right up there.
Second favourite for me has to be Dustin Johnson. He’s the out and out best player in the world right now. I appreciate he missed the cut at Muirfield Village, which was very surprising on a golf course that should have suited him – but I think his mind was already set on the US Open and didn’t concentrate as well as maybe he should have.
Apart from Muirfield, every time he’s played this year, he’s been sensational. There’s a chance he feels like he short-changed himself by not being able to play the Masters, so there’s some catch-up. But as we mentioned earlier, the US Open seeks the most complete player, and at the moment there’s no question it’s DJ – and the bookmakers agree!
Image credit: Getty Images/Gregory Shamus
Jordan Speith? He needs a golf course with a bit more room. We know he’s great at getting up and down, and a top wedge player, but Erin Hills isn’t set up well for him. I’ve been looking out for Rory as well. If it was a normal Rory McIlroy coming into this tournament, you’d expect him to do well. The only thing that concerns me, like DJ, is that he hasn’t played a lot of competitive golf this year because of his injury – there’s a chance he could be a tad rusty.
Outside of the big dogs, we’ve got the usual players vying to do well. You do think it will be a high-quality player that wins it, because of how it’s set up. It’s unlikely you’ll get a debut major winner here, especially at Erin Hills. Keep your eye out for Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Jason Day – solid experienced players.
As an outside bet, you’d have to think John Rahm will be up there. He’s only 22 but already in the World Top 10 and only turned pro a year or so ago, he’s a hell of a talent – destined to win a major. With power off the tee and a good putting stroke, as well as nerves of steel for a young guy, it can’t be too far away. You have to look at Alex Noren as well after his PGA Championship win. Anyone that can shoot a 62 at Wentworth certainly takes a good game into the US Open – all the ingredients are there.
Playoffs are rare in majors now, for many reasons. The US Open is the only major to have an 18-hole playoff. Will there be one this year?
If there is ever going to be a playoff, you have to think it will be here. Not just the US Open, but this course in particular. It looks a real handful, so you would expect the scoring to be high and bunched. The USGA don’t like low scores – they like par to be a winning score, that much has been clear over the years. So, if there was going to be a playoff, you’d expect it to be at a course like Erin Hills.
We all know Phil Mickelson may not have many more chances to win a US Open. What’s your opinion of him putting family over his missing major?
I admire him. It’s a big family occasion, a graduation speech. I remember his wife was seriously ill back in 2008 and recovered, but at that point it seems like his priorities shifted – and rightly so. He’s a strong family man and I personally take my hat off to him. It’s the right thing to do, and he’s putting life into the proper perspective.
Even at 47, I don’t think Phil feels he’s finished by a long chalk. He’ll be saying to himself, “there’s always next year.” He plays a lot of golf – he’s fit, he’s strong, he’s competitive. In July last year, if it wasn’t for the exceptional golf of Stenson, he’d have won The Open. He played excellently in the Ryder Cup too.
The oldest person to win a major is Julius Boros at 48, which is how old Mickelson will be next year at Shinnecock Hills. I’m sure he will be thinking he can win it there to complete his major Grand Slam. He’s already finished as runner up 6 times. For him to give that up this year for his daughter shows great family values. If Tom Watson can nearly win a major at 60, Phil can win one at 48 or even after that.
Some conspiracy theorists are suggesting he will fly out after the speech and hope for a weather delay to suit his late tee time. Does that seem plausible?
The US Open is hugely difficult to win at any time. But having not practised or acclimatised himself at Erin Hills over this week, it will be even harder. Couple that with the 4-hour flight between San Diego and Wisconsin – even with a weather delay, you can’t step off a private jet and onto the first tee and expect to perform at your best. No practise, nothing.
It’s difficult to see how he could manage it – he should content himself that he’s made the right decision to prioritise his family, put his feet up and watch it on TV.
Image credit: Getty Images/Streeter Lecka
In terms of what else players can use to improve their game, Jason Dufner has spoken recently about using meditative breathing to help his game. Do you think it has a use?
In terms of top players, Gary Player has been using yoga breathing since he was a young man – nearly 50 years! I’ve used it in the past myself when I was nervous and needed to relax on the course. You breathe in through your nose to the count of seven and then fully exhale through the mouth – couple of times in a row and it helps.
More players should use it. I’m surprised more don’t, I used to breathe like that walking to the first tee extremely often. I’m not sure why it’s taken Jason Dufner until he was 40-years-old to work it out, but I’m glad he has – he suffers more on the greens than anyone I’ve seen apart from Sergio. If that’s his way of coping, good on him.
With younger players now especially, is there a reliance on their cutting-edge equipment rather than that inner calm and belief?
Equipment helps every player nowadays, some of the advancements are amazing. But it’s not enough to win tournaments on its own – you need a clear head, you need to be relaxed, you need to be determined. There’s more to it than equipment to be the complete golfer, luck plays a part too. Whichever player has the right clubs, the right luck and the right game will win the US Open this week.