The US Open Championship returns to Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania this week after an absence of 13 years, and in the case of two European Tour Members, it will prove a particularly poignant reunion with a course which will host the event for a record eighth time.
South Africa’s Ernie Els and Colin Montgomerie of Scotland both made their first appearance in a Major Championship play-off in 1994, and it was Els who claimed his first Major triumph when he defeated Montgomerie and American Loren Roberts over 18 holes in the steamy Pennsylvania heat.
Els, Montgomerie and Spain’s José Maria Olazábal are the only European Tour Members from 13 years ago who will form part of a 38-strong assault team on the second Major Championship of 2007.
A total of eight Members will be making their US Open debuts, namely Christian Cévaër, Johan Edfors, Darren Fichardt, Marcus Fraser, Anders Hansen – the new BMW PGA Champion – Miguel Rodriguez, Sam Walker and Anthony Wall.
Facing that octet of US Open rookies, and the remaining 30 players who have experienced the annual June examination before, is a course boasting the longest hole in the Championship’s history and also the longest par three.
The 12th hole at Oakmont is a par five measuring an extraordinary 667 yards, while the par three eighth is a simple flick of 288 yards! For good measure, the 15th hole is 500 yards, making it the second longest par four in US Open history.
Clearly, with 7,230 yards to negotiate in a testing par 70 layout, the 2007 US Open Championship will demand considerable patience, skill, imagination and flair – qualities which Els showed in 1994 when he turned huge potential into tangible silverware with the first of this three Major crowns.
Els and Montgomerie launch their latest title bid just 11 minutes apart on Thursday, with the Scot teeing off from the tenth tee at 7.33 am local time followed by Els’s group at 7.44 am.
Montgomerie finished tied for second place with Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk at Winged Foot last year as Australian Geoff Ogilvy stole through virtually unnoticed to claim his first Major. A double bogey six at the last still frustrates Montgomerie, who was one of eight European Tour Members in the top 15.
Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, who partners Els and Masters Champion Zach Johnson, is back to try again after coming up just two shots off Ogilvy’s winning total of 285 in fifth place last year. Also lining up at Oakmont are Nick O’Hern, Kenneth Ferrie and Vijay Singh (tied sixth), Ian Poulter and Luke Donald (tied 12th) and Paul Casey (15th).
England’s Sam Walker will enjoy the privilege of playing in the first group at 7 am on Thursday after being one of nine golfers to qualify for the Championship at Walton Heath in England while Spain’s Pablo Martin makes his debut just two weeks after turning professional and qualifying in the United States.
The achievement of Walker at Walton Heath was indeed exceptional, as the 29 year old has missed nine of his last ten halfway cuts and is 196th on The European Tour Order of Merit. Despite a poor run of form he qualified at the first time of asking, even though the thought of teeing up at Oakmont kept him awake the night before he qualified.
He said: "This is a great achievement for me - but I just wish my Nan was here to see it, She used to follow me every single day of the week, but died four weeks ago.”
Walker was inspired by fellow Englishman Ferrie, who finished joint sixth on his US Open debut last year at Winged Foot.
“I feel if I can go there and take the positives, I could go from strength to strength like Kenneth Ferrie last year. He gives everyone motivation and did himself proud and did England proud.”
Retief Goosen, a two-time winner of the US Open, hits the glory trail once more in the company of Donald and the big-hitting Argentine, Angel Cabrera, while Martin will feel at home alongside fellow Spaniards Sergio Garcia and Olazábal.
As traditional demands, Ogilvy sets out with Open Champion Tiger Woods and Scotland’s Richie Ramsay, the winner of the 2006 US Amateur Championship.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez will face a daunting challenge when he tees up at Oakmont. Last week he was playing on the Challenge Tour in the Oceanico Developments Pro-Am Challenge in Manchester and was scheduled to play in St Omer this week. Now, after rounds of 71 and 66, the winner of the Kai Fieberg Costa Rica Open will line-up against the world’s best players.
Despite the daunting length of some of the holes at Oakmont, two-time winner Woods expects to use his driver sparingly over a layout he rates as one of the toughest in golf. The World Number One paid a second visit to the course last Monday and left with the same impression he gained when he played there for the first time in late April.
“It's probably the hardest US Open course I have ever played,” Woods said. “Driving will be a key. Most fairways are only about 26 yards wide and the rough is brutal in places.
“Given the speed and undulation of the greens, it will be difficult to hold the putting surfaces without playing from the short grass,” added the 31 year old American, the US Open Champion at Pebble Beach in 2000 and Bethpage Black in 2002.
“Plus, many of the fairways run out. I see myself hitting only five or six drivers and using a lot of stinger three woods off the tee for position. It might leave me with longer clubs into the greens but at least I will be able to control the spin.”
Woods will be hunting his third Major victory in four starts and he relishes every opportunity to enhance his reputation as arguably the greatest player in history.
“I'm excited for the tournament,” the 12 time Major winner said. “We only have four Major Championships a year and this is what we play for, what defines your career. I've been fortunate to win two US Opens and would love to win another. My goal, as always, is to give myself a chance on Sunday afternoon.”