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All in the lap of gods: Woods

The failure of Zeus to come through sectional qualifying for this week’s US Open at Olympia Fields has simplified the pairings for the opening day of the championship. Tiger Woods, the defending champion, will play with Ernie Els, the Open champion, and Ricky Barnes, the US Amateur champion. Appropriately, Chicago was once dubbed ‘the city of big shoulders’.

It is daunting to think that Woods now might even be the shortest hitter of the three, although if he wanted to get involved in a long-driving contest the result would be somewhat different. But unlike at Bethpage, the venue of last year’s US Open, power will not be at such a premium.

Woods says: “The way the fairways are shaped, anyone can win this Open. It’s going to be a heck of a test. You’ll see somebody go low early because the opening holes are short, but the closing holes are something else. You’ve got to drive your ball well.

“There are a lot of angles. You have to shape the ball and you have to make a decision on your carries, what line you are going to take. Bethpage was straight ahead, go ahead and speed it.”

Although there are six par-fours at more than 440 yards in the final 10 holes, Olympia Fields is not a bomber’s course. Designed by Willie Park junior, who was also the architect of the Old Course at Sunningdale among many others, Olympia will demand the players hit a number of fades with a three-wood from the tee. A creek winds through the course, old oaks border the fairways and the conditions will be hot and humid.

Butch Harmon, Woods’ coach and an analyst for Sky Sports at this year’s US Open, says: “He was a little loose at the Masters and not quite as consistent as he’d like to be, 2000 is what we always use as the barometer. I think the best he ever played was at the Open Championship at St Andrews in 2000, in terms of striking the ball.

“We were looking at a film just yesterday of his swing in 2000, and I think it is almost back to the way it was then, when he swung his best. We spent a lot of time together in the past two months because Tiger was unhappy with his mechanics.”

As you might expect Harmon is more cautious about Woods’ playing partners. He notes that Barnes does not have the best college record and suspects that the US Open, with its demands on accuracy, will reveal whether he is “the real deal or not”.

About Els he says: “Ernie has not played that well with Tiger in the field, so let’s see them head-to-head in a major and see if we can put Ernie in that category. Ernie has had a phenomenal start to the year, no doubt about that, but of late he hasn’t played that well. I am looking forward to it as well as everyone else.”

Ricci Roberts, Els’ caddie, says that his man is hitting the ball beautifully again and that he is just not making any putts. I suspect that loyalty has caused both Harmon and Roberts to talk up their players. Els had initially intended to practise at Olympia Fields last week but instead he went home to Orlando in order to sweat off his cold. However in the years that he won, 1994 and 1997, he hadn’t played the courses prior to the week of the championship.

As Woods says, it promises to be a much more competitive US Open than last year. Retief Goosen has gone back to the putter that he won with two years ago. Kenny Perry comes in as the world’s hottest player.

Lee Janzen, twice a winner in the Nineties, has been in form despite spiking his foot on a candlestick when hitting a winner at table tennis. Vijai Singh and Davis Love are both multiple winners already this year. Mike Weir is the only man who can win the Grand Slam.

But what of the European challenge' Harmon, who also coaches Darren Clarke, says: “Darren is hitting the ball better than he has hit it in his life. I think he learned from the Masters that he wasn’t as fit as he needed to be. He’s working out — I know that’s hard to believe — because he is trying to get stronger. I think the one you have to look at on the European side for the US Open is Padraig Harrington.

He’s the most improved player in the world. He’s playing very well and he has the game that will suit the course very well. Look at how well Nick Faldo played last year. The key is to drive the ball on the fairway.

“Harrington’s a grinder. He works hard on every shot and he never wastes a shot. He’s fully prepared. He’s been able to look Tiger in the eye and play with him.

“If Colin Montgomerie doesn’t get in his own way, which he has a tendency to do, if he goes to Olympia Fields and lets himself play and not let every bird that flies by and every train whistle in the distance bother him, I think he still has a good chance to win a US Open.

“He has the perfect game for it. He drives the ball well, he hits it well. He seems to be putting better with the belly putter.”

Harmon did not mention the likes of Justin Rose and Paul Casey. However, he did have something to say about one young European, Sergio Garcia, and his problems: “He says he’s trying to make some swing changes, which I think are good. I put it down to putting. I see him trying everything: cross-handed, different putters, belly putters. For a 23-year-old to lose confidence in his putting is a tough thing. I don’t see any reason why he can’t come back, but right now his putting is dreadful.”

Harmon and Janzen are for Woods. Asked whether Woods was tougher to beat at a US Open or a Masters, Janzen said: “I would say US Open, since that’s our next tournament.

“I don’t want to make him mad. He takes everything personal. Michael Jordan tells him that. ‘Take everything personal and then beat them’.”

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