Shane Bacon U.S. Open mailbag: Let the 'fun' begin

BY Shane Bacon • June 13, 2015

Well, it is finally here. The excitement and anticipation for this particular U.S. Open has been as active as the Oracle during an NBA Finals game, with fans wondering what to expect, players wondering how Chambers Bay will play and the golf world in general jonesing for a next major champion (a reminder, dating back to the 2011 U.S. Open, we’ve seen Rory McIlroy, Keegan Bradley, Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson, Martin Kaymer and Jordan Spieth win 12 of the 16 majors).

With so much to talk about and so little time to do it before that first tee time on Thursday, let’s open up the mailbag and go U.S. Open-specific as the golf world turns its eyes to the Pacific Northwest (a reminder, if you want to toss me a mailbag question, shoot it over to me on Twitter or Facebook).

Bacon: To be fair, the grumblings have seemed to pass, and -- as the general manager of Chambers Bay told me this week -- the word fun has come up quite a bit among players seeing the course for the first time (or if nothing else, seeing it for the first time in championship condition).

I think this point needs to be hammered into the heads of anyone and everyone questioning Chambers Bay as a proper U.S. Open site: Major championships, especially the U.S. Open, aren’t supposed to be fun. It isn’t slip-n-slides and ice cream sundaes and pats on the back. Winning the U.S. Open, over all the majors, is a battle, both internally and externally, a 72-hole endeavor that takes weeks, months and years to prepare for.

Ernie Els won at Oakmont in 1994, but he didn’t go build a house on the 14th hole. Retief Goosen looked as solid as a rock on his way to a first U.S. Open title at Southern Hills before having the slightest mental lapse on the 72nd green, and it nearly cost him the 2001 title. The difference in Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate during that 2008 marathon at Torrey Pines wasn’t much, but overcoming the conditions and your emotions is a part of this championship.

I’m sure we will hear players complain. It’s part of their gig. Pros complain. They complain about green speeds, pace of play, rough length, wind, fans, tee times ... if they didn’t complain, they wouldn’t be pros.

But the key to all of this is understanding that, like it or not, there will be four rounds of golf played at a golf course at University Place, Wash., in the middle of June and you beat everybody else on the property and you live in the history books of one of golf’s biggest championships. That’s it. That is the important thing to remember.

And the biggest complaint will probably be the greens. They’re enormous and tough to navigate and will make certain pros look silly at times.

The biggest praise will probably be the views from the course. Again, I go back to my chat with Matt Allen, who said players have been pulling out their cameras and snapping photos during practice rounds, admiring the beauty of this property that will be in the national spotlight in just a few days.

Bacon: Absolutely, I think it’s a great course for a left-hander. The only holes in my mind that can cause trouble for that right-to-left ball flight is No. 6 (one of the best holes on the property, but a tough tee shot if you’re moving it in that direction and a fairway you MUST hit if you want to challenge the skinny green) and possibly No. 11. But honestly, No. 11 is going to be a tough driving hole for everyone because it plays some 537 yards from the back tees and has a hummock (a big, nasty knoll in the middle of the fairway) that will eat up a lot of drives if they don’t squeeze between that and the left rough.

And since we are talking about Phil Mickelson, I guess I’ll give you my two cents on the guy’s chances this week at Chambers Bay.

First, Phil is going to retire with a U.S. Open title. I don’t see him missing out on these future venues. Besides next year at Oakmont, Chambers, Erin Hills, Shinnecock, Pebble, Winged Foot and Torrey Pines will all be great shots for Mickelson to get that first (or if he wins this year, second) U.S. Open title. I just don’t see him running through that gauntlet of Mickelson-friendly golf courses without at least one win. He’s been so close. Surely, the golf gods aren’t going to leave him without this final leg of his legacy?

As for this year, here is the point I’ve made about Mickelson: Chambers Bay requires creativity around the greens, something you’ve definitely heard by now and something you will hear repeated throughout press conferences and interviews next week. It’s a lengthy golf course, but the real filet and twice-baked of Chambers comes around the enormous green complexes. This, of course, will require the eventual champion, and others in contention, to manage missed greens with not only precision but a no-fear creativity. Now let me ask you something: What golfer of this generation possesses a short game that not only is top-five all-time but normally comes with zero fear? Yes, you just said it in your head (not aloud, people at work will think you’re crazy): Phil Mickelson!

The simple fact that unusual short-game shots will not only have to be attempted, but attempted with no fear, is an important part of Mickelson’s advantages at Chambers Bay.

The guy can open up the 64-degree, hit goofy bump-and-runs and even putt well from off the greens when it calls for it (off topic, the latter argument is another reason I believe all the Europeans will have a slight advantage at Chambers; putting from off the greens will be something you see quite a bit next week ... where is Todd Hamilton when you need him?).

Phil is long enough off the tee to pull a driver on just about every hole that calls for it, the fairways are forgiving enough to snag some of his mishits, and he will have enough chutzpah around the greens to try shots a lot of players in the field wouldn’t dare.

So I like Phil at Chambers Bay. And I like Bubba Watson as well, if we are talking left-handers. The U.S. Open is probably the least likely of majors for Bubba to win, but for some of the same reasons Phil is one of my favorites, so is Bubba. He doesn’t have to worry about missing fairways, he can try all sorts of non-traditional short-game shots, and he will be hitting Felix Baumgartner-level iron shots into these greens when a lot of guys will be forced to pull a long iron or hybrid from the fairway.

Bacon: Oh Carl, the pimento cheese of Chambers Bay!

I’ll set the over/under on 3.5 if they’re serving them.

Also, I was talking to a friend of mine who is helping open a new golf course along the Oregon coast, and one of my easy suggestions for any golf course opening up is to make some sort of signature food and get people talking about it. Do people even talk about Olympic Club without mentioning the burger dog? Can you imagine going to the Masters and not eating a pimento cheese sandwich?

If you have some sort of signature food served at the beginning of the round or at the turn, people are going to be obsessed.

Bacon: I’ll take this a step further; I could see a top-five finish at the U.S. Open, the Open Championship and the PGA Championship.

As far as similar types of majors go, this has to be the only year ever that it has looked like this. Chambers, St. Andrews and Whistling Straits, all hosting majors that feel more like links golf than traditional tree-lined? I could see someone like Kaymer, Rickie Fowler or a sleeper have great weeks at all three locations.

Bacon: No, not that high. Despite that horrendous round of golf he played at The Memorial, I think the forgiveness of these fairways make it a bit easier for Woods to get around in something like 72-73, so I’ll set his opening round at 72.5.

And while we’re discussing Woods, I wondered this aloud last week on Twitter and still wonder: Why doesn’t he go back to the stinger?

The obvious answer is he will be 40 to 60 yards behind the real competitors at events, but isn’t that still better than being in the woods, or out of bounds, with driver/fairway wood?

If Woods hits that 2-iron stinger in the fairway, and has one of those weeks where he’s great with his irons, can’t he at least get himself in the conversation? I know this is a bigger problem and he has to figure out whatever is going on with that driver before he can seriously compete in any tournament (especially majors, the only events people judge him at), but for now, wouldn’t that tee shot that was his bread and butter for years at least give him a chance to avoid a huge number?

Just my thought. Maybe it’s crazy, maybe he can’t compete when everyone else has no fear with the big stick, but for Tiger, being in the short grass at least means he can post a respectable round. Pulling a driver all the time brings in those high, high rounds when his swing is really loose.

Bacon: Kaymer, Jamie Donaldson and Shane Lowry, and I really love Brooks Koepka, too. This will be one of the toughest majors ever to pick a champion at. You have McIlroy, Spieth and Johnson as smart favorites, but Phil, Brandt Snedeker, Bubba and a number of other guys could have four good days and walk away a major champion.

I think going the other way is the smartest when making selections; find guys you don’t have confidence in around the greens, and avoid them. If you don’t see a guy successfully scrambling, he probably won’t do much at Chambers. The fairways are massive and the greens enormous, so you’ll see a high number of greens in regulation, but this course is all about managing the shots that you don’t pull off. That will be the main focus at Chambers Bay.

Bacon: Well, put me on the spot, why don’t ya?!

I’ve already mentioned my thoughts on Phil, and he’s one of three I’m looking at as my “favorites.” My other two? Kaymer and Spieth. It’s lame, sure, with Kaymer defending this championship and Spieth coming off his win at the Masters, but I just think Spieth's mindset and the experience at Chambers Bay from his caddie Michael Greller gives him an early one-up on the field.

I think Spieth could go back-to-back. I really do. He drives the ball well enough to hit a ton of fairways at Chambers, his putter is his most important weapon, and his confidence is absolutely sky-high right now. Just watch this Golf Digest video about Spieth ... the kid is calm, cool and seems to understand -- even during a goofy challenge like this 90-foot putting game into a cup -- how to stay in his “professional mindset while letting loose.”

Do you know Spieth’s final-round scoring average in 2015 is 68.5? And that in two of his last three starts he’s closed the event with a final round 65? Spieth seems ready for the moment, and if I had to pick one name, it would be his. Phil, Kaymer, Dustin, Brooks ... all great picks, but I’m going with the guy that has more confidence than anyone else in the game right now. That’ll be big this week at Chambers Bay. I can’t wait for it to get going.