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Harrington Promises to Take Oakmont Head-On

By: Jay Flemma


No matter what side of the pond the speaker was from, the reaction was the same: "Padraig Harrington said what?!?" When the Irishman candidly yet fervently declared Oakmont so penal that he was going to challenge the course, hit driver and play aggressively many thought somebody must have spiked his Gatorade with Bushmills. But not only is the strategy a double-edged, all-or-nothing tightrope Harrington must negotiate, he may also inadvertently provide insight into one reason why some European players have trouble at the U.S. Open.

When the USGA's Rand Jerris quizzed the colorful and candid Harrington about his game plan - specifically asking if the severity of the hazards encouraged a conservative approach, Harrington reacted more like a pitcher shaking off his catcher. "I don't think I've ever played a golf course with as many hazards as close to the fairway on both sides of the fairway . . . There are the odd holes where you can be conservative, but a lot of times you just have to take your chances and hit it between them," Harrington replied firmly. He quickly continued, explaining that "if you start laying up, even in the lay-up area, there's still trouble. You don't want to lay too far back into severe greens, so you're going to have to take the shot on."

While this seems to play right into the hands of the USGA, who like to smother such aggressive plays in stifling rough and whisk it away at the speed of a 14-stimping green, Harrington noted later that "obviously hitting woods or 3-irons into these severe undulations is tougher." Harrington cinched his argument by analyzing the angles and green contours, pointing out that "there's a lot of greens where you can't simply hit the middle of the green and two-putt, you've got to get it close. If you're outside 20 feet, you've got your work cut out for you to get down in two, so I think you'll find players will be more aggressive here . . . You're better off trying to hit it close and make a few birdies and a few bogeys that way."

Such a plan turns the usual U.S. Open mantra of fairways and greens and patience on its head. "Well, he'll either shoot 72 or 92 that way," noted one veteran sportswriter. "That's not like his usually strategy," observed an Irish ex-pat fan. "He's usually smarter than that. He's taking an awful risk."

Major champions had a much different opinion. Ernie Els, defending champion at this venue, disagreed. "It's really a second-shot golf course. You've got to get yourself in play and then get the right lines into the greens, so the longer hitters I can't see using drivers more than 50 percent of the time."

Geoff Ogilvy - who joked that since now he is defending champion, when people ask for his autograph, "it's now 'Hey Geoff' instead of 'Hey you' or 'Hey Joe' " - agreed with Els' assessment. "I shot 83 and lost two balls in my round, it was five shots harder last Monday . . . but you can play with a 2-iron a lot and conservatively off the tee. You just have no chance in the rough out here, especially if you're on the wrong side of the fairway." Ogilvy believed Tiger Woods, multiple U.S. Open champion, might employ the strategy that worked so well for him at Hoylake.

Not surprisingly, Phil Mickelson, who said if this week wasn't the U.S. Open he'd probably rest his wrist and take the week off, said simply, "You have to take this golf course one shot at a time."

To paraphrase Mark Twain (who was speaking of the difference between the right word and the wrong word), the difference in attitude between those who have not won a U.S. Open and those who have is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. Above all, patience and is the common thread of the winners. Instead, the hunger, drive and desire of the young lions - attributes usually imperative to a successful competitive athlete - are actually counterproductive. John McEnroe, when speaking of how he finally overcame Jimmy Connors and began winning tennis majors, said "balance, coordination and space beat speed, strength and aggression every time.'

The same is true in golf. Maybe taking the bull by the horns is one way to take on Oakmont, but it is certainly the riskiest and probably not the wisest. Yet, despite all the talk of it being called the "Oakmonster," the course also surrendered the record-low Sunday and record low weekend rounds (Larry Nelson's 65-67-132 in 1983). Maybe Harrington can buck both the odds and the standard game plan of "survive and advance" at the U.S. Open. But precious few have survived Oakmont with a swashbuckling attitude.

While it will make Harrington an interesting player to watch all week as he charges into the fray like an old English sea captain firing a full broadside and boarding the enemy frigate in the smoke screaming, "Lively lads! We'll win the day or my wife will be a widow," when he heads out on the plank it may be as narrow as walking a tightrope. You have to admire Harrington's courage, but courage is not a virtue that usually gets rewarded at an Open.

In fact it's usually low on the list - far behind traits like temperance, fortitude and, most importantly, wisdom. Maybe such passion works well at a Ryder Cup. Maybe playing aggressive golf rewards you at a British Open or PGA Tour event or especially at the Masters, but not at the Open. Yes, the young guns have the drive and desire, but the U.S. Open race goes to the steady, not the swift.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.