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Pond Scrum: Special 111th U.S. Open Edition


BETHESDA, Md. -- The boys are back in town, for a different sort of tee party.

They are getting along about as well as the Republicans and Democrats, too.

We'll allow you to decide which is the donkey.

Transatlantic scribblers John Huggan, our European Tour correspondent, and Steve Elling, the golf writer for CBSSports.com, have landed in the nation's capital to take the temperature of the 111th U.S. Open.

Both arrived Monday at Congressional Country Club, where their weekly debate should be hotter than the weather, if not the competition to pocket the next Capitol Hill bribe.

This is their weekly trip round the golfing Beltway, an alternate-shot format we call Pond Scrum, in honor of viewpoints from different sides of a certain body of water. And we don't mean the Potomac River.

Amazingly, the folks at the immigration department keep green-lighting the entry through customs of Huggan, who lives in Forfar, Scotland. That's OK. Elling will make him suffer.

Dating back to the Texas Open, nine consecutive PGA Tour events have been decided by a playoff or one stroke, including Sunday's Memphis stop. What's the story with that streak and will it play a part in the Open this week?

Elling: As though the world ranking wasn't enough to underscore the parity in the game at the moment, huh? It's just another way of saying, "there isn't much separating the guys at the top of the sport." Or in the middle. It tends to make me think there are as many as 75 guys who can win here. Way more than usual.

Huggan: I think we addressed this a couple of weeks ago, didn't we?

Elling: Darned possible, but since then, Harrison Frazar won, a guy who had gone 355 career starts without a win. We are trending toward obscurity in the States this year with winners. As many from outside the top 100 as inside.

Huggan: My theory is that the courses on the PGA Tour are set up in such a "samey" way week-to-week that it gets harder for players to separate themselves from the rest. In other words, everyone is playing every hole the same way because the narrow fairways and long grass eliminate imagination almost completely. Hence all these playoffs.

Huggan: Memphis doesn't count, does it? I mean, was there anyone you'd heard of in the field?

Elling: The Congressional length could thin the herd. Is this course firm enough as to not discriminate against the medium hitters? I have heard of former Ryder Cupper Robert Karlsson, and I have definitely written about him in the past. But your point is taken.

Huggan: The U.S. Open is not a PGA Tour event, so at least we are going to be treated to something a bit different this week. Albeit, your National Open can get a bit silly at times. See Shinnecock, 2004. Let's hope we don't see any world-class players putting into bunkers this week.

Elling: How does that anybody-can-win mindset affect this week? The guys who collected the most majors over the past few years have gone dormant. Tiger Woods isn't here, Phil Mickelson has one victory in 14 months, Padraig Harrington is MIA, Vijay Singh couldn't be bothered to qualify, and Ernie Els hasn't contended for any title in over a year. Hello, wildcards.

The host U.S. Golf Association has done it again. Three years after pairing world Nos. 1-2-3 in the same group at the Open at Torrey Pines, it has seen fit to send off the top three again this week, among other contrived threesomes. Do you like it?

No. 1 Luke Donald will tee it up with Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer during the first two rounds. (Getty Images)  
No. 1 Luke Donald will tee it up with Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer during the first two rounds. (Getty Images)  

Elling: Not only are the top three paired this week -- that's Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer -- they also represent the last three players to have been ranked numero uno in the world. I absolutely like it. There's a distinct chance one of these guys is in the mix at the end. Especially the way that Donald has been playing. He hasn't finished outside the top 10 since Tiger Woods had cartilage in his left knee.

Huggan: I do like it. It makes me smile. Plus, in the cases of the Spaniards, Swedes and Italians, it at least eliminates the language barrier.

Elling: I have it on good authority that all those guys swear in English. I like that they paired off the Italians, with the Brothers Molinari and young phenom Matteo Manassero. Maybe the older boys can take the little one under his wing and guide him through the minefield that is a U.S. Open.

Huggan: Frank Hannigan started this nonsense when he was head of the USGA. It is fun trying to identify the so-called a--hole group. My money is on Sabbatini, Allenby and ... whoever the third guy is. Anything that gets us away from the grind that can be the U.S. Open is fine with me.

Elling: Yeah, nice subplot there. Rob Allenby doesn't suffer fools well. Hopefully Sabbo decompressed some while he was "away." You know, not serving a suspension. Was Tiger the third member of the Sabbo trio?

Huggan: Now, now. Can't we just ignore the world No. 15 for one week? Ryan Moore is the third guy in the Rory, Robert group. Wonder what he's done to deserve that?

Elling: Must be an alliteration deal. Rory, Robert and Ryan. Sounds like an Orlando boy band.

What are the chances we make it through the week without a major weather issue?

Huggan: None. Speaking as someone who gets a little tired of Americans criticizing Scottish weather, it must be said that yours sucks at times. At least when it comes to playing golf. I think we can take it as read that there will be at least one lightning delay.

Elling: Witness: Bethpage Black and its Monday finish. At least nobody gets killed in bad weather in the UK. In this town, D.C. stands for Direct Current. Chances of no lightning this week? About the same as Sarah Palin's chances of seating in a certain house on Pennsylvania Avenue. Speaking for John, neither of us are exactly qualified to be making conclusive forecasts, but at this time of year along the Atlantic Coast, who the heck is? It's a veritable certainty that we get some sort of lightning activity this week. Although at the moment, the prognosticators are calling for cool weather into the week. Fingers crossed.

Huggan: Re: the previous question: Why wasn't Watney drawn with Rory and Johnson? You know, the guys who can't break 80 in the last round at majors.

Elling: Ohhhhhhhhh, Butch Harmon is going to get you for that. He coaches two of those boys. As for the fair city and precipitation possibilities, recall the Booz Allen tournament played across the street at Avenal a few years ago, won by Ben Curtis? To say it was plagued by bad weather is like saying Donald Trump used a can of hairspray per day. That event ended on a Tuesday morning. It was a disaster. The weathermen are overmatched. It's a complete crapshoot here. The standing forecast is akin to, "50 percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms." Every day.

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Huggan: Hard but fair.

Elling: Hey, you stole the USGA mantra with that one. I think you have to pay a fee for using, "Hard but fair." Copyrighted! Remember, this is the Open tournament site where they played the Open's 36-hole finale for the last time. Good thing, because it damned near killed winner Ken Venturi, who had heat stroke. It's not even summertime officially and being outside at Congressional is like sleeping in a wet, wool sock. Except with more mosquitoes.

Huggan: So tell me again, why are we here?

Elling: Congressional has room for the corporate tents?

Huggan: I'm going to stick my neck out here and say it has something to do with money.

Huggan: Although, it must be acknowledged that the two previous U.S. Opens here have been more than interesting. So I'm hoping for the best. Shame Monty isn't here to play and make a mess of it at the end though, like he did in 1997.

Elling: You don't have a neck. Ears straight to shoulders. But it's always about money. You got the point exactly right.

Speaking of the host venue, it has been modified since the last time the Open was played at Congressional. Do you like the switch?

Elling: Indeed, but with a qualifier or two. The old design ended on a par-3 hole, which in the view of many is no way to decide a National Open. So with the help of a few million bucks, a bulldozer and architect Rees Jones, the final hole is now a brutal, 500-yard par-4 hole to a green located on a peninsula, surrounded by water. Problem is, no bleachers can be erected close enough to the green to get fans particularly close to the action, and the putting surface is located several hundred yards from the clubhouse. Hardly ideal from a staging and theatrics standpoint. Although on TV, nobody will notice the difference.

Huggan: Not that finishing on a par-3 is inherently bad, but I like the previous 17th as the last. It brings a few numbers into play. The old 18th was not only a par-3, it was a bland par-3. Monty will be here to commentate for Sky TV. A sweep has already been started on how many times he will mention last year's Ryder Cup.

Elling: I think the only other prominent track I can name that ends on a par-3 is East Lake in Atlanta. It just doesn't feel right. Moreover, after the design flip, the 10th hole at Congressional is a par-3 and the Open is played off both tees. That means the entire field will start one of their rounds on a par-3 hole, which isn't ideal, either. The only other course I recall with a similar start was Westchester, and players used to smirk about starting the day on a hole where play was sure to get clogged up even before it began. Like play at the Open isn't glacial enough? Maybe glacial isn't the right word, since it's possibly going to be 100 degrees at some point, with 99 percent humidity.

Huggan: I know. Give me a reachable par-5 with water and a fountain and a floating car ... oh, hang on there, we go back to the PGA Tour.

Elling: Or Celtic Manor.

Huggan: Sad to say, Congressional isn't the most interesting track. But it isn't the PGA Tour, so I live in hope.

Elling: Is Hope a city near Forfar, Scotland?

Huggan: No, but Kirriemuir is. You know, birthplace of J.M. Barrie, the man who gave us Peter Pan. No one can ever say that this bit of silliness isn't educational.

Elling: My brain is spinning at the possibility of future Tinkerbell jokes.

Tiger Woods' caddie, Steve Williams, will be on the bag for Adam Scott in D.C. (Getty Images)  
Tiger Woods' caddie, Steve Williams, will be on the bag for Adam Scott in D.C. (Getty Images)  

How will the absence of Tiger Woods affect the festivities? Happy, John, this time it's a question about Tiger not playing?

Elling: Well, it means his caddie gets to freelance for another guy. Steve Williams is dragging bag for Aussie Adam Scott this week. I guess Steve decided he didn't want to waste that plane ticket he bought, only to have Tiger withdraw soon after he arrived back in the States from New Zealand. In all seriousness, Scott might be the only guy helped by the Woods withdrawal. Well, Scott and the media, who won't have to deal with the Woods sideshow.

Huggan: I'm really not sure that anyone will notice or care that Tiger is not here. Seriously. I think his celebrity has diminished that much.

Elling: Come on. Clearly, his absence hurts the product in some regard, because the Open is one of three or four tournaments that old ladies in Alaska will watch, especially if Woods is in the weekend mix. Bloomberg News issued a comprehensive story over the weekend about how quickly the resale street value of tickets fell off once Woods withdrew. That's a great indicator of interest -- scalpers are not commanding nearly the same price as when Woods was in the field.

Huggan: I'm telling you. No one will notice, especially after the action begins Thursday. The great thing about majors is that the golf always overtakes any other story.

Elling: And the TV ratings? I guess we'll know on Monday. Interestingly, Curtis Strange of ESPN said they plan to make zero references to Tiger in the broadcast.

Huggan: Pity those old ladies in Alaska can't get Sky. They could learn a lot about last year's Ryder Cup this week.

Foreign-born players hold all four majors for the second time since the modern Grand Slam was coined, plus the trophy at the so-called fifth major, too. Does the streak continue?

Elling: Though the U.S. Open has not been kind to the Euros over the years, it's quite likely possible that Americans get turned away yet again. No knock on Steve Stricker, but when a 44-year-old who is prone to spewing oil on the back nine when in contention is the highest-ranked Yank, that serves as a red flare of sorts. McDowell became the first Euro in four decades to win, so if there was any stigma attached to that historical oddity, it's certainly gone, isn't it?

Huggan: Predicting who will win golf tournaments is not the most sensible course of action ... too many variables. But if you twist my arm I'll go for a non-American victory. Which probably means that Ben Curtis will win.

Elling: This year, especially, it's been hard to predict. See details above. I am already on record as having bet a few bits on the notion that the next eight majors will won by eight different players. I stand by that assertion. In fact, that eightsome will probably represent four or five different nations. Would anybody be surprised if Italy's Francesco Molinari won this week? Not really.

Huggan: Bottom line: I'm rooting for a week as good as when 1964 and 1997 were here.

Elling: Anything but a Monday finish is fine for one and all. Is there somebody in this town we can bribe to ensure that doesn't happen? I hear there isn't much in this town that cannot be bought.

Huggan: Ouch. Tricky Dicky lives.

Elling: Tricky Dick? Is that an Anthony Wiener joke? Was hoping they would make the Watergate the official media hotel.

Huggan: That would have been cool. Which is not a word I expect to use very often this week. Bloody American weather!


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