Faldo in fine form before the flood

US OPEN: Players' preparations to take on `the monster' are disrupted as thunderstorm drowns fearsome course

If Nick Faldo is going to win a US Open, this is the one. Every year the winner of the Masters is asked about the possibility of a Grand Slam and yesterday Faldo described attaining that as "fractionally higher than Everest." The Englishman has reached base camp and has made preparations for the ascent.

However, not even Faldo was prepared for the weather here in Detroit and yesterday the course was cleared by a ferocious thunderstorm. The greens were flooded, the fairways were flooded and sand was washed out of several bunkers. The start of the championship today may be delayed.

Oakland Hills is a classic US Open course and the rough is getting higher as we speak, but then so is the water level. The place is described as the "monster" and with a par of 70 very few players have managed to tame it. In 1951, Ben Hogan produced a 67 in the final round for an aggregate of 281 and the championship has been waiting for a thoroughbred ever since. The trouble is yesterday's storm has changed the nature of the course.

As it happens Hogan is Faldo's role model. He has visited him on several occasions although it would be an exaggeration to say they are bosom pals. When Gary Player once rang Hogan to ask him for some advice, the American responded: "What clubs do you play with?" "Dunlop," Player replied. "Then ask Mr Dunlop," Hogan snapped.

Hogan came close to the Grand Slam in 1953 when he won the Masters, the US Open and the Open. He did not compete in the US PGA. If it was just about possible then to win the Big Four, it does not seem possible now. "I understand what it's all about," Faldo said. "You've got to get your game right to start off. You've got to get everything right physically, mentally, emotionally, health, all sorts. Then you've got another 150 guys trying to compete. We all know how difficult it is but it is a possibility. If Nicklaus couldn't do it and Hogan couldn't do it..."

The manner of Faldo's victory in the Masters in April might instil in him a belief that anything is possible. Greg Norman, the world No 1, blew a six-stroke lead and lost by five and there are other major questions to be answered here aside from Faldo's toehold on a Grand Slam. Can the Great White Shark recover from his reputation for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory? Can the 46-year-old Tom Watson, who ended a nine- year barren spell by winning the aptly named Memorial Tournament, win a ninth major? Can Ernie Els, in sublime form after blitzing the field by eight strokes in the Buick Classic last week, win his second US Open in three years? Can Colin Montgomerie break his duck? Will this be the wettest championship on record?

Norman was badly wounded in the crash at Augusta although he has been claiming here that the scars have healed. He says he played only two bad shots on that fateful Sunday, at the eighth and 16th holes. He is deluding himself. He did indeed play a wretched shot at the 16th but by that time the damage had been done. Norman is possibly the most gifted golfer to play the game since Hogan but his return of just two major titles suggests that he is a club short in the mental game.

Jack Nicklaus, the host of The Memorial Tournament, described Watson's victory as the most thrilling thing to happen in golf since... well, since Big Jack's victory in the Masters 10 years ago. Nicklaus was then aged 46, as Watson is now -yet for some gap-toothed reason he is not regarded as being a golden oldie. Like Norman, Watson has a mental problem although in his case it is confined to short putts. Despite his victory at Muirfield Village he did not entirely dispel the doubts. His final round of 70 contained 33 putts.

As for Monty he is one of the most consistent players in the world but has finished runner-up on far too many occasions. Last week in the Alamo English Open he appeared to be in the driving seat when his foot slipped off the accelerator. Despite ensuring that the course was set up to replicate typical conditions at a US Open, he duffed chip shots out of the rough at both the penultimate and ultimate holes. He shot 75, 68, 68, 68.

"I didn't lose the tournament at the 17th and 18th," Montgomerie said, "I lost it in the first round." He is deluding himself. To duff one chip might be considered unfortunate; to duff two is doubly unfortunate. The impression is that if Monty cannot cut the mustard in the English Open at the Forest of Arden, he is unlikely to land the hot dog in the US Open at Oakland Hills.

Montgomerie was beaten in a play-off by Els in the US Open at Oakmont, in 1994 and the young South African has the game and certainly the form, following his Westchester victory last Sunday, to recapture the title. Like Faldo, Els has committed himself to the US Tour. "Last year was a learning experience for me," Els said. "I had to get used to the tournaments, the courses but now I've settled down."

Els thinks only 15 players have a chance of winning and two of them, Nick Price and Fred Couples, have withdrawn. Asked to tip a contender, Els mentioned Montgomerie, Mark O'Meara, Greg Norman and himself. He did not mention Faldo.

Yesterday, before the storm, Faldo was warming to the "monster" which he said was one of the most difficult US Open courses he had played. "Every hole is very demanding," he said, "and there are very few birdie opportunities. It's going to be a week of churning out the pars." When it comes to par churning, nobody is better than Faldo.

Card of the course

Hole Yards Par Hole Yards Par

1 433 4 10 450 4

2 523 5 11 399 4

3 194 3 12 560 5

4 430 4 13 170 3

5 455 4 14 471 4

6 356 4 15 400 4

7 405 4 16 403 4

8 440 4 17 200 3

9 220 3 18 465 4

Out: 3,456 35 In: 3,518 35

Total: 6,974 yards, par 70

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