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Published: Thursday, 6/14/2007

Major victory easier, say Ogilvy, Nicklaus

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

OAKMONT, Pa. - Geoff Ogilvy isn't the first to say this. It was Jack Nicklaus' belief, too. They agree that major championships are easier to win, at least for the elite golfers, than your run-of-the-mill weekly tour events.

"You've got to play better golf in a major to be at the top because the golf courses test more of your game," said Ogilvy, who was the last man standing at Winged Foot during the 2006 U.S. Open as one contender after another, culminated by Phil Mickelson, suffered down-the-stretch collapses.

"But there are fewer players in the field who truly believe they can win one of these. You go to a regular tour event and there are 120 guys who really believe they can win that week. Here, there might be 20 guys who go to bed on Wednesday night really believing they can win the golf tournament."

Here, in this case, is Oakmont Country Club, where the 107th National Open begins this morning.

"There are elements that make a major tougher to win," Ogilvy continued, citing course conditions, pressure, and the fact there are only four majors a year. "But no one is afraid of getting out there on the leaderboard at a regular event whereas no one ever runs away with a major, save the one guy [Tiger Woods] who has done it a few times.

"But in a major, you can be in the top 20, have two more OK rounds and finish fifth. The key is to hang around par and watch people fall behind you [more so] than it is to make birdies and pass people, like in a regular tournament. If you get to the weekend and par the first nine holes you'll be in a better position than when you started. At the Memorial a couple weeks ago, if you started out parring the first nine holes you would have dropped 20 spots. Majors are a different animal."

And it takes a special mind-set and a boatload of patience to deal with that animal. Few can pull it off.

Ogilvy arrived at Winged Foot last year believing that he could.

"I had played really well in the two or three majors before that," he said. "I'd finished fifth at St. Andrews [2005 British Open] and sixth at Baltusrol ['05 PGA Championship] and I actually threw away three or four shots in that one. So, yeah, I thought I was on the verge of winning one of these. It was building. And the Open at Winged Foot was probably the first time I went in with the belief that I could do it."

NO DIFFERENCE: Since Ernie Els won the 1994 Open at Oakmont, somewhere between 4,000 and 6,500 trees, depending on your source, were removed to return Oakmont to its original inland links style.

Els said it has not changed the playability of the course.

"Not at all," he said. "It definitely is a different look, but even in '94 the trees that were here were mostly out of play. It was basically a tree-lined, wooded golf course. To look at it now, you know, it's very different. But it doesn't affect play. It plays no differently, I don't think, from '94."

With the help of a couple fortuitous rulings, Els won that Open in a playoff against Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie that went 20 holes. Montgomerie dropped out after 18 holes with a score of 78, but Els and Roberts were tied with 74s and the playoff continued with two more holes of sudden death.

"Everyone remembers how hot it was in '94," Els said. "The golf wasn't great in the playoff, but, you know, it was another hot, tough, hard day."

WELL-RESTED: When last we crossed paths with Masters champion Zach Johnson he was withdrawing from the Memorial Tournament because of illness.

"I had strep throat and probably something else along with it," said Johnson, who followed his win at Augusta with a PGA Tour victory at the AT&T Classic near Atlanta a month later. "I think I was just run down after the whirlwind in Augusta and everything that came after that and it just kind of caught up with me."

It may have caught up with his caddie this week. Johnson ordered him off the course during Tuesday's practice round to get some sleep.

"I came in a little early and we've been on the course every day since Sunday," Johnson said. "I don't know if you can really prepare that well for this golf course, but I've prepared as well as I think I could."

PINEHURST, AGAIN: The No. 2 course at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina has been selected to host the 2014 U.S. Open, the United States Golf Association announced yesterday. It will be the third Open held at that site since 1999.

Between now and then, Opens will be contested at Torrey Pines in San Diego (2008), Bethpage Black on Long Island (2009), Pebble Beach Links in California (2010), Congressional in Bethesda, Md. (2011), Olympic Club in San Francisco (2012) and Merion near Philadelphia (2013).

For Toledo's Inverness Club, the drought continues. Once a regular stop in the so-called Open rotation, Inverness held four Opens from 1920-79, but none since. A club that once held an Open every 15 years, on average, will go at least 35 years, probably longer, without one.

It is believed that Oakland Hills near Detroit and Winged Foot in the New York City area soon will be awarded U.S. Opens for 2015 and 2016, in whatever order.

QUOTE-UNQUOTE: When asked about Oakmont in general and the 288-yard, par-3 eighth hole in particular, Sergio Garcia said: "I guess this [course] is not too bad for a par-78. And the eighth looks pretty good. It's probably our best chance of making birdie, a short par-4, you know."

CAREFUL, BOYS: Oakmont has a rather unique feature in that the practice putting green is an extension of the No. 9 green. One of the rules of stroke-play golf is that a golfer cannot practice on the course during competition.

The USGA has placed two blue stakes on each side of the combined green and has painted a blue dotted line from one to the other to separate the practice green from the No. 9 green. Starting today, golfers are not allowed to strike a practice putt from the side of the dotted line that is considered the ninth green. The penalty for doing so is disqualification.



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