Memories of Payne and Pinehurst

The US Open at this Carolina course will for ever be associated with Payne Stewart. Preview...

Memories of Payne and Pinehurst
Memories of Payne and Pinehurst
The late Payne Stewart celebrates his US Open win in 1999

U.S. Open returns to the Pinehurst No.2 course in North Carolina this week – scene of one of the most thrilling championship climaxes in golf history.

The rain was falling steadily on the classic sand-based course designed in the early part of the 20th century by Scotsman Donald Ross, with Phil Mickelson chasing Payne Stewart down the stretch in the 1999 tournament.

Stewart had cut off the sleeves of his waterproof jacket to give him more swing freedom – setting a new fashion trend in the process – and holed a raking 15 foot putt to clinch the title, striking a pose that will live long in the memory.

Tragically a few months later he died in a bizarre accident after loss of pressure in the cabin of the private jet in which he was travelling, rendered the occupants unconscious. It eventually ran out of fuel and crashed in a Dakota field.

Mickelson will be back again this year in a bid to complete unfinished business and re-write his own US Open history as will Vijay Singh and Tiger Woods – ironically tied third that year.

Unfortunately Europe’s best finisher Darren Clarke (10th in 1999) will not be there to remember Stewart, one of his best pals, as he tends to wife Heather, recovering from chemotherapy after being diagnosed with cancer.

Memories of Payne and Pinehurst
Mickelson runner-up in 1999

While Mickelson, Singh and Woods are hard to split as the bookies’ favourites, double US Open winners Ernie Els and Retief Goosen have a special affinity with the event and have the proven credentials to dig deep and grind out the pars the tournament traditionally demands.

The USGA were criticised last year for their obsession with tricking up their Open courses so that par is sacrosanct and making Shinnecock Hills almost unplayable. But the organisation, which still insists on an 18-hole Monday play-off in the event of a tie after four gruelling days, are unlikely to be fazed by media pressure.

Expect this Pinehurst No.2 – one of eight in the complex – to have firm greens and bouncy fairways, with rough as penal as ever.

Straight drivers, imaginative pitchers and putters with an uncanny ability to hole the unexpected par-savers, will dominate.

And that could mean a first European major winner since Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie - the same year as Stewart’s fateful triumph.

Despite his win at Congressional yesterday, I doubt if Sergio Garcia has the temperament to grind out the pars needed to win at Pinehurst. But fellow Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez might just have the game this week. Paired in the first two rounds with John Daly and Shingo Katayama he plays well when the going gets tough and rarely wastes a putt.

Of the Britons, I expect Luke Donald (paired with Woods and Chris DiMarco) - straight driver, cool under pressure- and a rejuvenated Lee Westwood (Kenny Perry and Craig Parry) to lead the home charge.

For an outside bet look for Aussie Peter Lonard - accurate off the tee and with a new found touch with the short-shafted putter – to make a showing together with Scott Verplank and Chad Campbell.

Here are the first and second round groupings.

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