Hell with the lid off

From Brian Keogh in Pittsburgh

Padraig Harrington will need to be a man of steel to triumph in Pittsburgh - a city once described as "Hell with the lid taken off."

Home to American icons from Andy Warhol to Charles Bronson and the backdrop for big screen hits like "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Night of the Living Dead" it is no longer a maelstrom of soot, molten iron and coal-dusted mushroom clouds.

Belching blast furnaces made it "orange by night and grey by day" as it gave the world the first Big Mac and legendary American football quarterbacks from Dan Marino to Joe Montana and Joe Namath.

Now it's set to give the world one of the great US Opens with a field levelled out by a course that mixes the long, the short and the simply nasty.

The greens are so fast and undulating that Graeme McDowell said they make Augusta's look benign by comparison while South African Rory Sabbattini called it "Winged Foot on steroids."

Only the strongest will survive and Harrington has the mental strength to stick around on a course that 1973 winner Johnny Miller rates as the best in the world.

Superman is the most famous man of steel of them all and Harrington will need to produce a performance in the superhero bracket to keep pace with US Open favourties Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Geoff Ogilvy.

While European hopes are high for the likes of Justin Rose, Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia, Harrington's powerful long game and his brilliance around the greens could give him the edge.

Mickelson's double bogey finish last year cost him the title but Harrington was just three closing pars away from breaking his major duck and he's close to glory now he can almost taste it.

He said: "Anything can happen and the difference between winning and losing can be so minimal. I've realised that there is no point in worrying about it.

"It's a pure numbers game, get myself in contention as often as I can in majors, that's the goal."

No-one gets into contention more than Woods and while defending champion Ogilvy believes that almost 90 percent of the field is making up the numbers, he knows that the world No 1 can blow them all away if he stays out of the rough.

Ogilvy said: "There's an element to majors that they are easier to win than a normal tournament - you've got to play better golf in a major to be at the top because the golf courses test more of your game.

"But there's less 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 that really believe they can win that week.

"Here, there might be 20 guys, who going to bed on Wednesday night really believe that they can truly win a golf tournament."

Harrington is one of that select band. But so too are Woods, Mickelson and Els.

And Ogilvy knows that if Woods can find a way to stay out of the rough, his short game magic will help him conjure up a third US Open title.

The Aussie said: "He's by so far and away the best player in the world it's silly, especially on a tough course like this, because he's got a great short game and he's a great putter, and that's what this course is going to be about.

"If he takes his true game, his Hoylake game to the tournament, he's long enough to hit just two or three drivers a day.

"If he lashes out with driver it's probably going to give us more of a chance, because you just have no chance in the rough out here, especially if you're on the wrong sides of fairways.

"So he doesn't tend to make too many strategic errors in majors so he'll probably play quite conservatively which means he'll probably be a pretty decent favorite, I would have thought."

Harrington's task is to make sure he minimises his mistakes and he has five shots in his arsenal just to get up and down from the first cut of rough around the greens.

He said: "You can putt it, blade it, flop it, spin it and even chunk it out. It all depends on he lie but I am surprised how good the putter is working. There is a lot of variety."

With massive, sloping greens, only a star putter will make the grade and even with a wrist injury, left-hander Mickelson is Woods' biggest rival for a prize he let slip through his fingers with a closing double bogey at Winged Foot last year.

Having stopped signing autographs to give his wrist a chance to heal, Mickelson will wear a brace on it as he attempts to drain his share of roller coaster putts.

But like Harrington, he believes the using the driver as much as possible will give him a better chance of attacking the pins.

Mickelson said: "I think to win this tournament, you've got to hit driver and get the ball down the fairways, because the greens are so beautiful and so fast that you need spin; you need trajectory; you need short irons coming into these greens to have a chance of keeping the ball somewhat close to the hole."

No-one in the field knows how to get the job done at Oakmont better than Els, who won after a 20-hole play-off here as a 24 year old in 1994.

Revealing his secret, Els said: "Well, it starts really from the tee. The better position you have in the fairway, the better you can either attack the flag or the greens or play it safe.

"The thing you have to do is try and keep yourself under the hole. If that's playing away from the flag, you know, try and do that.
I remember in '94, I was No. 1 in greens in regulation.

"The more greens you hit over here this week, you know, the better you're going to score.

"Even if you go with a 3-iron off the tee, make sure you hit the fairway and then try and hit it on the green. This is serious U.S. Open golf here this week. It's at its best.

"If you're going to miss a shot here, whether it's with a 3-wood off the tee into the rough or a driver into the rough, you're not getting to the green with your second shot."

Yet Englishman Rose reckons that the greens are so severe that hitting all 18 in regulation is no guarantee of success.

He said: "You have to have your iron play spot on just to get within two putt distance. You can hit every green out here and still shoot plenty over par. It is about hitting the right spots on the greens.

"You are going to make mistakes, there will be plenty of bogeys, but I think there are still plenty of birdies to be had out there.

"You hit the right shot and it can feed into the pin, depending on where they put that pin, but there are chances on the back nine and if you can pick out two of three birdies a round and limit your mistakes and stay as close to par as possible, that has to be the game plan."

After missing the cut last year, Woods may yet have the last laugh this term.

And while he didn't play in '94, he knows the greens hold the key.

He said: "It's probably one of the most difficult tests I think we'll ever face. The way the golf course is playing right now, you'll probably think that it's only going to get drier and faster, and get even more difficult.

"You're really going to have to play well from tee-to-green, and then the fun really begins."

(Champions in waiting)

Tiger Woods
Appearances 12
Wins 2
Top 10s 4
Year by year - 2006 CUT, 2005 2nd (+2), 2004 T-17 (+10) 2003 T-20 (+3), 2002 Win (-3), 2001 T-12 (+3), 2000 Win (-12), 1999 T-3 (+1), 1998 T-18 (+10), 1997 T-19 (+6), 1996 T-82 (+14) 1995 WD

Phil Mickelson
Appearances 16
Wins 0
Top 10s 7
Year by year - 2006 T-2 (+6), 2005 T-33 (+12), 2004 2nd (-2), 2003 T-55 (+9), 2002 2nd (Even), 2001 T-7 (+2), 2000 T-16 (+9), 1999 2nd (Even), 1998 T-10 (+8), 1997 T-43 (+10), 1996 T-94 (+16), 1995 T-4 (+4), 1994 T-47 (+13), 1993 DNP, 1992 CUT, 1991 T-55 (+12), 1990 T-29 (Even)

Geoff Ogilvy
Wins 1
Appearances 3
Top 10s 1
Year by year - 2006 Win (+5), 2005 T-28 (+11), 2004 DNP, 2003 CUT

Jim Furyk
Wins 1
Appearance 12
Top 10s 4
Year by year - 2006 T-2 (+6), 2005 T-28 (+11), 2004 T-48 (+18), 2003 Win (-8), 2002 CUT, 2001 T-62 (+13), 2000 60th (+21), 1999 T-17 (+11), 1998 T-14 (+9), 1997 T-5 (+2), 1996 T-5 (+1), 1995 DNP, 1994 T-28 (+8)

Ernie Els
Wins 2
Appearances 14
Top 10s 7
Year by year - 2006 T-26 (+13), 2005 T-15 (+9), 2004 T-9 (+7), 2003 T-5 (Even), 2002 T-24 (+11), 2001 T-66 (+14), 2000 T-2 (+3), 1999 CUT, 1998 T-49 (+16), 1997 Win (-4), 1996 T-5 (+1), 1995 CUT, 1994 Win (-4), 1993 T-7 (-1)

Padraig Harrington
Wins 0
Appearances 9
Top 10s 4
Year by year - 2006 5th (+7), 2005 CUT, 2004 T-31 (+15), 2003 T-10 (+1), 2002 T-8 (+6), 2001 T-30 (+8), 2000 T-5 (+5), 1999 DNP, 1998 T-32 (+13), 1997 CUT

Graeme McDowell
Wins 0
Appearances 2
Top 10s 0
Year by year: 2006 T-48 (+17), 2005 T-80 (+21).