Harmon expects big performances from Woods and Mickelson
We caught up with Butch Harmon after Tuesday's practice round to get his views on Merion and the leading names.
Sky Sports: Hi Butch. First question, what's the weather now at Merion?
Butch: Well, we didn't get any rain today, thank god. There were thunderstorms scheduled for 3 o'clock but they never materialised and quite honestly this place really can't handle much more rain. It was pretty muddy out there today.
Sky Sports: So do you think we'll get a wet and soggy US Open or will the course dry out?
Butch: If we don't get any more rain we'll be alright. They've had about five or six inches of rain since last Friday here so it's pretty wet although the greens were pretty firm today. I walked 18 holes with one of my players, Dustin Johnson, and I thought the greens were good, just the ball isn't really running much in the fairway so it's playing a little longer but it's not a long course to start with so that won't affect anything.
Sky Sports: There are three long par 3s (all over 235 yards) at Merion. What clubs are the players likely to be hitting into those?
Butch: They were hitting 3-woods into the first of these on the front nine which was into the wind. When you look at Dustin Johnson hitting a 3-wood, he can hit it 290. He was having to hit 3-wood into a par three which was pretty funny. He said 'I can't remember having to hit a 3-wood into a par three'. I said welcome to our world. We play that way all the time. The other interesting thing about this golf course is that you have five par 4s under 400 yards. You don't see that very often in a major championship. You only have two par 5s and they come early in the round at the second and the fourth so it's a very interesting mix of golf holes. You make your score early on, through the first 11 holes say and then you hold on coming in.
Sky Sports: As for those short par 4s, is there any chance that the big hitters like Dustin or Bubba Watson might try and drive them?
Butch: You could try that on the 10th hole today. Dustin hit a 3-wood about 60 yards short of the green. It doglegs to the left quite a bit. There are some holes where you'll hit driver off the tee - 15, 18 and the two par fives but other than that you're not going to hit driver as it's not to your advantage. The rough is brutal, very high, and now that it's rained so much it's really wet and thick so there's such a premium on hitting your ball in the fairway. I think the guys won't hit many drivers out here.
Sky Sports: We understand that Phil Mickelson is not actually on site at the moment.
Butch: Yes, he's gone home to California as he has one of his children graduating from school and he wanted to go home and be there for that. He can also practice at home in the good weather. He was always scheduled to go on the Tuesday and come back on Wednesday evening but when the weather was so bad on Monday he left early. I chatted with him a little while ago. He's practising, he's got his own practice facility at his house so things are working out good for him.
Sky Sports: Phil's a five-time US Open runner-up. Do you think everything's in place for him to play well this week?
Butch: You know, he really feels good about it. He was here last Monday and Tuesday, playing a practice round before he played in Memphis. Obviously he played well there, finishing second. He really likes the course; I really like the course for him, the main reason being you don't hit many drivers here so I don't have to caution him about trying to jump off the ground trying to hit bombs with the driver to keep up with these kids. It's a real strategic type of golf course, it doesn't really favour anybody. Phil likes it because it's going to require a lot of imagination, a lot of creativity and you're going to have to have a lot patience. You're going to have to hit a lot of fairways and a lot of greens and Phil feels comfortable here.
Sky Sports: There's a perception that a US Open shouldn't suit Mickelson as he doesn't hit it straight enough but his record his excellent. Why do you think that is?
Butch: I think if you look at the guys nowadays, because they hit the ball so far none of them have great statistics for hitting fairways. Where Phil has improved in the last five, six, seven years is he doesn't hit the ball as far off line as he used to. If you remember when he lost at Winged Foot in 2006 he hit a terrible drive off the 18th tee, but he doesn't hit those wayward ones anymore. Usually when he misses a fairway he only misses it slightly which means you can still play. The other thing you have to understand is that the US Open is a very unique test of golf. It tests every part of your game and a lot of it has to do with your imagination and creativity and when you do get into trouble how you can handle it. Obviously he's very good at that.
Sky Sports: The common perception is that big-hitting Dustin Johnson might not be a typical US Open type player but what do you think of his chances here?
Butch: I think his chances are very good. He's playing well, we did some good work today and he feels comfortable with his golf swing. The big thing for Dustin is that he loves to try and overpower a golf course, that's one of his strengths and of the things he's capable of doing. But at Merion you cannot do that, there is no place for that. All you can do is get into trouble if you try and be aggressive here but I spent today talking to him about irons and sight lines to use off the tee and he felt comfortable with that. We had a really great practice session this afternoon and he'll play nine tomorrow but he's ready to go. He feels really good about the course, he feels good about the gameplan he has in place and I think he has a good chance.
Sky Sports: Dustin practised with Rickie Fowler today. How was Rickie's game?
Butch: You know, he was okay. They were having a little more fun out there than they normally would. Normally the Tuesday game when Phil's here is that they play for a little bit of money but because Phil wasn't here they didn't have that game so it wasn't quite as serious as it could be but Rickie was looking good I thought.
Sky Sports: Tiger Woods is the clear favourite with the bookies. How do you think Merion sets up for Tiger?
Butch: I think he should be the clear favourite. The big asset is that you're going to have to be patient around here, you can't try and overpower this course and we know from Hoylake (where Woods won the 2006 Open) that Tiger has the ability to play a whole tournament hitting irons off the tee. You're going to see that a lot here and I think he should be the favourite. I wouldn't read anything into his poor play at Memorial because I don't think that means anything. Knowing Tiger the way he can manipulate his way around the golf course, to hit the right shots in the right positions and on a golf course where you don't have to hit driver, he's smart enough to do it and he also has the patience to do it. Tiger hasn't won a major since he won this event in 2008 and I think we'd all agree he's due.
Sky Sports: As for Rory McIlroy, do you think the weather will help him as he seems to prefer playing in softer conditions?
Butch: That seems to be the case. I think that Rory is starting to play better and feel a little better about his game which I'm so happy to see. He played well in the US Open at Congressional in wet and soggy conditions so there's no reason to think he won't play well here.
Sky Sports: What do you think of Sergio Garcia's chances? How will he cope with the fallout after his much-publicised comments about Tiger?
Butch: Well, they've had their conversation, they had it in private which is the way it should be and I think that's over with and water under the bridge. Sergio is a fantastic ball-striker as we know. In Sergio's case it's whether his nerves can handle the putts down the stretch. That would be the big key for him.
Sky Sports: How tough are the closing stretch of holes at Merion?
Butch: It's not tough in that there's water or boundaries or anything like that. They're just good, hard holes. I mean 17 is a very difficult, long 235-yard par three. Today with a little wind aid the guys were able to hit 3 irons and 5 woods. The 18th is just long. It's over 500 yards and you drive up the hill. It's interesting, there's the plaque in the fairway where Hogan hit his famous one-iron when he won here and the guys were up there today and hitting five-irons from the same spot.
Sky Sports: Could you pick out a dark horse who might play well?
Butch: I think it's a very interesting course and that makes it hard to handicap the players here as Merion doesn't really favour anybody. The long hitters don't have much of an advantage as they can't use their power and strength; the short hitters don't have any advantage. When you're looking at those who may have a good chance here you have to look at someone who has the ability to put his ball in play. That doesn't mean he has to do it with driver, he just has to have the ability to put his ball in play and be patient enough to just take what the course gives him. Because of the rain and the moisture on the course it's going to be easier than it would have been. This course was meant to play hard and fast and that's not going to happen. The scores are probably going to be much better than we had anticipated. Usually right around par is a good score in a US Open but I think eight to 10 under could win here.