This is as good — as big, rich, important, tense and star-filled — as golf gets. For some, that’s not enough. Once, in an expansive mood, Jack Nicklaus said: “Golf is just golf. It’s not for everybody. But there will always be plenty of people who love it.”
For those who feel that way, who treasure the game’s embedded values, its civility and sportsmanship, its blend of physical talent and psychological torture, golf is far more than good enough. The next four days are the best that American golf offers. The national championship should also be the country’s best event and, in this case, it actually is.
To give a frame of reference, the Open’s only U.S. rival is the Masters, a mighty show, but a bit too haughty and with too small a field. Playing Augusta National every year, no matter how beautiful, can’t be as fair a test, over a career, as rotating among the best courses of a transcontinental nation. The British Open — cold, windy, sometimes ugly — appeals to such a different temperament that debating which Open is better seems obtuse.
America’s Open suits America’s tastes: summer, shorts, beer, ice cream and noise. You may sweat through the merciful sub-90 temperatures expected this week. And you may fret over thunderstorms, though Congressional needs a good dousing to toughen up its limp rough. But, in its best hours, our Open is lush, proud, a placid summer picnic and a thunderous competition that builds drama for four days. This year, it sweeps over a rolling track with elbow room, all framed by Congressional’s vain but glorious clubhouse.
Someday, this Open may be viewed as the first post-Tiger major championship. A generation ago, Nicklaus gradually turned from the Golden Bear into the Olden Bear. In time, we may look on the last three years as the beginning of a similar period as Tiger Woods ceases to dominate, but still contends. Since the ’08 Open, Woods has finished second, fourth or sixth a total of six times in his last nine majors, but never first. Jack, from 36 to 43, finished in the top six at majors 18 times, but he won just three.
Some see this Open’s field as slightly lackluster since the No. 1, 2 and 3 players in the world, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, who play together Thursday, have won only one major title. It’s more likely that this Open is just part of a transitional period as we find out if the sport will find one luminous successor to Woods — as Tom Watson was to Nicklaus — or if the game, now culling its best from America to Europe to Asia, is just a worldwide shootout among gifted but not sublime players.