The guy on the 8th green was lining up his putt, peering through cupped hands, just another could-be-a-contender minding his own business and trying to navigate another thousand tiny blades of grass on the first afternoon of the U.S. Open. The gallery was hushed. The sun was attempting to push through a bank of clouds.
When out of the sky fell an object. It couldn’t be, could it? It was.
That was, indeed, a golf ball that came within perhaps 10 feet of landing in Martin Laird’s hip pocket. Laird, his playing partners and their caddies couldn’t immediately see who had hit the impolitic shot — the 8th being a semi-blind tee shot — but they could all surely guess. For the group behind them, still standing on the 8th tee — some 350 yards from the hole at which Laird was staring at that very moment — included one Alvaro Quiros.
It isn’t always easy being a long hitter at the U.S. Open, as Quiros, a 28-year-old Spaniard, knows by now. Not only is the competitive deck stacked against you — with both history and the thickness of the rough just off the fairways declaring this is a tournament that values accuracy over distance — but no one, save for the beer-addled dudes in khakis and polo shirts in the galleries, seems to appreciate an occasional super-human show of long-drive skill.
As Quiros went to locate his tee shot — which had landed on the slope of a mound just shy of the green, a carry of some 340 yards, only to bounce back into the bunker that fronts the green — he was visited first by Laird’s caddy, then by a USGA marshal, neither of whom seemed too impressed by his feat.
“It [went] 15 meters more than I was expecting,” Quiros said afterward. “I never thought I could disturb them.”
Quiros, the longest hitter on the European Tour this year (but, alas, the 191st-most accurate), managed to get up and down from the bunker for his birdie, one of three birdies he made on the way to a 1-under-par round of 70, which leaves him five shots off the lead of Rory McIlroy.
Unlike the Masters and, in most years, the British Open, the U.S. Open historically rewards preciseness off the tee. While it is never a disadvantage to hit it long, that skill is generally not rewarded as much in the U.S. Open, which — despite the recent victories by Tiger Woods (2008) and Angel Cabrera (2007) — is more frequently won by the Retief Goosens, Lee Janzens and Hale Irwins of the world: shortish hitters who consistently put it in the middle of the fairway.
But with such long hitters as Quiros, his countryman Sergio Garcia, Australian Scott Hend and Americans Ryan Palmer and Robert Garrigus among those under par after the opening day of the tournament, this may be a U.S. Open that is actually winnable by a long-bomber.
“This, and maybe Pebble [Beach], are the only places where I might have a shot,” said Garrigus, who ranks third on the PGA Tour this year with an average drive of 308.5 yards. “It looks like they didn’t tighten up the fairways as much [as in past U.S. Opens], and the rough probably didn’t get as high as the USGA wanted. I feel like I can launch it, chase it and go dig it out of the rough if I need to.”
Even long-bombers from earlier eras might have a shot. Alas, John Daly is nowhere to be found. But Davis Love III, who has four missed cuts and two top-10 finishes among his last seven U.S. Open appearances, finished in the red on Thursday, firing a 1-under-par 70.
“Some groups, I’m still the longest. Some groups, I’m the shortest,” said Love, consistently one of the longest hitters of the late 1990s and 2000s, and who still ranks 43rd on tour this year at 294.1 yards. “I can still hit the ball with most of these guys.”
Even at a U.S. Open, long hitters remain a primal draw for fans. As Bubba Watson strode to the 9th tee box Thursday — the longest hole on the course, at some 636 yards — the gallery roared at the simple act of his yanking the driver out of his bag (though the hot pink shaft perhaps had something to do with that).
Unlike during the practice rounds, when the tees were moved up and the fairways were harder, it is believed that no one reached the 9th green in two shots. Garrigus, in fact, is one of the few who would admit to even thinking about it — after his drive went about 340 yards, leaving him 305 to the pin.
“It would have been a 3-wood, but I decided to lay up,” Garrigus said. “I wound up hitting a 110-yard sand wedge in there and making birdie. I know, it’s boring doing that. It’s not really my nature. But I’m trying to win this thing, man.”