The U.S. Open has been called many things, often with words of four letters, but it has never, not in 116 years, been described as “fun.” That may change. A little.
Smile. You won’t be escorted off the grounds.
For the throngs at Congressional Country Club this week who think that they are going to the same old purist puritan Open, all sin, punishment and golf damnation, here is a late bulletin from the head of the United States Golf Association: You will actually be attending a new hybrid event that attempts to combine the thrills of the back nine at the Masters with the traditional tortures of the Open. Joy and sorrow are now allowed. So, enjoy.
Good luck to first-year USGA executive director Mike Davis with his experiment. Since ’06, he’s been in charge of setting up the U.S. Open courses and has gradually introduced new ideas that have added excitement to our national championship. But now, for the first time, he’s really the boss, a job he took with one stipulation: You’ve got to keep letting me set up the Open course because we’re headed in the right direction.
“One of the things we’ve tried in the last half dozen years is allow the players to make choices, and ideally try to spread the scoring out,” said Davis who has spearheaded the push for several different heights of rough beside fairways and around greens rather than the standard USGA length: Honey, I lost my ball, my bag and then my caddie.
For generations, the U.S. Open evoked, above all else, images of ankle-high rough, except where the weeds were knee high. The Open rewarded accuracy. And accuracy. And, just a little more accuracy would be good, too. Once in the rough, the sane choice was to chop the ball 60 to 100 yards, then try to save par with wedge and a one-putt.
The penal worldview beneath the USGA philosophy almost erased imagination, recovery shots and adventure from the game. “Avoid double bogey” was the first rule for Open contenders, not “make birdie.” A chunk of the greatest players, from Sam Snead to Seve Ballesteros, might as well not have come. It took a miracle shot for the ultimate scrambler, Tom Watson, to win just once. Phil Mickelson’s greatest achievement may be finishing second five times in an event designed, in several ways, to thwart him.
What’s so “Open” about that? Gradually, the USGA may be redefining its showcase event for contemporary tastes and more creative players.
“With 8-iron, 9-iron and wedge . . . if we get it right, we want to see the players going for the green out of the rough. They can lay up. That’s perfectly okay. But we want to allow them to show their recovery skills,” Davis said. “Everybody loves that back nine at Augusta National. Why do you love it? It’s not only pretty, but you can see eagles and birdies, but on the same holes you can see bogeys and double bogeys.”
Someone stand guard on Ben Hogan’s grave. He’s comin’ to get ’em.
Mind you, Davis didn’t say scores would be lower. He said excitement, and the range of scores — from thrilling to horrid — would go up. In his five years as Mr. Setup, the average winning Open score has been 282.6, six shots higher than the prior five years.
Davis actually likes par 5s, those gamble-filled, birdie-chocked holes that are the chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream of golf. Yummy! How utterly un-USGA.
“We are raising par at Congressional from 70 to 71. Let me repeat — the USGA is actually making par go up, not down,” Davis said. That sixth hole, oh, what the hell, make it a dicey water-guarded par five. It’s more fun that way.
It’s lucky the USGA opted to loosen its tie just an inch this year. Let’s hope the fun and excitement stuff isn’t all talk. Because, for the first time since ’94, Tiger Woods won’t be dressing up their event. Long-term, golf desperately needs superstars.
However, for one year, Woods’s absence may help almost as much as it hurts, especially since he wasn’t going to win anyway with his game and knee both a wreck. Golf fans feel obligated to follow the deity of the day at an Open. Otherwise, did you really go? TV dotes on The Man, as he loses, more than everybody else trying to win.
Now, we’re free. And right from the first shot.
Of course, golf fanatics will think they’ve gone to nirvana this week with the nation’s most important event coming to town for only the second time in 47 years.
For the general fan, for those who love Sport as Spectacle, there will never — not in a lifetime in Washington — be a bigger world event, watched around the globe, which does a better job of satisfying the desire for highest-possible-stakes competition in a spectacular venue. Amid symbols of status, on sprawling hilly grounds, they will see an event that, for generations, has been defined by pressure and drama.
The U.S. Open, perhaps alone among events in any sport, takes its athletes to the very edge of their talent — and then pushes them beyond it, making demands that they find nowhere else and, except for their annual visit to this event — never endure anywhere else. As a result, for more than a century, the Open leaves behind an open-wound tradition of players who leave the 72nd hole acting like car-crash victims in shock, men who have watched their own nerves unravel in public. And those are the winners.
Remember what the USGA’s Davis said. There will be more choices for players this year and less rough, there will be more risk-reward and less par-grinding drudgery. There will be more birdies, and a few eagles. But, oh, will there be more big ugly numbers, too.
Yes, the USGA wants to put more thrills in its Open. But listen to what the director really said. The change, the broadening of the definition of “golf’s most rigorous test,” simply expands the material that’s covered in this final exam. The “fun” is intended for you. For players, Congressional is now a new variation on golf’s mostly heavenly hell.