U.S. Open 2011: A golf tournament unlike any other

There will be golf Thursday at Congressional Country Club at 7 a.m., and it will continue till nearly 8 in the evening. Some of it will be unsightly. The Blue Course has sand in its bunkers in which balls can turn into gophers, burying deep. It has tee boxes pushed up against the fences of the property, and a large golf course has grown simply humongous. It has grass shaved down to the length of Berber carpet, all the better to roll shots into waiting streams, ponds and beds of pine straw.

Look out over the first hole — a pleasing, flowing dogleg left, not terribly long or overly daunting — and the 111th U.S. Open might seem to get off to a lovely, relaxing start. The relaxation, though, will last all of a shot or two, if that. The U.S. Open is about so many things — par, pain, rough, rage — that there is no mistaking it for the dozens of other easy-as-a-Sunday-morning events that fill up golf’s calendar from winter to fall.

“There’s nothing friendly about the U.S. Open,” said former champ Johnny Miller. “This is for tough guys. There’s guys that are sort of made to win a U.S. Open. There are some guys that maybe kind of luck into winning a U.S. Open, but not too many guys can look you right in the eye and say, ‘I can win it.’ ”

Four of the last six winning scores in U.S. Opens were even par — or worse. In those six years, a total of seven players have broken par over four rounds. The last regular PGA Tour event with a winning score of even par or worse? That would be 1995. In last week’s PGA Tour event, no fewer than 37 players broke par.

There is nothing like the Masters, of course. Augusta National is revered, and veterans know each swale as well as they know the crags in their own faces. But take the mind-set from the first major of the year, throw it into Bizarro World, and that might approximate what’s needed at the Open.

“The thought process from the get-go on each tee box at Augusta National is to hit the ball as hard and as far as you can, and worry about the next shot later,” said Phil Mickelson, a three-time Masters champ. “Here the whole process is just to. . . minimize the miss.”

Because, heaven knows, there will be misses. Defending champion Graeme McDowell, who won his first major a year ago at Pebble Beach, tweeted earlier this week that he enjoyed his practice round at Congressional immensely before slyly adding the hashtag, “#par.” He knows something about it: He won with a four-round score of 280 — level par. Never is that score embraced so heartily as at the U.S. Open. That, too, means bogeys must be accepted, and larger numbers must be forgotten swiftly.

“If you can make double instead of making triple, that’s great,” said Lee Westwood, the world’s second-ranked player. “If you can make bogey instead of making double, that’s fantastic. It’s almost like [the] credit is one less birdie you need if you can make that three- or four-footer when you need it.”

That will be true at Congressional, where the U.S. Golf Association has set up a course that will offer players several places in which they may fire at a flag, all while understanding the ramifications of a mistake. The hoity-toity USGA philosophy goes like this: “We want well-executed shots rewarded and poorly executed shots penalized.” A rough translation: Do something dumb, and you’re . . . well, you’re in trouble.

“The idea is, particularly on Sunday,we want to see some swings in scoring.” USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said.

Davis’s approach to setting up Congressional defines the modern U.S. Open, a blueprint he first established in 2006. The rough won’t compare to that which lined the fairways when the Blue Course hosted the 1997 Open. That was six or seven inches long, and there was simply no way to advance the ball to the green if a tee shot was errant by even 18 inches. Now, in spots at Congressional, there are three separate cuts of rough. Hit it slightly off line, and you’re in slight trouble. Hit it further off line, and you’re in further trouble.

Mickelson said of Congressional, “I think it’s a wonderfully fair test,for such a difficult, long test.”

That is the other defining characteristic of both the course and the tournament. In the 14 years since it last hosted the Open, Congressional has become something of the Gumby of golf courses, stretched to its max. It played at 7,213 yards back then. The scorecard this week says 7,574 yards — the second-longest Open track in history, behind only Torrey Pines in 2008.

“ ‘Big’ is the word,” said Tom O’Toole, the chairman of the USGA’s championship committee. “That’s the operative reference.”

Strangely, though, length might not be what’s necessary to win.

“Someone asked me yesterday, ‘What type of player does this favor?’ ” McDowell said. “I’m still trying to work that out. But it’s certainly not a bomber.”

During the AT&T National, the latest iteration of the PGA Tour stop that calls Congressional home, the sixth hole plays as a difficult par 4, with a green protected by water on the right. Davis, though, had a new tee constructed, lengthened it to 555 yards, and made it a par 5 — meaning the USGA, in theory, made a score closer to par easier to attain.

But is par attainable? If it is, it will be because someone endures the four longest days in golf, and all the angst and anger that comes with it.

“The most pressure-packed tournament of the year is the U.S. Open,” Miller said. “I don’t know why it is. It’s just, everything about the Open is sort of meant to be the toughest test. The guys know it, and they know that people have trouble reining it in. It’s the toughest championship there is.”

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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