Yes, Sunday at the U.S. Open — the ultimate head-game afternoon in all of sports — is now upon us again. Find your favorite chair and, as some hero with gifts we’ll never imagine slumps his shoulders, practice your most malevolent, scare-the-kiddies laugh: “Bwaaaahahahaha.”
What an ideal leader board we have for such a test. Give an edge to the veterans who’ve learned, often from bitter U.S. Open experience, that “never quit” is the swing thought that counts the most in America’s championship.
At 42, Furyk epitomizes the player who uses his experience, his knowledge of the course and weather conditions, to estimate a target score that could win. Is that smart strategy or a snare and a delusion?
“A little of both,” he said, chuckling. “I tend to pick too low [a winning score. Jack] Nicklaus made that popular, but he always seemed to pick the right number. . . . I won’t try to look at leader boards too much.”
Usually, the U.S. Open just won’t let you know, even in mid-round, what will be necessary to win it. But there are plenty of quality names capable of charging at the leaders, including Lee Westwood, 39, desperate to win his first major, and two-time U.S. Open winner Ernie Els, 42, who still has the game to win if his notorious nerves don’t fail him.
If you want to dream about the final-round 66 that almost never happens at America’s championship, then you can include so many juicy names your head will swim with possibilities — from red-hot rumpled Jason Dufner to edge-of-fantasy 17-year-old amateur Beau Hossler, a Los Angeles area high school player who missed the cut last year at Congressional but is now part of a six-way tie for eighth place, four shots behind.
Who is one shot behind that teenager? Why it’s Tiger Woods, whose 75 was five shots worse than playing partner Furyk and included few shots, or decisions, of distinction and a shaky, timid putter, too.
Unfortunately for all of those named above — save one man who’ll stand alone at sundown — a swimming head is exactly what U.S. Open Sunday always produces. At the Masters, you know what you need to do: Get through Amen Corner in one piece, then make as many birdies as possible, and maybe an eagle, as you stampede to the clubhouse.
But at the U.S. Open, with its 18 separate torments, it’s almost impossible to function properly if you fall into the trap of thinking about anything, anything at all, except your next shot.
In almost every other golf event, if you aren’t actually the 54-hole leader, you’re conditioned to believe that “a score in the 60s” is absolutely essential to victory. Even if the thought is not conscious, even if it’s suppressed, the impulse to “go low” is part of an elite pro’s DNA. That impulse will work against every chaser, even if they know better.
If you’re in the lead, like McDowell and Furyk, then the first bogey or two of the final round on those early holes can seem like the end of your world. Surely that tough, proven fellow playing with you, already the owner of a U.S. Open title, won’t crack. That’s how 75-76s are born.
Don’t think big thoughts. Don’t feel large emotions. Play the next shot. It’s so easy to say. Yet, decade after decade on Sunday at the U.S. Open, it’s almost impossible to do. That’s why we can’t take our morbidly fascinated eyes off golf’s most wrenching spectacle.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/