After Congressional, the USGA rediscovers par

Correction: A previous version of this column incorrectly said that 2026 would be the United States’ 150th anniversary. It would be the country’s 250th anniversary.

Thomas Boswell
Columnist June 15, 2012

The U.S. Open never giveth and it always taketh away. Except at Congressional Country Club last year, when the poor, unprotected, rough-lite Open gave and gave to Rory McIlroy until he was 16 under par and the U.S. Golf Association was sicketh to its stomach.

So, this year, the USGA, which actually stands for the secret order of Sadists Who Like to Watch Masochists, reconsecrated itself to the holy protection of par. The purpose of this Open at Olympic was to put mankind back into its natural state: intensely aware of its golf sins and feeling guilty as hell over all its manifold wickedness.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Target No. 1 was McIlroy, the cheerful, fluid, joyous Irishman, just 23, who’d turned Congressional into his personal snake-free Garden of Eden. Just as the Massacre at Winged Foot in ’74 was the USGA’s rebuttal after Johnny Miller shot an insolent 63 on Sunday to win at Oakmont, so this week will be remembered as Revenge for Rory. Every mother’s son in golf will suffer here for all the record smashing by McIlroy last year, especially his first 36 holes at 65-66 — 131, ­11 under par.

We regret to report that the hit put out on charming Rory, and the rest of a suffering field, was successful. One moment Friday captured the torture of the 112th U.S. Open. All the fun, oh, horrors, fun, at Congressional is now just a fast-fading memory. Watch the weekend, beverage in hand, in your hair shirt.

Hard as it may be to believe, McIlroy had to sink an eight-foot putt to avoid four-putting from 15 feet — yes, four-putting from 15 feet — on his final hole of the second round. He drained it. But even that was bad enough as he finished with a gruesome 77-73 — 150, 10 over par — missing the cut with a number 21 shots higher, relative to par, than in 2011.

Stunned, almost in disbelief, McIlroy dismissed the “flash” interviews that are usually given after even the most embarrassing rounds. Instead, he burrowed straight into his locker, spending a half hour, head sunk, packing his gear for the long flight home to Holywood, Ireland.

“I had a 15-footer for birdie,” McIlroy said of his final hole (the par-three 8th). “I thought if I holed it, I might still make the cut. But once I missed that one [leaving a three-footer], I knew I probably wouldn’t make it through to the weekend.”

McIlroy careless knocked his third putt eight feet past the hole. As almost every player has said after staggering off Olympic, “It never lets up.” You can’t lose focus or allow your ball get out of proper strategic position for an instant.

As the day progressed, the projected cut hung at 8 over, tending toward 9 over, the score McIlroy could probably have had if he’d focused on that last three-foot par putt. “If the cut is 9 over, I won’t be feeling too good tonight on the way home,” he said.

“This course is just so punishing. . . . I felt I really turned a corner last week,” said McIlroy, who was in contention until the 72nd hole at Memphis. “Obviously disappointed. It wasn’t the way I wanted to play . . . but to be honest, overall, I don’t feel like I played that badly for the last two days . . . at a normal Tour [event], I’d probably be thereabouts the lead.”

That’s how diabolically Olympic has been laid out, with its canted fairways (“reverse cambers,” McIlroy colorfully called them), ultra-hard greens that will only accept high approach shots hit with the correct fade or draw and grueling rough around the greens.

“Oh, yeah, they set it up like a real classic U.S. Open,” said McIlroy. “Even if I’d played like I did at Congressional. It would be a struggle to get around [36 holes] in even or 1 under par.”

All this does not mean that Congressional failed as an Open test; everybody in golf seems to assume the Open will return to Bethesda, though not in a quick rotation, with 2026, the nation’s 250th anniversary, the next likely year for serious discussion.

Nonetheless, McIlroy’s runaway, eight-shot win was certain to provoke this response. A major championship cannot risk losing its reason for being. And the U.S. Open exists for golf suffering.

Luke Donald, ranked first in the world to McIlroy’s No. 2, fared even worse, shooting 11 over. Afterward, he was asked what was hardest about Olympic. Donald couldn’t stop adding items to his list. “The firm greens, No. 1, coupled with the slope of the greens,” he said.

As you walk the course, the first impression of this Open is that seemingly fine iron shots rocket through the green into guaranteed-bogey rough unless they arrive 12 stories high and will the proper spin.

“The rough around the greens is gnarly,” Donald added. On a mere 40-yard pitch from the rough at No. 7, Stewart Cink had to take a full swing to make sure he escaped the hay. The crown result: a shot that went 100 yards on the fly into the middle of the bleachers far behind the green.

“Shot of the day,” said a marshal, grinning.

With an additional split-second to think, Donald added that “the rough off the tee” was a nuisance, too.

So, four major miseries leaped to the mind of the world’s No. 1 player and he hadn’t even mentioned the speed of the greens that make lightning seem slow and quarks a bit sluggish.

“Definitely, this is more like what we expect from the Open,” said Nick Watney, 69-75 — four-over 144, who had an albatross “two” at the par-five 17th hole on Thursday. “It’s not Rory’s fault. He set all those records, that’s great. But we knew the USGA would come out firing this year. And they haven’t disappointed.”

This day marked McIlroy’s fourth missed cut in his last five events. After a brilliant beginning to his year, with a win at the Honda Classic, a playoff loss at Charlotte, two runner-up finishes in Europe and a third at Doral, McIlroy seems to have temporarily run out of gas, perhaps enjoyed life a bit more than usual and simply misplaced his form a bit. No disaster.

“You’ve just got to keep working hard. You got to,” McIlroy said. “It doesn’t come easy to you all the time.”

This week, it’s not going to come easy to anybody. At Winged Foot in ‘74, 7 over par was the winning score. By Friday night, only two men were still under par here. That usually tips off astronomical numbers, car-crash golf and mortifying melodrama for the weekend.

We can thank McIlroy, Congressional and the USGA for that.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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