By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, June 20, 2010; D01
PEBBLE BEACH, CALIF.
Because Washington has hosted a pro golf tournament almost every summer for the past 30 years, the city's fans justifiably feel that they understand the experience of the sport at a high level. From the days when Greg Norman and Tom Kite won the Kemper Open to the AT&T National with K.J. Choi, Anthony Kim and host Tiger Woods as champs, the area has gotten to witness almost every great star of the last generation at arm's length.
But what we've shared in that time, enjoyable as it has been, has simply not been comparable to the sine qua non of American golf -- the U.S. Open. Only once in the past 46 years, back in '97, has the most excruciating, demanding and important event in all of golf come to Washington and the elegant Congressional Country Club. But next June it will again. And the palpable sense of excitement has already started, because every aspect of this week's Open at Pebble Beach has reinforced the majesty, magic and malevolence of this event.
Events in the middle rounds of an Open, like the 66s here by Phil Mickelson on Friday and Tiger Woods on Saturday, feel as thrilling at the time and evoke roars as outlandish as at victories at any normal PGA Tour event. Personal histories get rewritten and fresh protagonists, such as leader Dustin Johnson, who enters Sunday three shots ahead of Graeme McDowell, come into focus before we even reach the last day.
For those who've watched or worked for decades as Washington doggedly established itself in the elite Open rotation, the rewards are now just a year away.
"For several years, we've been in the on-deck circle, getting ready for our turn," said Ben Brundred III, Congressional's co-chairman of the '11 Open.
"But now, since this Open is actually underway, we're finally at bat," said Paul Klinedinst, the other co-chairman. Both men have been in town this week to pick up tips, but, most of all, to soak up the utterly outsize ambiance that gives all Opens an aura that intimidates players and inspires stunned galleries with a fresh sense of what golf can be.
"Our task," Klinedinst said, "is to build a city for a week."
For example, after visiting here, the Congressional folks now know that next June, they will need 18 tractor trailers, all of them 53-footers. That doesn't sound like an awful lot.
"But that's just to supply the merchandise tent," Klinedinst said.
That hints at U.S. Open scale. Everything that's for sale or on display, everything to eat or wear, is set much farther back from the actual golf course, preserving the beauty of a venue that has been deemed one of the dozen best in the country. From Congressional's massive clubhouse, nothing commercial will be visible to those gazing down the water-guarded 18th hole -- just the sweeping, tree-lined golf course and packed grandstands.
But the USGA, golf's governing body, also requires sites that have enormous grounds surrounding them, or entire extra golf courses onto which their extravaganza, designed to sell or celebrate every aspect of the game, can sprawl at will. If you wander at a U.S. Open, trying demo clubs, reading about golf courses of the future or buying your 17th towel for a friend, it's guaranteed that, fairly soon, you'll be so disoriented that you'll say, "Where the hell is that 7,532-yard golf course? I've lost it." Total morning-until-nightfall kingdom-of-golf immersion, all burnished and grandiose: That's the Open's goal.
For Woods's event, Congressional didn't even need to contaminate an inch of its Gold Course, leaving it for members' use. For the Open, nine holes of the Gold will be appropriated so that everything from driving ranges to parking lots will be allowed elbow room worthy of medieval munificence.
The actual attendance of the Open is a poorly-kept secret -- about 45,000 tickets. But what other event also requires 5,500 on-site volunteers, including a dozen marshals for every player? The media needs quarters the size of a circus tent, but it barely constitutes a spec on an Open landscape that always includes a massive clubhouse -- though none, perhaps, is quite as magnificent as the palace at Congressional.
Sometimes, the USGA's sense of self-importance can be galling. But they understand the difference between a golf tournament and a national championship.
"Don't ever call the Open a 'tournament'!" said Brundred. "They drill that into everybody. It's 'championship,' not 'tournament.'
"Took me six months to get that right," muttered Klinedinst.
"And it's a 'hole location,' not a 'pin' location," said Brundred.
Yeah, yeah, and it's a "teeing ground," not a "tee box." Go on, laugh, please. But just as the Masters calls its fans "patrons," there's a nice element of deliberate psych-out in this trivial verbal pretense. Golfers are often impressionable young men. The U.S. Open is supposed to make them shake in their soft spikes. So, why not use all the tricks?
For example, if 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, who shot a 58 on the Japanese Tour, is to win here at Pebble Beach, he will not only have to battle the rough and swift greens, but stand up to the distracting majesty of the Pacific Ocean and the enormous pavilions and tents villages that make an Open seem larger than life. The Open wants to "identify" the greatest golfer, not have some half-formed, partially tested fellow as its king.
"If an 18-year-old wins here at Pebble, we may have the longest rough you've ever seen next year at Congressional," said Klinedinst.
Since Mike Davis took over responsibility for setting up Open layouts in '06, after a couple of over-the-line embarrassments when luck trumped skill, the championship has switched to graduated rough, rather than hay, and the phrase "hard but fair" is even heard.
Just as in '97 when Ernie Els edged Colin Montgomerie by one shot, Congressional promises a test where skill, not caprice, will be measured. The fluky Disaster Hole, like the 14th here at Pebble, which can distort a player's whole week, is nonexistent at CCC. Instead, almost every hole, except the par-5 sixth and 16th holes and the short par-4 eighth hole, are far more likely to administer a string of bogeys than a birdie opportunity.
"Just one hard par 4 after another," Brundred said. "It's brutal. But you're not going to make an eight."
For many years, there was debate about what sort of player was "selected" as champion by the Congressional layout, since both long hitters and shorter knockers with fabulous short games both seemed to succeed. Now, the verdict for '11 has arrived.
"The game has changed. It will be a big hitter," Brundred said. "To win the '11 Open, you'll have to hit it long, but in the fairway, and then putt well on greens where they want the stimpmeter to be 13.5 to 14."
To get their greens to that lightning speed, Congressional officials have actually had to reshape some of the greens, making slopes less severe.
"Otherwise, you might just putt the ball back and forth all day," said Klinedinst.
With U.S. Open nerves and Congressional grandeur in all directions, that may happen next June, anyway. At our national championship, anything can happen and always does. As you watch the last day at Pebble Beach, feel free to daydream. Subtract the Pacific Ocean, and that's what's coming to town. Only 361 days to wait.