No one would ever conceive of such a thing. It would be like changing the height of the net at Wimbledon or the size of the goal mouth in the Stanley Cup finals.
Yet that is exactly what golf does in its four major events and especially the U.S. Open. It happens every year. But we seldom study the radical emotional and mental weight of a sport that invents a tougher version of itself for its top prizes. We just enjoy the suffering.
The British Open can be crazy tough because of wind, as well as some zany bunkering designs best blamed on the sleeping arrangements of sheep in the 1500s. The Masters is hard but not a distortion of the game; it is more like the risk-reward design apotheosis of the sport with players constantly asked to make the courage-vs.-self-knowledge choice of “go” or “don’t go,” with the correct answer different for every player and in every shifting circumstance. The PGA Championship is just the U.S. Open Lite: hard but seldom nuts.
The U.S. Open is the most self-consciously sadistic. This week’s 121st rendition on the South Course at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif., is typical. “Our DNA is to be tough and push it to the edge,” USGA official John Bodenhamer told the Golf Channel. “We have safeguards in place. But we push it hard. We want to do that, and we’ll do it again.”
What safeguards? Highway guardrails so golfers, after posting an 8, don’t throw themselves off a Torrey cliff?
After covering golf my whole life, I still haven’t fully digested what a bludgeoning the majors inflict on golfers. And how different that shock to the system is to anything in other games. If you watch on TV this weekend, remember: No other sport does this to its stars.
Pros suddenly go from facing a dozen shots that fray nerves and demand precise creativity during a typical round on the PGA Tour to confronting 50 such nightmares a day. That’s what makes the majors, especially the U.S. Open, a psychological contact sport.
To illustrate, Ian Poulter this week created a tweet to show how diabolically deep the rough is at the U.S. Open, even a few feet from the greens.
Poulter’s phone focuses on the grass — notoriously gnarly Kikuyu at the Torrey Pines South Course — until the view is just inches above the ground. Come on, Ian, there’s no ball here. Then Poulter separates the grass with his fingers and, like a fresh egg at the bottom of a nest underneath a hen, there is a ball!
“Oh, no. Oh, no,” you hear on the tweet. It’s a sample from “Remember (Walking in the Sand).”
“Oh, no, no, no, no, NOOO!” the singers wail in harmony.
In those old girl-group songs, somebody often dies, usually in flames after going very fast. At the U.S. Open, they usually expire pathetically, hacking and chopping.
Every eye in the first round Thursday was on Phil Mickelson, who won the PGA Championship last month at age 50 — a preposterous deed that beat the previous record for oldest major winner by two years and moved him from popular superstar to gold-plated golf legend even among cynics.
What nobody knew was that, instead of getting in position to contend, Mickelson was going to shoot a 75 as the perfect crash-dummy illustration of misery in majors.
On his first swing, Mickelson missed the fairway by only four feet. At a normal PGA Tour event, where fairways are about 30 yards wide, Mickelson would have been in the short grass. At the U.S. Open, where fairways are often 24 yards wide, seldom more than 28 and in one hole this week only 19 yards wide, Mickelson’s drive wasn’t quite good enough.
Even so, Mickelson’s second shot was only 153 yards, a distance that hackers don’t fear. But the Torrey Pines’s Kikuyu is a matter of concern, even for Mickelson.
An invasive weed that drives out all other vegetation, Kikuyu only greets the pros at two courses, Torrey Pines and Riviera in Los Angeles. How tough is this stuff? At Torrey, there is a display of Kikuyu grass that, after many years, is now 20 feet tall. This Open may be decided by the ability to avoid the icky stuff or get lucky lies in it because its depth is inconsistent — from more than six inches tall and lush to a sickly, not-too-tough yellow.
Mickelson’s second shot, which he probably would stuff within 15 feet from that distance at most tour stops, instead hooked far right out of the Kikuyu into a deep trap. Instead of putting for a birdie, Mickelson was in sand so far from the hole, hitting to a green so fast that, even for a short-game genius, he could not aim directly at the hole. Instead, he played safely away from the flag to 12 feet.
Poa annua is the bumpiest, most nerve-racking grass on which to putt. It’s familiar in the geographic band from St. Louis through Washington, D.C., but Southern California, including Torrey, has it, too. Even with the smoothest stroke, the ball often bounces. And here was Mickelson . . .
Mickelson’s putt did a 180 and came back at him. Hello, bogey!
Normal fans and average golfers think that one bad shot leads to a bogey because it does for us. Pros expect that, at their high skill level, they may have two or three poor shots or a bad break and still save a par.
That’s why layouts at majors attack the psyches of pros so profoundly. The increased difficulty, shot after shot, means each tiny mistake just increases the chance of another blunder and new problems.
Instead of saving strokes, they start turning into us.
That slightly imperfect drive, such as Mickelson’s on his first hole, is no longer innocent and correctable. The USGA wants it to be an unmarked entrance to hell.
Mickelson, constantly scrambling, never cleared his head.
Most years, what we watch on weekends at a U.S. Open is great players facing conditions so difficult that they are thrown back on their resources as competitors as much as on their skill as golfers.
Does that take golf to a better and higher competitive plane where unsuspected talents are brought forward at key moments? Or do we get an artificially bunched-up leader board and winners such as Steve Jones, Michael Campbell, Lucas Glover, Gary Woodland and — slap me silly — Andy North, Lee Janzen and Retief Goosen twice each.
The U.S. Open will probably provide something unique, entertaining and dramatic. But it also lends itself to aberrations just as the NBA Finals would with smaller baskets or a World Series with a skinny strike zone.
At the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Bryson DeChambeau said he intended to ignore the narrow fairways and high rough and instead just “bomb it and gouge it.” He thought he would have such short wedge shots into greens that, even from deep rough, he could cope with them. He hit only 23 of 56 fairways — and won by six.
It was a glorious turnabout. If the U.S. Open can raise the net, narrow the goal posts and try to make fools of everybody, why should the golfers play their game?
Maybe this week they can make some more new rules of their own.
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