After years of anticipation, the U.S. Open spread out invitingly in all directions at Congressional Country Club on Wednesday, sprawling over wooded hills, narrow fairways and spilling into shady vales beside creeks and ponds. Finally, the fun starts.
Even from the vast veranda of the terra-cotta-and-alabaster-colored clubhouse, it is impossible to digest more than a fraction of the panorama. There’s a driving range and practice facility so huge they might be their own course. So many merchandise tents sit by the 17th hole that they deserve a unique area code. A corporate city lies between the ninth and 18th holes. You could drop FedEx Field in the midst of it all and never notice it.
This is as good — as big, rich, important, tense and star-filled — as golf gets. For some, that’s not enough. Once, in an expansive mood, Jack Nicklaus said: “Golf is just golf. It’s not for everybody. But there will always be plenty of people who love it.”
For those who feel that way, who treasure the game’s embedded values, its civility and sportsmanship, its blend of physical talent and psychological torture, golf is far more than good enough. The next four days are the best that American golf offers. The national championship should also be the country’s best event and, in this case, it actually is.
To give a frame of reference, the Open’s only U.S. rival is the Masters, a mighty show, but a bit too haughty and with too small a field. Playing Augusta National every year, no matter how beautiful, can’t be as fair a test, over a career, as rotating among the best courses of a transcontinental nation. The British Open — cold, windy, sometimes ugly — appeals to such a different temperament that debating which Open is better seems obtuse.
America’s Open suits America’s tastes: summer, shorts, beer, ice cream and noise. You may sweat through the merciful sub-90 temperatures expected this week. And you may fret over thunderstorms, though Congressional needs a good dousing to toughen up its limp rough. But, in its best hours, our Open is lush, proud, a placid summer picnic and a thunderous competition that builds drama for four days. This year, it sweeps over a rolling track with elbow room, all framed by Congressional’s vain but glorious clubhouse.
Someday, this Open may be viewed as the first post-Tiger major championship. A generation ago, Nicklaus gradually turned from the Golden Bear into the Olden Bear. In time, we may look on the last three years as the beginning of a similar period as Tiger Woods ceases to dominate, but still contends. Since the ’08 Open, Woods has finished second, fourth or sixth a total of six times in his last nine majors, but never first. Jack, from 36 to 43, finished in the top six at majors 18 times, but he won just three.
Some see this Open’s field as slightly lackluster since the No. 1, 2 and 3 players in the world, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, who play together Thursday, have won only one major title. It’s more likely that this Open is just part of a transitional period as we find out if the sport will find one luminous successor to Woods — as Tom Watson was to Nicklaus — or if the game, now culling its best from America to Europe to Asia, is just a worldwide shootout among gifted but not sublime players.
For players, the annual U.S. Open mantra is “patience.” Don’t attack too often. Just avoid the killing triple bogey. At the Open, you don’t hunt 66 and shoot it; instead, it finds you. And, above all, remember that the tournament doesn’t start until the final nine holes. After all, 35 of the last 40 U.S. Opens have been decided by two shots or less and seven of those have ended in playoffs. What’s your rush?
That’s probably the correct way to watch this Open, too. Don’t believe what you see on Thursday or Friday and, above all, don’t have faith that the 54-hole leader can, even with a three or four-shot margin, stand up under Sunday pressure. Every time you think, “He’s the winner,” remember, history says it’s more likely to be somebody else.
But don’t trust this familiar Open script too much. Walking Congressional, you see rough that looks almost as manageable as what the members play. The “graduated cuts” of rough are by definition more merciful than the USGA norm. Rory McIlroy, 22, dared to say that the course just didn’t look like the U.S. Open rough he’d seen in his first two brawls with the gnarly stuff.
The knee-high rough around fairway traps has been removed mostly, allowing drives to wander into sand — a harsh but less miserable fate. As another bonus, no wind is predicted and a couple of brief cloudbursts could create “scoring conditions.”
What now guards Congressional’s reputation for long, brutish difficulty? What “defends par?” Only the sinister speed and steep contours of the recently rebuilt greens. The Stimpmeter, about 11 in ’10, is now 14.
Get above the hole and imagine putting from your car’s roof and trying to stop the ball on the hood. The lower scores the pros shoot, the less the USGA will water and the more they will roll the greens to harden them.
What’s the result of this likely combination of factors? By Sunday, the U.S. Open record of 8 under par (most recently tied by Woods in ’00) may be endangered, in part because par here is 71, not 70. So 275 would be a record-shattering Open score. Or does new USGA boss Mike Davis almost welcome a record, a change of Open tone?
Or, in an attempt to protect that legendary 8-under-par number, the USGA may stress the greens here to the brink of turn-blue damnation as they did in the near-travesty at Shinnecock Hills in ’04.
What we know about the U.S. Open is that, year after year, we don’t know. And what we don’t know is usually not only unexpected, but gloriously so.
Much as we have awaited this event for many years, the trick of enjoying what’s about to begin is to lay aside our expectations and even our desires. The U.S. Open’s task is to explode the first and surpass the second. Time after time, it’s been up to the job.