SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Recently, I started my first hole with a perfect drive, barely hit my second shot over the green (drat the luck), then watched my golf ball trickle down a swale. Next, my weak pitch shot didn’t clear the bank and rolled back to my feet. Then I putted the ball up the slope, but it rolled back at me, too. Disgusted, I chopped a lame pitch shot 10 feet past the hole, missed the putt and took my triple bogey.
Why do I play? Why do I keep humiliating myself? Oh, sorry, that wasn’t me. It was Tiger Woods on his first hole Thursday at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
For those, like me, who have long believed that golf was 156 masochists being watched by thousands of sadists, this U.S. Open promises great things.
In this first round, the morning’s “featured pairing” — they might as well have worn shackles and been lashed as they walked — included Rory McIlroy (80), Phil Mickelson (77) and Jordan Spieth (78). Combined, they shot 25 over par during one of the hardest scoring days in the history of major championship golf with a field stroke average of slightly over 76.
The U.S. Open prides itself on being the most difficult, excruciating test of golf created by man yet remaining sufficiently fair that an individual human can shoot even par for four days. Many times, the U.S. Golf Association misses its mark and makes a mess — a course too easy, too hard or just too fluky and capricious to meet its own standard. Recent years have not been kind.
But this week at the old, glorious links at Shinnecock Hills, the USGA may have done the job just about right. Many of the greatest golfers will suffer, such as Jon Rahm (78) and Jason Day (79), who are ranked fifth and eighth in the world, as well as Woods (78), who four-putted No. 13 for the first of back-to-back double bogeys. All in all, the top 10 players in the world rankings shot a combined 51 over par.
As a result, a humble 73, normally a deflating first-round score, puts Rickie Fowler and Masters champ Patrick Reed squarely in the thick of the fight.
The U.S. Open has a history of “identifying” champions who are truly great players, such as world No. 1 Dustin Johnson who, despite three bogeys, proved that a red number could be posted with a 69, putting him in a four-way tie for first place.
But such harsh conditions, including gusting 20-mph winds, plus three-foot-high rough that begins just eight feet from the “first cut” of short rough, sometimes opens the door for unexpected players to find a week’s worth of magic. Sometimes it is a “swing thought” that clicks at the last moment or some inner once-in-a-career Zen-like trance.
Let Scott Piercy, 39, a solid pro who has earned $8.6 million on Tour the past four years, stand for the fellow who, to his own amazement, has suddenly “found it.”
And let flamboyant Ryder Cup regular Ian Poulter, 42, who usually hates the U.S. Open, represent the elite player who suddenly, mysteriously, gets his head right. Both are part of that four-way tie.
On Wednesday in his practice round, Piercy was so disgusted that he walked off the course after four holes. “I was shanking it. I lost like five balls in the first four holes. I’m like, ‘I’m outta here,’ ” Piercy said.
After “pounding some pizza” to comfort his sorrows, he phoned his wife. “There’s a good chance I’ll be home on Saturday,” he told her, expecting to miss the cut. “Unless I show up a different person in the morning.”
Pro golfers can often remain the same marvelous player for months at a time. The greatest seem to hold their form for years. All the rest of us know exactly what Piercy means — we wake up a different golfer in the morning.
At least Piercy had a reason for his transformation — he remembered a swing tip that had worked for him so well that he put it on Instagram. Piercy watched his own advice, slept on it, then experimented on the range before his first round. Generally, this is an excellent way to shoot 88. Not this time. His swing thought was aimed to help him lower his shot trajectory.
“The more you can flight the ball down, hit it solid, keep it out of the wind, the better,” Piercy said, adding that a “silly” 80-foot birdie putt helped, too.
If you want an underdog, take Piercy. He made the field as an alternate after a sectional qualifier earlier this month in Memphis. “Golf’s frustrating in general,” Piercy said. “You’ve got to ride out the waves. You’ve got to figure out how, when you’re at the bottom of the wave, how to get back on top.”
And is he generally able to manage this trick? “I hope so. I mean, you know, I do this for a living,” he said with a self-deprecating laugh.
Poulter is the more fascinating study. Despite winning 12 times in Europe, three times on the PGA Tour and making tall piles of money for almost 20 years, including eight top 10 finishes in majors, he has never won a major. At the U.S. Open, his best finish in 14 starts is 17th.
“Most of the U.S. Opens I haven’t enjoyed very many, to be honest. They’re difficult. They’re hot. They’re stressful,” said Poulter, whose resemblance to Rod Stewart cannot possibly be accidental. “Feels like you’re pulling teeth every single hole you play. How I’ve got any left, I don’t really know.
“It’s supposed to be tough. This week, I’ve changed my mind-set. I’m here to enjoy my golf, to play freely, to go out and just say, If I hit it in the rough, I’m just going to knock it out.
“Just don’t get too bogged down with it . . . . [In the past] I’ve been disappointed. I’ve been angry. I’ve been frustrated. Shooting over par is hard to take sometimes.”
Poulter then analyzed all the factors in a typical approach shot to a Shinnecock Hills green. Would that gusting wind hit his ball at 15, 20 or 25 mph? You must guess. How fast are the greens, soaked by Wednesday rain, drying out? Will the shot release or check up? Where is the safest area to aim on such severely sloping greens? Even if you analyze every variable correctly, the target area to put the ball in position for a comfortable par — don’t even discuss a birdie — “is the size of two table tennis tops.” In his analysis, he used the word “stress” six times.
The forecast for the next three days is for dry weather and continued winds. When the event was here in 2004, some greens were so hard and burned that the event risked turning into a joke. Will the USGA “lose the course” again? With temperatures in the low 70s, plus enough watering for the greens, Shinnecock has a chance to be a fabulous and infuriating challenge for the rest of this Open.
Stress, stress and more stress. Sounds like a nerve-wrenching U.S. Open in a classic links setting. Get out the thumb screws.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.