The 2011 U.S. Open golf tournament began Thursday morning at 7 a.m.. The first group of golfers teed off under overcast skies. As Barry Svrluga reported:

There will be golf Thursday at Congressional Country Club at 7 a.m., and it will continue till nearly 8 in the evening. Some of it will be unsightly. The Blue Course has sand in its bunkers in which balls can turn into gophers, burying deep. It has tee boxes pushed up against the fences of the property, and a large golf course has grown simply humongous. It has grass shaved down to the length of Berber carpet, all the better to roll shots into waiting streams, ponds and beds of pine straw.

Look out over the first hole — a pleasing, flowing dogleg left, not terribly long or overly daunting — and the 111th U.S. Open might seem to get off to a lovely, relaxing start. The relaxation, though, will last all of a shot or two, if that. The U.S. Open is about so many things — par, pain, rough, rage — that there is no mistaking it for the dozens of other easy-as-a-Sunday-morning events that fill up golf’s calendar from winter to fall.

“There’s nothing friendly about the U.S. Open,” said former champ Johnny Miller. “This is for tough guys. There’s guys that are sort of made to win a U.S. Open. There are some guys that maybe kind of luck into winning a U.S. Open, but not too many guys can look you right in the eye and say, ‘I can win it.’ ”

Four of the last six winning scores in U.S. Opens were even par — or worse. In those six years, a total of seven players have broken par over four rounds. The last regular PGA Tour event with a winning score of even par or worse? That would be 1995. In last week’s PGA Tour event, no fewer than 37 players broke par.

While the Masters has always had a special place in the hearts of golfers and fans, Thomas Boswell argued that the U.S. Open may be a better test for finding the best golfers each year.

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.

Looking ahead to the course at Congressional Country Club, Sally Jenkins explained that the stage is set for an exciting finish this year.

Let’s be frank: Anyone who wants to win the U.S. Open on the 18th hole at Congressional this week better be comfortable with long-distance travel. You practically have to tee the ball up in Virginia and hit it to Maryland. The 18th is less a golf hole than a parkway, leading to a little peninsula of a green about as welcoming as a tollbooth, where — trust me — a price will be paid.

Congressional is a big sprawling golf course with a big history, and if the USGA has done its job right, it will have a big, glamorous closing hole, the site of a splashy and dramatic and defining moment. Something on the order of Ben Hogan’s 1-iron to the 18th hole at Merion in 1950, or Corey Pavin’s soaring 4-wood into the 18th green at Shinnecock in 1995, if you please. At least, that’s the intention behind placing the tee box at the outermost boundary of Congressional property, up against the back fence. The hope is that the combination of length and importance of the occasion will make for “the epitome of a great golf hole,” as Phil Mickelson predicts.

Let’s set the stage: It’s Sunday, the final round, and all that’s hanging in the balance is the 2011 U.S. Open title. The contenders step up to the tee, wiping the sweat from their palms, and this is what they face: a daunting par-4 of 523 yards, with a forbiddingly steep downhill approach to a distant green framed by water on three sides, and densely wooded hills forming a natural amphitheater. The tee is set so far back, the only thing behind the players is the hum of traffic from Persimmon Tree Road — which given the moment will not exactly sound like a lullaby.

The 1997 Open championship was both won and lost on the hole, which back then was the 480-yard 17th, instead of the 18th. It played as the third-toughest hole on the entire course, with a 4.41 stroke average, and it decided the fates of both Colin Montgomerie and Tom Lehman, and consolidated the lead of eventual winner Ernie Els. Lehman, remember, was trailing by just a stroke when he hit a too-ambitious 7-iron that bounced left of the pin and rolled into the dank water. Meantime Montgomerie, the co-leader, bogeyed the hole for the fourth straight day when he allowed commotion in the gallery to undo him and missed a six-foot putt. Els on the other hand made a steady par that resulted in his second U.S. Open title.

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