Open horror house: Golfers expect the worst
It was the day before the start of this year’s U.S. Open, and men in coats and ties, jaws set, eyes steely, described the torture that was to come in the next four days.
“The philosophy is that the U.S. Open be the most rigorous, most difficult and most fair,” said Tom O’Toole, chairman of the USGA’s championship committee. “We want to test the physical … as well as the mental. We want well-executed shots rewarded, and poorly executed shots penalized.”
There is something very military in the USGA approach. It is easy to envision dim rooms, overhead lights on topography charts, and men with sleeves rolled up, pointing, plotting and planning strategy about sand traps and 50-foot cliffs. Visualize Norman Schwarzkopf in charge.
“We can cut the fairway shorter here and have a ball hit 280, but five yards off center, keep rolling right into the ocean.”
Chuckles and high-fives all around.
It is not news, of course, that the USGA attempts to make the U.S. Open a nightmare. It is also not news that it does not take kindly to somebody countering the strategy, especially when that happens at a place O’Toole called “one of the most treasured spots in all of golf.” That would be Pebble Beach, home of cranky weather, ocean wind, incredible scenery and putting greens the size of a beach towel.
Some might remember the last time they played the U.S. Open here, in 2000. In that one, a fine young golfer named Eldrick T. Woods went 12 under par, beat the rest of the field by 15 strokes and left the impression that this U.S. Open torture-chamber stuff might be a fraud.
If nothing else, the USGA has a long memory. If anybody shoots 12 under this week, there will be urine tests in the scoring tent afterward, followed by a congressional hearing.
Woods, currently serving probation with the general public, summed up the plight of playing in a U.S. Open, especially the way this one has been set up. “They have the highest rough, the narrowest fairways, the hardest greens and the trickiest pin placements” he said. “Other than that, it’s pretty simple.”
Phil Mickelson, who has a chance to surpass Woods as No. 1 player in the world and who has finished second a record five times in the U.S. Open, said, “This course can really bite you.”
He also bemoaned the likely significance of a weather forecast that calls for no rain during the tournament. That will make some greens so dry and fast they could become unputtable, as well as unhittable.
Then there was an aging Huck Finn, also known as Tom Watson, who at 60 is playing in his 31st U.S. Open and is the only one in the field to have, effective today, played in all five U.S. Opens held at Pebble Beach. The previous four were in 1972, ‘82, ‘92 and 2000, and he won the ‘82 tournament with his legendary chip-in birdie from the deep rough at the impossible-to-birdie par-three 17th.
“The U.S. Open tends to bring out some negative thoughts,” Watson said, laughing after realizing he had spent much of his news conference describing the dangers of each hole.
The sadists are ready for the swingers. Four days of playing Pebble Beach or four days of sticking pins in your thumb is about the same.
In addition, all eyes will be on Woods, the once-revered king of his sport and four-time master of the Masters, as well as all great golfing challenges. His shank into marital infidelity, a public abyss from which he is attempting to emerge, is a work in progress, one Woods is not enjoying. Asked about a resolution with his wife, Elin, he snapped, “That’s none of your business.”
When they aren’t on Woods, all eyes will shift to Mickelson, who won this year’s Masters, his third, and seems due for a U.S. Open title after several near-misses and disasters, including a drive on the last hole on the last day at Winged Foot in 2006 that was so far off line that cars on the freeway were in jeopardy.
Mickelson put it simply. “I would like to win my national Open,” he said.
So everybody seems ready.
The main entryway here takes fans past a giant sculpture of two winged golfers, apparently Zeus in his golfing days, and past a series of merchandise shops featuring incredibly overpriced golf wear. If the cloth has a U.S. Open logo on it, it is at least $30. Nice cloth, $75.
The carpeted entryway continues down toward the first tee, with an enchanting ocean view in the distance.
This is Pebble Beach. This is special, even for a U.S. Open.
No stone has been left unturned. Or, as the USGA’s O’Toole said, “This is 24/7. It is all hands on deck.”
It brings tears to your eyes, especially if you are a player.