PINEHURST, N.C. — It’s not enjoyable. The U.S. Open, the golfing championship of the United States, was never meant to be.
It was meant to be a challenge, a terror, agony. It was meant to be difficult, very difficult.
The U.S. Open was meant to be a tournament where the heat is on—it will be in the 90s at Pinehurst No. 2 when the 114th Open begins on Thursday—and so is the pressure.
“The Masters can be fun,” said the late Tony Lema in his book, Golfer’s Gold. “The U.S. Open is work.”
The U.S. Open is where birdies are a rumor, double-bogeys are a constant and the eventual champion seems more survivor than winner.
“You don’t win the Open,” goes the timeless saying from Dr. Cary Middlecoff, who went from dentistry to the tour and won two Opens. “It wins you.”
Who does it win this week? The favorite, Rory McIlroy, who is already an Open champ? Phil Mickelson, who has finished second six times? Or a surprise, like Lucas Glover in 2009 at Bethpage or Webb Simpson in 2012 at Olympic Club?
Does it embrace somebody as it did Michael Campbell or the late Payne Stewart, who in 2005 and 1999 respectively won the only two Opens ever held at Pinehurst? Or does it taunt somebody as it did Retief Goosen, who, despite having won the tournament twice before, entered the final round here in 2005 with a three-shot lead and shot 81.
The U.S. Open is the one that matters, the one that bewilders, the one that ruins your wrists and wrecks your mind, and if the reference is not specifically to Mickelson blowing the 2006 Open and sighing, “I am such an idiot,” it could be accepted as that.
The possibility is this Open will be different from most, including the other two held at Pinehurst, a course designed during the beginning of the 20th century by the Scot, Donald Ross, who also created Oakland Hills, Oak Hill, Seminole and Scioto.
For time immemorial the U.S. Golf Association, which administers the Open, took a tough golf course and made it nearly impossible, with narrow fairways, long rough, soft-sand bunkers and slick, hard greens.
Asked after a round when the scores were outrageously high if the organization was trying to embarrass the world’s best players, Sandy Tatum, then USGA president, replied, “No, we’re trying to identify them.”
That may be an easier task this Open, as the decision was made to restore Pinehurst to its original, shaggy state, without the traditional Open rough but with patches of sand and wire grass.
“Especially with the dry weather we’ve had, it looks quite linksy,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “You’ve got the native areas off the sides of the fairways. The fairways are getting firm and fast. Greens are obviously very undulating. They throw balls in different directions. And you’re going to have to have a very imaginative and inventive short game to get the ball going.
“I think it will be a test for all aspects of your game”
The test, however, will be a bit different from the two previous Opens.
“The sand will make the ball come out dead with a lot of spin,” said Mickelson, Tuesday after a practice round. “And the wiry grass will make the ball come out shooting into a flier...it’s going to be a big difference, because it’s 40 or 50 yards with an iron.
“Rickie Fowler had a shot where he thought he was going to come out dead with the sand. The ball went screaming over the green and nailed, two hopped into the grandstands. It would have been 70 yards over the green had it not hit the stands. We’ll get a few of those, and you have to be fortunate in your assessment of how the ball is going to come out.”
Fortune always plays a role in the Open. So does experience. Critics say the Open is boring because the key is to avoid trouble, a plodder’s tournament if you will, a tournament won once by Scott Simpson and twice by Lee Janzen. Don’t take chances, take opportunities.
“Where to miss it and what places you need to be careful of,” said Mickelson, alluding to what he learned from his two previous Opens at Pinehurst.
What everybody learned was the crown greens designed by Ross would have people grinding their molars. Getting the ball close is the key at Pinehurst, something John Daly couldn’t do in the 1999 Open.
His approach at the eighth bounced across the green. So he putted, and the ball rolled down to where he hit his first shot. Then he putted again. And again, each time the ball trickling back as if he were on a miniature course. Finally, he gave the ball an angry whack and walked away.
“The greens,” agreed Mickelson, “are so repellent that you need to get as close as possible. I’ll be trying to play this golf course aggressively...I think the most exciting shot in golf is the recovery shot. To hack it out of the rough requires no recoverability. At least now you can advance the ball up by the green, nine times out of 10.
"This place is awesome. It tests a player’s entire game.”
And his composure. After all, rough or no rough, it’s still a U.S. Open.
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, has covered over 150 major golf championships. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.