The Masters is one of the most important events on the sporting calendar, no doubt about it.
Augusta National is the Mecca of the golf world, and that includes St. Andrews—in my mind, the combination of beauty and history narrowly pushes Bobby Jones’ masterpiece beyond the birthplace of the game. Throw in the Green Jacket ceremony, Butler Cabin, Amen Corner, Magnolia Lane, Hogan’s Bridge, Eisenhower’s Tree and you’ve got as sacred and majestic a place as there is in sports.
Nevertheless, the US Open is the greatest single event on the golfing calendar. And it’s not even close.
First there are golf-specific reasons. Simply put, Augusta National is not a complete test of a golfer’s skill: the wider fairways and absence of rough provide no punishment (and no deterrent) for golfers who can’t drive the ball straight off the tee.
Just about every US Open venue has that thick, gnarly rough, in addition to absurdly fast greens, and tight fairways, each of which make strategy and club selection all the more critical. No one wins the US Open without displaying every a bevy of shots from tee to green and green to cup.
Don’t get me wrong, Augusta National can be extremely tough. Over time the changes to the course—Tiger-proofing, remodeling the greens—have made the course a bear. Still, we do see plenty of 64s, 65s, and 66s (think about Phil Mickelson nearly making three straight eagles last year) that yield handfuls of double digit under par 72-hole scores.
Case in point, since 1995 the average winning score at the Masters just about 11 strokes under par. Conversely, at the US Open, since that same year, the average winning score has been just two strokes under par. And only once since 1967 has the champion posted a score that wasn’t in red numbers; since 1995 we’ve seen six US Open champions fail to break old man par.
It’s that survival of the fittest—which becomes even more of a grind when there is an 18-hole playoff, as opposed to the Masters current sudden-death format—where players truly earn the trophy and that million dollar prize.
But that schadenfreude of taking pleasure in watching the best in the world struggle to make bogey or be content with a 73 isn’t the only reason the US Open is better than the Masters.
Consider the field: The Masters is essentially an invitational that features a handful of special and sentimental exemptions: no matter how old or how bad his game may be, any former champion can play. That means 82-year-old Arnold Palmer can play if he wants to next April.
The US Open gives some exemptions—previous champs get 10 years of free passes, as do a few amateurs, seniors, and recent champions of other majors—but not nearly as high a percentage. More to the point, a large portion of the field literally earns a spot, via qualifiers. Some men—often club pros—have to play both local and sectional qualifiers just to get a spot in the field alongside Tiger and Phil. That yields a more “blue collar” element to the event.
Speaking of that everyman quality, the USGA’s recent inclusion of truly public courses like Bethpage (2002, 2009) and Torrey Pines (2008) makes for a nice contrast to the ultra-exclusive Augusta National.
And that is another reason why the US Open will always be tops in my book over the Masters: the venue.
Fittingly the US Open showcases different courses, different cities, and different types of golf every year. The beauty and the winds of Pebble Beach and northern California one year, the gruesome and desert-like test at Oakmont the next, the dignified settings at Baltursol or Winged Foot the year after that, and so on. By 2015 our National Open will finally reach the Pacific Northwest, when it’s played at Chambers Bay. In short, the US Open offers a better feel for America than Augusta National alone ever can.
And for our National Open, isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?