Jun 13, 2011 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
By this Thursday, the NBA and NHL will both be done for a while. So everything clears out in time for the best four golf days of the year.
For its 111th edition, the United States Open goes to Congressional Country Club, hard by the Potomac River and next to the nation’s capital. Feel free to insert your own political jokes wherever appropriate, or not.
And I’m sure a fair amount of you will not watch this particular Open because Tiger Woods is sitting it out. Well, even Tiger knew that he was too hurt to play. It made no sense for him to show up, limping, with no chance to even contend, much less win.
So with the main attraction out, why bother tuning in? Well, because it’s the U.S. Open, our national championship, and no matter who contends or who prevails, the stories are plentiful, starting with the venue.
Congressional has only hosted two U.S. Opens and one PGA Championship, but they were pretty unique. Ken Venturi suffering through the 36-hole finale in 1964 helped persuade the USGA to (wisely) go to four rounds in four days a year later. Rain at the ’76 PGA led organizers to improvise a sudden-death playoff, the first in major history, had Dave Stockton not won in regulation.
When the Open returned in ’97, they decided to play Congressional as is, with the 18th hole a par-3 over water, rather than the more dramatic (and more difficult) 17th, as in tournaments past. No one was totally satisfied, except perhaps champion Ernie Els.
So when Tiger’s new tournament, the AT&T National, went to Congressional and the Open was awarded for 2011, course doctor Rees Jones arrived to give everyone the ending they wanted.
The solution was to turn the 18th into the 10th, and reverse the tee and green locations, and then play the rest of the course as is. This means the final hole is now a 523-yard, downhill classic, with the added length restoring a long to mid-iron second shot into that peninsula green jutting out into the pond. A tough and true closing hole, just as the USGA wants.
Which brings us to the storylines, of which there are dozens, too numerous to mention here. That long-ago ’64 Open featured Arnold Palmer, and this Open includes his grandson, Sam Saunders, in the field. Hale Irwin’s son, Steve, also made it through qualifying. Sergio Garcia manned up and qualified, too, as did Fred Funk, who is 55, and Auburn native David May.
For those who didn’t have to qualify, there’s the ever-changing question of who the world’s top player may be. Except for Martin Kaymer, the common thread among Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Steve Stricker is that none of them have won a major. All are favored here, though, especially Donald and Stricker, whose games perfectly fit the Open mold of hitting fairways and greens.
Guys like K.J. Choi, Anthony Kim and Hunter Mahan can lean on recent wins or hot rounds at Congressional to gain confidence, while Els may be a mere shadow of the world-beater that won here 14 years ago, surpassed by more recent South African major winners like Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.
Of course, one story would cross over big-time if it took place – namely, a Phil Mickelson win. Five previous runner-up finishes, some of them agonizing (see Winged Foot, 2006), have left Lefty with the Sam Snead label. He’s plotting, as always, intending to use more irons off the tee to get it in play and seeing how that works out.
As we’ve noted here, though, don’t expect any real resolution until deep into Sunday, if then. The trend of recent majors, even when Tiger was playing, was to have numerous contenders in the final round and the winner not clearly emerging until the final hour.
Golf in 2011 has reflected that chaos and augmented it. No single player dominates. To be sure, the youth movement of twentysomething champions is real, but the post-40 crowd, from Mickelson to Stricker to Choi to David Toms, has scored big in recent months. They’re ideally suited to the patient approach the Open requires.
And how hot will it get? Late June in the D.C. area is normally an oven, and Venturi’s ’64 win gained more resonance because it soared past 100 that last day. Hopefully it won’t get too bad, but because of its location and the covering trees, Congressional rarely gets wind to help cool down players and spectators alike.
For many folks, traveling on the Beltway is a traffic nightmare. But for the man who leaves Congressional with the U.S. Open title this week, it won’t matter one bit, because he’ll have already reached his destination.