Officially, golf's major championship season began in April with the Masters, but in reality, golf's prime time begins now. We get three majors in the next nine weeks, starting with the United States Open at Bethpage Black. This, friends, is the best stretch in golf.
The Bethpage Open will actually feature more than two players, although that may be difficult to prove. Media coverage of Tiger Woods, who looks to be back in dominant form after his win at the Memorial, and Phil Mickelson, a New York favorite whose wife is battling breast cancer, is likely to blot out all others.
That makes the Black Course the perfect place for Jim Furyk, a guy who has quietly been playing good golf again. The only thing more surprising than the fact that Furyk hasn't won anything since mid-2007 is the fact that he never followed up his 2003 U.S. Open title at Olympia Fields with another major championship.
Furyk plays with the consistency of Tom Kite and the gritty efficiency of a steel-worker, which is appropriate for a Pennsylvania native who grew up cheering for the Pittsburgh Steelers, football's ultimate hard-hat team. He has contended for all three majors played left of the Atlantic Ocean; his precise style of play and adept short game travel well to the game's toughest setups. But he somehow remains underrated and under-appreciated. Maybe that's just part of living in the Tiger-Phil Era.
A quick summation of Furyk's major record is in order. He has 12 top-5 finishes six at the U.S. Open, four at the British Open and two at the Masters. None at the PGA, surprisingly. He has 24 top-15 finishes, including seven at the Masters. In other words, if he's not in serious contention, he probably isn't far off. When you're that close that often, you're likely to win one or two more majors just by accident. Bethpage Black wouldn't seem to play to Furyk's strength it's long and he isn't but this is a tournament he likes and knows how to play, obviously.
"The Open is Jim's kind of event," said the veteran tour player Steve Flesch. "He's a grinder and a straight hitter. He's patient, and any word synonymous with patient. He doesn't get ahead of himself. He possesses a lot of the qualities that I lack. The Open winner usually plays boring golf. Who thinks the U.S. Open is exciting? It isn't usually, unless Tiger is in the mix. It's a survival test."
Furyk survived tough final-day conditions at Olympia Fields. He began with the burden of a three-shot lead. "It was my tournament to win or lose," he said. "I knew it, everyone knew it. I had a hard time sleeping Saturday night, and I was ridiculously nervous that Sunday."
He was so emotional, in fact, that he was unable to wish his dad, Mike, a happy Father's Day that morning.
"I couldn't get it out," Fuyrk said. "I knew I'd choke up."
He finally squeaked it out on the way to the practice tee, where his jitters faded after he began hitting balls. The tournament quickly went his way.
"I looked up at the leaderboard by the sixth green and everyone was dropping like flies," Furyk said. "Everyone was over par I mean, way over par. I thought, shoot, this is a dream. I've basically got one guy to beat."
That was little-known Aussie Stephen Leaney. Furyk held on for his first major title, but he has also experienced Open heartbreak. A costly three-putt by Furyk near the end of the 2006 Open at Winged Foot was forgotten in the avalanche of uglier finishes, namely those of Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie. In 2007, he made a stirring final-round charge at Oakmont, in his home state, but came up one shot short of Angel Cabrera.
"Tiger is right, second place does suck," Furyk said. "It leaves a bitter taste. Third place is easier to take. If you finish third or fourth or fifth, you can smile about having a good week. But when you're second or lose by one, you can think of a million ways to save that one shot. I've been in that situation twice in an Open, but for some reason, I can let it go. It might take three hours, it might take three days, but by the next time I tee it up, it's gone. I think I'm good at that. I know some people just can't let it go."
The day after Oakmont, Furyk attended a golf course opening in Ocean City, Md., and shot a low score. "I guess I was still running on adrenaline; I had a hard time sleeping that night," he said. "It was bitter. Oakmont will always be there, and I'll always think about it, but it's done. A couple of days later, I was fine. It doesn't bother me."
It has been more distressing that he has gone almost two years without a victory of any kind. He ranks 171st in driving distance but says his lack of length isn't the problem. "That would be the easy way out, to say that," Furyk said. "I didn't lose at Oakmont because I wasn't long enough. I putted awful last year. I didn't putt well under pressure. This year, I actually feel like I'm putting pretty damn good."
The stats don't lie. He ranks 12th in putting average and third in putts per round, numbers worthy of the Furyk of old. He was third at Doral, fifth at Sawgrass and has had five other top-12 finishes this year. A solid 69 in the final round at the Memorial left Furyk in second place again. He was there with a chance to win on the final nine, but Woods was simply unbeatable. While the media left Dublin gushing that Tiger is, indeed, back, they missed another angle. Furyk is too.
"I'm working hard," Furyk said. "I want to win a bunch."