BETHESDA, Md. — The banter between the world's best golfers and the Fourth Estate can be endlessly illuminating. In the run-up to the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club, Luke Donald said Tuesday, "If you're not in contention, you don't have a chance to win." (True.) Dustin Johnson said, "You know the U.S. Open is one of the four majors." (Right again.) He added, "It's one of the best majors that we play in." (One might even call it one of the four best.)
The weather is perfect; the traffic is an adventure even at 7 a.m.; and golf on the eve of the Beltway Open is a slow-developing pointillist painting. Five of the last six major-winners have been foreign-born. Europeans have risen to the top of the rankings. The top two, Donald and Lee Westwood, are aiming for their first major victory. Fred Funk, 55, the former Maryland golf coach who was born five miles from here, has his 15-year-old son on the bag. Open bridesmaid Phil Mickelson said Tuesday that the rough is reasonable enough for him to use his driver more than his custom built 2-iron this week, contrary to earlier reports.
Those are fine sidebars, but with Tiger Woods injured the big picture is hard to decipher. Although Bubba Watson has won twice, no player has emerged to capture our imagination. "It's about waiting," Germany's Martin Kaymer said of the proper strategy to take on an Open course like the Blue at Congressional, which at 7,574 yards (par 71) will be the second longest in Open history after Torrey South ('08). "Waiting," Kaymer added, "for your chance on Sunday."
Kaymer, who will have a new caddie on the bag this week, Luke's brother Christian Donald, may as well have been talking about waiting to fill the Woods void. Tiger's would-be successors have only reminded us of his past greatness, and just how unreachably high he set the bar. Dustin Johnson at last year's Open at Pebble Beach, Nick Watney at the PGA two months later, and Rory McIlroy at this year's Masters all collapsed under the weight of 54-hole leads. "To do what Tiger Woods was doing in the early 2000s, the way he was putting golf tournaments away, was kind of superhuman," said Graeme McDowell, who would know.
This week's defending champion, McDowell, 31, looked Tiger-like in 2010 but has since come crashing back down to earth. He shot 80 at Bay Hill and missed the cut, and didn't make the weekend rounds at Augusta, either. After cramming with his coach, he led the Players through 54 holes but shot a Sunday 79. A shot off the lead through 36 holes at the Saab Wales Open, he carded a third-round 81.
"It is difficult to win," McDowell said. "Sometimes you've got to throw a few away to really learn how to do it."
If that's the case, there's been a lot of learning happening. Mickelson did not win his first major until he was 33, but has won three more since then.
"I think the biggest challenge is the anticipation of the start of the round," Mickelson said, "the time between finishing Saturday night and Sunday, and how you handle that time, what goes through your mind. Does holding up the trophy go through your mind? Because if it does, you're going to have a problem the next day."
Regardless of how this Open goes, Mickelson is due for a memorable week. He, Bubba Watson and Davis Love III were scheduled to visit President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday. (Obama is a lefty golfer as well.)
With its mixture of birdie holes and brutal holes, its reasonable fairways and its graduated rough, Congressional is getting high approval ratings from players. The host of the 1964 and '97 U.S. Opens, the Blue has undergone a few changes. The greens were rebuilt to include sub-air drainage systems in 2009 and 2010. The club transformed its finishing hole, a par-3, into its 10th hole in 2005, in part by building a green where the tee was and vice versa. That means that in each of this week's opening two rounds, half the 156-man field will begin their round on a long par 3 over water, a hole Mickelson called one of his least favorite on the course.
The new finishing hole, a 523-yard par 4, used to be the club's 17th, and may recall the beastly 18th at Winged Foot. The back nine will play harder than the front, especially considering the back is 170 yards longer but with only one par 5.
"It's one of my favorite golf courses," Westwood said, "and probably one of the toughest and best tests if you're looking for an all-around player."
Westwood, 38, reminds us that it isn't only golf's untamed youth who have struggled to replicate Tiger's heroics. The affable Brit finished a shot out of the Stewart Cink-Tom Watson playoff at the '09 British Open at Turnberry, tied for third again at the Hazeltine PGA Championship the next month, and notched runner-up finishes at the 2010 Masters and British Open.
"I seem to be responding well and coming out of [the disappointments] positively," Westwood said, "even though I'd obviously love to win one."
The U.S. Open has always favored a low-key, fairways-and-greens type of game, and has crowned unlikely champions. Lee Janzen and Andy North each won it twice. Jack Fleck beat Ben Hogan. And with Harrison Frazar winning for just the first time in his 355th start and 13th year on Tour, anything seems possible. You could count on one hand the number of people who saw South Africans Louis Oosthuizen (British Open) and Charl Schwartzel (Masters) coming.
Still, at a course that has hosted regular Tour events on and off for years, you at least have half a chance to correctly predict the winner. And Congressional has a roster of well-established winners. Greg Norman won the old Kemper Open twice. Sergio Garcia, who made it through sectional qualifying to get here this week, won the 2005 Booz Allen Classic on this 1924 Devereux Emmet design. Garcia's pal, Adam Scott, who tied for second that week, is coming off a T2 at the Masters.
Since his Masters blow-up McIlroy has traveled to Haiti with Unicef, giving himself a dose of perspective, and he's tried to address his putting woes in sessions with Dave Stockton. So far, so good: McIlroy finished fifth at the Memorial two weeks ago. Dustin Johnson was fourth.
This figures to be one of the more wide-open Opens, and not just because a whopping 29 players made it through local and sectional qualifying, among them Steve Irwin (son of Hale), Sam Saunders (grandson of Arnie), and Ty Tryon, who is still looking for a breakthrough after getting his Tour card as a teen 10 years ago.
Tiger and Phil were a lock to contend at Pebble because both had won on the storied seaside course, and Johnson had won two-straight AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Ams. All three were in the mix Sunday. This year is not so simple. Ernie Els, who won the '97 Open at Congressional, is admittedly off his game. And Woods, who won the '09 AT&T National at Congressional, isn't here. This explains the new cult following of Michael Whitehead, who was first alternate out of the Dallas sectional and got in when Woods bowed out. "Yeah, Woods and Whitehead in the same article," said Whitehead, who graduated from Rice on May 14 and is making his professional debut. "I'm glad he listened to his doctors this time."
If anybody is the new Tiger it's probably Donald, 33, who tied for fourth at this year's Masters but who has never fared better than 12th in seven U.S. Opens. The new world No. 1 is on such a run it seems unlikely he won't be in or near the lead Sunday. That was the case at the '05 Booz Allen until a 73 dropped him into a tie for 13th place. Steve Stricker, 44, is coming off his 10th win at the Memorial and at fourth is the highest-ranked American , one ahead of Mickelson and two clear of top-10 machine Matt Kuchar. Neither Kuchar nor Stricker have won a major.
Mickelson has never done well at "Congo," which Rees Jones renovated in 1990. (Until he nearly won the Farmers at Torrey Pines South earlier this year, Phil had fallen flat on Rees Jones redesigns.) Anthony Kim, who won the '08 AT&T at Congressional, has been mired in a long slump. K.J. Choi, the 2007 AT&T winner here, may have peaked in winning the Players Championship. He tied for 22nd place at the Memorial on a course where he'd won in '07.
And that leads us to boy band member Hunter Mahan, who shot 62 in his last competitive round here, at the '09 AT&T (where he finished runner-up to Woods). Mahan tied for 12th here in '08, and tied for eighth in '07. There would be symmetry in Mahan taking over as U.S. Open champ from his Ryder Cup singles tormentor McDowell. With seven top-10 and 10 top-25 finishes in 14 starts in 2011, but no victories, Mahan is testament either to the great depth in the pro game or a flakiness among this generation of Americans. He, Ben Crane, Rickie Fowler and Watson released a music video Tuesday. Mahan wears leopard-print pants and a fur coat. Watson sports denim overalls. You can tell they had fun making it, but as for the final product, it's hard to know what to think. In the post-Tiger era, that's fitting.