Setting the Open Rotation

Tuesday June 26th, 2007
Oakmont's famous Church Pews.
Fred Vuich/SI

The Brits have it right. They usually do when it comes to golf. It's the little details — food (besides fish and chips), tiny hotel rooms, the foreign concepts of showers and washrags — that they have trouble with.

Oh, and they know how to hold an Open championship. And where. The British Open is played on a rota of eight courses, although Royal Liverpool may make it nine after last year's success. (Translation: Tiger Woods won it, and the Royal & Ancient's cash registers were ringing.)

Jack Nicklaus once remarked that the quality of Open courses declines in relation to how far south they're located. In other words — Scotland rules, England drools. Jack is right. The Scottish sites have the best golf, especially Muirfield. In England, the golf resembled ping-pong in '03 at St. George's on the southern coast; Lytham and St. Annes is remarkably featureless; and without Tiger's display of long-iron shotmaking and emotion after he won, remind me what was so hot about Royal Liverpool besides the sweltering temperatures?

A good magazine editor would trim this list to five — Muirfield, Turnberry, Carnoustie, St. Andrews and, here you go, England — Birkdale.

Americans do everything bigger (see restaurant servings and 64-ounce soda cups for details). We've got more courses, and therefore more choices for our Open. Too many choices. Sixteen tracks have hosted the U.S. Open in the last 20 years. Pardon my Pittsburgh bias, but Oakmont proved once again that it's the best U.S. Open site. Its semi-crazed putting surfaces mean you don't really need that much rough to make it a demanding test — but that's another story.

The problem? It took 13 years to bring the Open back to Oakmont. This course had the Church Pews, the longest par 5 in Open history (No. 12, 667 yards), and the longest par 3 (No. 8 played 300 yards in the final round when the winner, Angel Cabrera, hit 2-iron and made birdie). It also had the drivable par-4 17th hole, which carved its niche as Oakmont's signature when Jim Furyk couldn't make par and Tiger Woods couldn't make birdie on Sunday. The Open should return to Oakmont early and often. Who doesn't want to see Tiger get another crack at it? Or is it the other way around?

Here's the glitch. The Open is officially booked through 2013 (and maybe unofficially through 2015). Oakmont probably won't get another Open until at least '16 or '17. That's too long to wait. Somebody call an editor. Let's cut the flab out of the U.S. Open rota.

Six Open sites ought to be plenty. Let's start with Oakmont, the king of the Opens. Pebble Beach, the site of Jack's 1-iron off the stick and Tom Watson's chip-in at 17, is unquestionably American golf's most dramatic setting. What Bethpage Black lacks in scenery it makes up for with length and vocal fans. It's a feel-good municipal course and damn proud of it. Pinehurst No. 2 forces the USGA to remember that chipping, not flop shots from eight inches of rough around the green, is how real golf is played.

The Midwest needs a regular Open site, but let's face it, Chicago's great courses, Olympia Fields and Medinah, come up short. So I'm awarding the fifth spot to the toughest course I've ever played: Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis. I know, I know, it's already booked for two PGA Championships and a Ryder Cup, not to mention next month's U.S. Senior Open. But trust me, owner Herb Kohler can fit in a couple of U.S. Opens, and if he can't, a spectacular new course in Milwaukee can help him out — Erin Hills. The Chicagoans will just have to drive north, like they do every summer weekend anyway.

The sixth and final spot, in the spirit of compromise, is a wild card. It'll be passed around among Shinnecock Hills, a great course where the setup went awry in '04; Winged Foot, the site of Phil's Phiasco; Torrey Pines, next year's unproven rookie; and Merion, Olympic Club and the rest.

Meanwhile, the British Open is coming up at Carnoustie, the former House of Van de Velde. I'll bring the Pringles, the trail mix and the towels. See you there.

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