SAN FRANCISCO -- The pursuit of a major championship is personal, not business.
It inspires and afflicts golfers in different ways. Payne Stewart was invigorated by competing in majors, our national championship in particular. He dressed in red, white and blue. He eased his nerves by chewing gum. He won two U.S. Opens and a PGA Championship as one of the last true swingers of the club, as the PGA Tour rules official Jon Brendle once put it.
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Colin Montgomerie’s thin skin became translucent at the majors, where every cough and heckle became amplified in Dolby Surround. He huffed and puffed and all for naught. His dismal 7-iron at Winged Foot’s final hole in the 2006 U.S. Open haunts him still.
On the eve of the 112th edition of the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, a curvy, tree-lined test cut out of Bay Area soil (Interactive Map), only one golfer will walk into the sunset at the end a truly happy man. His career might be made. His life will change. The rest will wander off the premises unfulfilled or worse.
“It’s such a big test,” Tiger Woods said during his press conference Tuesday, “and such a grind.”
In the shrinking global village of professional golf, almost every player will have his share of supporters, even those born elsewhere. Luke Donald attended college at Northwestern. Lee Westwood cheers for the New York Knicks.
But winning a major will affect everyone differently.
For Woods, it would mean a 15th major and the resumption of a stalled countdown to Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18. It might buy him a reprieve from the hyper-analysis of his game. Or, it might not.
“I think even if I do win a major championship, it will still be, ‘You’re not to 18 yet,’ or ‘When will you get to 19?’” Woods said. “It’s always something with you guys. I’ve dealt with that my entire career, ever since I was an amateur and playing all the way through to professional golf. It hasn’t changed.”
That is what they mean when they say Woods is an old 36. It isn’t just about his knees. Woods has been the game’s ultimate bubble boy, a toddler taking swings on Mike Douglas, the teen debuting at Riviera, the young pro saying, yes, I expect to win every time I tee it up.
That sign on his bedroom wall chronicling Nicklaus’s achievements is Woods’s inspiration, but also his anvil.
A victory at Olympic would bring Woods closer to Nicklaus and more bodies into the circus tent.
But Woods is hardly alone in dealing with the complex emotions of a major. Donald is the No. 1 player in the world, but can he leave his imprint on the game without a major? At 34, in the sweet spot of his career, his trophy case is beginning to fill, but he has yet to nab one of the big four tournaments.
At Donald’s press conference Tuesday, a reporter asked Donald if he realized how desperate the English public is for a major winner. The reporter then mentioned Queen Elizabeth II and her Diamond Jubilee, celebrating her 60-year reign. Might that give Donald a boost along Olympic’s narrow fairways?
“Not sure the Queen will be watching, but who knows?” Donald said. “If she is, hopefully I’m one of her favorites.”
Westwood, too, has faced questions about the donut on his resume, and for longer than Donald has. At 39, Westwood has resurrected his game from a mid-career slide, chiseled his physique, climbed to No. 1 in the world and dug one of the best long games in the world out of the range.
He just won the Nordea Masters in Sweden last week with a 19-under-par score. Everyone tells him the U.S. Open sets up perfectly for him, but the U.S. Open sets up perfectly for no one.
“I can only come into tournaments and play as well as possible that week,” said Westwood, in a variation on a familiar theme. “After that, it’s out of my hands.”
Even Phil Mickelson, with his four major titles, knows that his record five runner-ups in the U.S. Open represent the elephant in the room. He has lost to Stewart (’99), Woods (’02), Retief Goosen (’04), Geoff Ogilvy (’06) and Lucas Glover (’09), five close calls squeezed into a decade.
The replays of the 2006 Open -- Mickelson in his yellow shirt flailing in Winged Foot’s trees -- are part of the history of this championship now.
So are his other near misses.
“Could have, should have won a few of those,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson already has a locker at the World Golf Hall of Fame, but a U.S. Open title would elevate him to a higher level. Five major championships would tie him with his boyhood hero, Seve Ballesteros, among others. That’s golfing immortality.
But that story will be written Sunday or Monday, after the bogeys stop.
The U.S. Open can change lives, but not yet. Until then, the players only see the grind.