The United States Open is the meanest major. Is it even debatable? Well, I guess if you watch Fox News or MSNBC, everything is debatable.
No other major championship is typically less fun than the U.S. Open. Here are my nine reasons why the Open is the meanest major:
1. The scoring. You want to charge up the leaderboard at a U.S. Open? Make four pars in a row. The scoring at the U.S. Open is far worse than any other major. The winning scores in six of the last nine Opens have been even par or higher. The Masters has had only one winning score over par (Zach Johnson, 1 over, 2007) since Jack Burke won in 1956. The British Open has had just four winning scores of even par or higher since 1985 and the PGA hasn’t had one since Dave Stockton snagged the 1976 PGA at one over par. Since 2001, here are the cumulative scores of the major winners: Masters -139; PGA -120; British -96; U.S. -28 (with 16 of them from Rory McIlroy at Congressional in 2011).
The Open is the hardest major to score in, usually by a mile. Not counting those miscellaneous years where somebody made an incredible blunder in the course setup, like Oak Hill when Shaun Micheel won the 2003 PGA in eight-inch rough or, worse yet, Carnoustie for the 1999 Open when Paul Lawrie won and the fairways were about as wide as bowling alleys.
2. The recovery shot. One thing that is frequently missing from U.S. Opens is recovery shots. The Open often grows such thick rough that missed fairways mean slogging a sand wedge 50 yards back into the fairway. There’s no skill in that as opposed to having just enough rough to tempt a player into going for the green and then getting into worse trouble. A great player, like Seve Ballesteros or Tiger Woods, might be able to pull off a shot that most others couldn’t. That’s a way to let the best players separate themselves from the rest of the field. Pitching out sideways, every bit as exciting as watching a foul ball in baseball, equalizes ability because everyone can do it to the same level. The USGA has improved in this area during the Mike Davis era. Now we see graduated rough and next week at Pinehurst, we’ll see minimal rough. That’s a great idea. If only it had come to someone 100 years sooner.
3. The chip shot. Again, it’ll be back in style next week at Pinehurst. Most Open setups have featured thick rough immediately around the green on all sides and around the bunkers. Growing rough around bunkers never made sense to me. Don’t you want the ball to roll into the bunker on a bad shot instead of stick in the rough? The usual thick USGA greenside rough prevents errant shots from bouncing and running and becoming even more errant. It also eliminated most forms of chipping. Players treated that thick rough like a bunker and played slashing sand wedge shots out of it.
It’ll be a different story at Pinehurst, where the old Donald Ross greens repel shots and are often shaped like upside-down bowls. With no rough around the greens, a missed shot can kick off a slope and scamper 20 or 30 yards away, still in short grass. That requires a choice of shots — a bump and run, a putter, a putt using a hybrid or fairway metal with loft, some kind of lofted wedge with spin? It’s a shot that requires and identifies skill. Gouging out of thick rough from four feet off the green doesn’t. That’s why I’m expecting someone with a dazzling short game to be the winner next week. Check out the highest-ranking players in the Tour’s scrambling stats if you’re drafting picks for a friendly Open pool that certainly won’t involve gambling. There’s no wagering at Bushwood, sir.
4. The rough. All right, put an asterisk next to this one because apparently it’s taking a year off thanks to Pinehurst. Normally, the rough is brutal, and hacking out of it is not fun and physically demanding. Remember when Phil Mickelson was practicing shots out of the rough before the 2007 Open at Oakmont and hurt himself because he overdid it, then went on a crazed rant against the USGA? I forget which player said it that week, but Oakmont would be a nightmare to play even if it had no rough. Any offline shot would just keep running away forever. I’d like to see that sometime, but in the unlikely event it did happen, it wouldn’t be in a U.S. Open.
5. The television commentary. This is NBC’s last Open and therefore likely Johnny Miller’s last Open telecast. Miller is the only golf analyst who strays into criticism, which frequently is simply telling it like it is. It only seems like criticism because the rest of the golf telecasts are so non-critical or bland. Peter Alliss can be brilliantly blunt, and like Miller, he’s very into the lie and the shot and the possibilities. If you’re a pro golfer and you’re afraid of getting roughed up by an analyst’s remarks on the air, the best chance of it happening is at the Open with Miller. We are going to miss him even if Greg Norman sacks up for Fox next year.
6. The playoff. Congratulations, sir, your reward for posting the lowest score in the Open after four days of draining effort is that you get to play another full 18 on a course you’ve grown to hate over the weekend because another chap also shot the same score you did. So you’ll work five days and get paid the same and like it. The other majors all have some version of a sudden-death playoff immediately afterward. At the Open, if you end up in a playoff, you get to unpack your bag and your car and check back in to a hotel and, oh yeah, book a new flight and pay the change fee. That’s OK, though, because if you’re not already a millionaire, you’re about to be.
7. The NASCAR effect. Viewers enjoy the back nine of the Masters on Sunday because players can make birdies and eagles, but because of the water hazards — Rae’s Creek, the pond at the par-5 15th and the pond at the par-3 16th– players can also rack up double bogeys and worse. It creates the possibility of great drama. The thick rough, the speedy and firm greens and occasional water hazards lead to big numbers and train wrecks at the Open. A few fans watch the Open for the same reason some viewers watch stock car races: for the accidents. They can be mesmerizing. It’s been 15 years since Jean Van de Velde at the British Open and has anyone forgotten that scene? Or Mickelson playing the 18th at Winged Foot?
8. The balloon factor. This is similar to the NASCAR effect except it’s about ballooning to a big score. You have a bad day with the driver, start digging out of the rough on every other hole, and you’re shooting a big old baroque number in the U.S. Open. Gil Morgan got to 12 under par early in the third round of the 1992 Open but put up 77 and 81 on the weekend when the winds kicked up. Remember Jason Gore and Retief Goosen in the final pairing at the 2005 Open at Pinehurst? Neither one broke 80. Eighty! Remember Dustin Johnson taking a three-shot lead into the final round of the 2010 Open at Pebble Beach and firing 82? It happens.
9. Qualifying. Only half the Open field is exempt, which means a majority of PGA Tour players have to endure 36 holes of qualifying to get into the Open, as they did Monday. It’s tough because that’s a lot of golf in one day on courses that are typically prepped in Open-like fashion (or tricked up, if you prefer). Players who missed the cut at the Memorial Tournament, for example, had to hang around all weekend to play in the Monday Open qualifier with long odds, typically about 15 to 1. Or you’ve just played four grueling rounds at Muirfield Village, no walk in the park, you’re whipped and now you’ve got to get up Monday and go another 36. Physically or mentally, it may be hard to get up. It’s hard to get into the Masters, too — you’ve got to be ranked in the top 50 in the world or you’ve got to win a tournament. It’s not easy to win, but at least you’ve got two things to celebrate when you do. Open qualifying is hard work. The reward for qualifying? Getting your butt kicked by that year’s Open venue, which is about as fun as a tetanus shot.
Meanwhile, over at the Van Cynical Mailbag, this just in:
Vans, Who would win at golf, The Prez or The Putin? (North Korean leaders past and present are not eligible to participate.) — Brian Bailey via Twitter
The Prez plays a lot of golf. A lot. I think he’s already broken the record previously set by Dwight Eisenhower. But Putin is tough and mean and intimidating. He’s putting the Soviet Union back together and nobody is going to stop him, certainly not The Prez doing his best Neville Chamberlain impersonation. I’ll take The Putin on sheer toughness. Also, he probably cheats. And nobody calls him on it, either.
Vans, Mickelson’s investigation by the FBI was the scoop of the non-golf journalists. Did you or any of your colleagues see this coming? #sleeping — The Bogey Train via Twitter
Sure, we definitely saw this coming, Bogeyman. Since we spend all our time at golf courses writing about sports, we’ve got connections up the wazoo at the FBI and the Securities & Exchange Commission and we’ve all got corporate raider Carl Icahn’s number on speed dial. No doubt, your question was in good fun, and I like it, but you’re not going to uncover Watergate if you’re spending your waking hours covering the Redskins’ training camp. You’re right about one thing, though — I did doze off briefly a few minutes ago. Alert TMZ!
Van Cynical, Just when I thought Bubba Watson was going to win the Memorial, he blows it. Does he have the mental toughness to win a U.S. Open? — Mike via Twitter
Let’s see, he’s mentally tough enough to win the Masters twice, once with one of the all-time shots. And he was mentally tough to get to 15 under par at Muirfield Village at one point. Bubba is not your average golfer. I don’t know what’s going through his head. I’m going to give him a pass on this loss in the mental toughness department and just say he lost his driver swing for most of the final round on a course where you simply could not play out of the rough. Pinehurst should have very little rough, however, so Bubba could very easily bounce back. In fact, it might be his best chance ever to win an Open. If he does, the Grand Slam hype will begin immediately.
Vans, Why are the LPGA stars so much better at closing than the PGA Tour stars? It’s not about field depth when players don’t play well. — Brian Rosenwald via Twitter
I don’t necessarily agree that your statement is true, BriRo, but I agree that a lot of bigger-name players have been beaten by a lot of lesser-named players this year. I may disagree with the depth of field part, too. How many players are really on the same level as Stacy Lewis and Inbee Park and a few other top LPGA players? On the PGA Tour for 15 years, there’s been Tiger and Phil on one level, then the next 25 guys a couple of notches lower. Now that Tiger and Phil have regressed, you’ve got a lot of guys, including some new guys who don’t know they aren’t supposed to be world-beaters, all about equal. I’d say there’s far more parity in men’s golf than women’s golf, so if the ladies are closing better, that might be why.
Sickle, After hitting shots at Augusta and Pinehurst as an 11-year-old, life has to go downhill, right? — Rick Fisher via Twitter
Your question reminds me of one of Tiger’s greatest quotes (and there aren’t a lot of those, actually). He said in 2002, “The best year of my life was when I was 11. I got straight A’s, had two recesses a day, the cutest girlfriend and won 32 tournaments. Everything’s been downhill since.” A dozen years later, Tiger would add, “It is what it is.”
Van Cynical, Any buzz yet about the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay? The site is awesome. I wager no one breaks par. — Bob Ru via Twitter
See my story above, Bob. Nobody usually breaks par at the U.S. Open. That’s standard. There has been zero buzz on Chambers Bay for some strange reason, unless it’s the fact that next week’s U.S. Open hasn’t even been played yet and that Chambers Bay remains unseen and unknown for the vast majority of golf fans and even golf media. I hope to check it out this fall. I’ll wager I don’t break par, either.