The U.S. Open always comes at exactly the right time of the year. School lets out. Air-conditioning bills skyrocket. Car seats begin to scorch. Tee times get harder to come by. So it feels like just the time to watch the world's best golfers suffer a little, like we do…
All year, we watch the pros make miraculous shots look mundane. It's thrilling, for sure, but it sometimes feels more like a Vegas show than like golf. How does watching Tiger Woods hit some crazy pull hook around a tree connect to my life? The greatest golfers never seem to get into real trouble. Oh, sure, they'll short-side themselves, or plunk a shot in the water, or — in the rare case of Rory McIlory — hit one into the cabins, where even CBS did not have the foresight to station a camera.
But more often than not they produce an absurd recovery shot that saves the day. A ball lands in the bunker and you'll hear announcers say, "That's not a bad place at all, he could make that." Or a ball misses the green and you hear those same announcers say, "Well, that's not a great spot but he's got plenty of green to work with and should be able to manage an up and down."
For us mere mortals, golf is not like that. Golf is danger. Golf is suffering. Golf is that feeling of, "I have absolutely no idea what to do here." Perhaps more than anything, golf keeps us humble. When we mortals hit bad shots, they leave their mark. Most of us don't have the capacity to loft shots over trees, or power our way out of the rough, or hit a chip shot that takes a single hop and then skids to a halt by the hole. In real-person golf, as Tom Watson always says, you take your medicine. Heroes shoot quadruple bogey.
And so it's fun, once a year, to watch the best golfers on earth get into trouble from which they can't easily escape, like they can from a trick straitjacket. Sure, we watch pro golf to be amazed, to see those 350-yard drives, to watch them curl 75-foot double-breaking putts to within a millimeter of the hole (and then look disgusted, as if to say: "I should have made that!"). But every now and again, it's nice to see them look a bit more like us, even if that means the USGA has to make the rough taller than Mike Tirico and the fairways as narrow as cart paths.
One of my burning memories involves Dr. Gil Morgan at the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. His first two days were magical. He birdied the 3rd hole on Saturday to get to 10-under par, becoming the first man to ever reach double digits under par in an Open. He made a couple more quick birdies to get to 12-under, and after seven holes that day led by seven shots. "This," he told his caddie on the eighth green, "is where the U.S. Open begins." He was right. In quick succession, he left a shot in a bunker, hit another out of bounds, chunked yet another, and so on. He eventually finished tied for 13th.
It was not enjoyable to watch Morgan collapse — he seems like a fine guy — but it was a great reminder that golf isn't really about 20-under-par scores or knocking down the flagsticks or finding the back of the hole with impossibly slick downhill putts.
Golf is about challenging yourself, about saving a shot where you can and realizing that now and again the best you can do is hit it out sideways, suffer the consequences, and make the best of it. More often than not, golf is about managing failure. When the U.S. Open at Olympic Club is in the books, it will be fun again to see the world's finest golfers making us gasp as their shots pirouette around the cup. But for one tournament, it will be nice to see them fail like the rest of us. This is where the U.S. Open begins.