Jim Furyk’s a plodder, but that doesn’t make him dull

Jim Furyk’s a plodder, but that doesn’t make him dull

There’s a bit of crazy in the 112th U.S. Open at Olympic Club -- just as there seemed to be a little crazy in Jim Furyk after his Open win in 2003.
Simon Bruty / SI

SAN FRANCISCO — Jim Furyk is a plodder. He plods. Longtime Bay Area scribe Scott Ostler has anointed Furyk captain of the Plod Squad, a title that sounds like it should come with its own commemorative pillow and sleep mask.

But there’s more to Furyk than that. You could see it after he went into crowd-control mode on the 16th hole of his third round: “Sir, in the yellow shirt,” Furyk said loudly. “Please put that away. Thank you.” Who knows if the offending item was a cell phone or a camera or a Baltimore Ravens jersey, but with the area secured, Furyk hit an indifferent shot. When NBC’s camera lingered on him, you could see him smiling, no doubt amused by his turn as high school principal.

There’s a bit of crazy in the 112th U.S. Open at Olympic Club. You can’t take more than a few steps from your downtown hotel without bumping into a guy wanting your signature or money or both, who tells you he’s been up since 3 a.m. and has already had five cups of coffee. The ancient Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) rail system, which is bringing fans from downtown to far-away Olympic, caught fire in West Oakland on Thursday morning, interrupting service. (It’s back online.) The merchandise tent has scored big with its groovy, tie-dyed U.S. Open T-shirt. Fans and photographers are running around willy-nilly and created exciting new challenges for Furyk and playing partner Tiger Woods on Saturday.

And yet you could make the case that such an environment is perfect for Furyk, not just because he’s a plodder but also because there’s crazy in him, too.

Start with the swing — crazy, right? Furyk has never veered from his only teacher, his father, Mike, who took advice from Bruce Lietzke, the 13-time Tour winner with the low-maintenance swing. The message: Go ahead and refine, but don’t blow it all up and start over. The steady Furyk has racked up 16 victories, including the 2003 U.S. Open, and surpassed $50 million in career earnings this year. He’s fourth on the all-time list, behind Woods ($98 million), Vijay Singh ($66.32 million) and Phil Mickelson ($66.28). Add the $10 million Furyk collected for winning the 2010 FedEx Cup, and whatever he’s making for his quirky, multi-year endorsement deal with 5-Hour Energy, and the rest of his endorsement portfolio, and Furyk could pay college tuition for his two kids and bail out Greece.

“Once you get to a certain level on Tour, I don’t believe in breaking it down and getting a lot worse to get better,” Furyk told Golf Magazine for an upcoming feature. “There are times when you’re making adjustments where you’re going to feel worse and maybe play a little worse, but I have a unique swing and I have my own way. My swing looks different than it did in ’94, my rookie year. It’s not as severely upright as it was. It’s not as severely outside. But I never tried to totally break down what I had. I’ve tried to refine it and get better as time has gone on.”

That swing has held up in trying circumstances at Olympic, as Furyk has hit 37 of 54 greens in regulation, tied for second in that category, one behind Justin Rose. Furyk and his swing have spent a lifetime together, while Woods and his latest swing have been dating for only about two years. The U.S. Open is a test of faith. How well do you know your swing? How well do you trust it? Furyk has cultivated that trust for his entire 20-year pro career and then some, and it showed as he shot a third-round 70. Woods (75) is perhaps not quite there yet.

Faith and trust, though, are nothing without guts. You can tell Furyk is big on guts, not just by his fierce determination on the course — he is 9-3-2 in Ryder and Presidents Cup singles — but because he’s a keen student and passionate admirer of intestinal fortitude. He and co-leader Graeme McDowell have formed a sort of mutual-admiration society while playing three of the four rounds together at Olympic Club this week. The common denominator: guts.

You have to play “Jim Furyk golf” to win a U.S. Open, McDowell said.

“I think what I like so much about his game is he’s tough,” Furyk said.

McDowell used the “P” word for “plodder” in describing Furyk this week, but he didn’t like the way it sounded and backtracked. He felt so bad about his choice of words that he found Furyk in the locker room to explain himself, insisting he meant everything as a compliment and “didn’t want it to come across the wrong way.”

“I joked with him that I said some nice stuff about him,” Furyk said, “but if I needed to retract it, I could always go back.” Furyk laughed, as did the reporters.

“I am a plodder,” he said.

Asked earlier this week what it would mean for a man in his mid-40s to win such an important tournament, Furyk responded with mock indignation: “My early 40s, damn it! Forty-two!” Everyone broke up laughing.

Furyk’s sense of humor is sneaky like that. Years ago he was playing the Sony Open in Hawaii when someone mentioned the street performers along the strip on Waikiki Beach. On one block was a man painted to resemble a tin robot, and on the next was a man painted to resemble a gold robot, but with cool sound effects. Furyk laughed at the idea of the two competing, and launched into a pep talk as if he were a sort of corner man for the tin robot: “Man, you’ve got to raise your game! That gold guy down the street is killing you!” 

Memo to the competitors of the 112th U.S. Open: You’d better raise your game. That guy with the funny swing and goofy hat endorsement is killing you.

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