The U.S. Open is back at the Bethpage Black course on Long Island for the second time. It last hosted the tournament in 2002, in the aftermath of 9/11. Tiger Woods won (naturally), re-christening the U.S. Open the "people's championship" because it had been staged not on a country club layout, but on a well-trod (yet still very challenging) public venue.
This year, things have been...well, soggy. By Sunday, much of the field was still finishing their third round, and the United States Golf Association was already planning to stretch the tournament into Monday, for the second year in a row (last year's Open was decided in an epic Monday playoff between Rocco Mediate and eventual winner...Tiger Woods!). Ricky Barnes, a brash young player who has struggled over the years to achieve top-caliber form, was the unlikely leader. His closest serious pursuers were Retief Goosen, a two-time Open winner; a resurgent David Duval; former Masters champ Mike Weir; and Phil Mickelson, who's having a remarkably good Open given that his wife, Amy, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Woods was far back of the lead.
Obviously, anything can happen. Or not. In fact, the 2009 Open is already looking to be something of a bust. For fans, it's been an ordeal of stopped play and weather delays. When you add to this the nature of the event itself, it becomes easy to appreciate the easier drama of the Masters and even the Players Championship.
U.S. Open courses are already difficult, and for the national championship, the USGA makes them harder. The goal is to make even par a benchmark for scoring. Clearly, this means that relatively conservative play is rewarded. Courses are usually long, with narrow fairways, penal rough, and rock-hard, fast greens (when it isn't raining, that is). Players don't so much contend as hang on for dear life. When Mickelson barely lost his last, best bid for an Open trophy, he had a one shot lead going in to the 72nd hole in 2006 and just couldn't keep it together. Even Woods just edged his way into a playoff with Mediate last year by making birdie on the 18th hole.
So generally, what fans are presented with is four days of plodding, make-no-mistakes play with maybe a few moments of theatrics hear and there, usually toward the end when somebody needs to take a risk win. I've never liked watching the Open, and I've done it via TV and on the course (although the one year I covered the Open live, it was held at Shinnecock, on Long Island's East End, where the physical beauty of the course and its surroundings made up for how foolish the USGA setup made the players look). Last year's Mediate-Woods duel was great theater, but the last Open I can remember enjoying as a fan was in 1999, when Payne Stewart, soon to die in a freak aircraft accident, went toe-to-toe with Mickelson, winning on the final hole.
Players, on the other hand, totally groove on the U.S. Open. And not because it's fun. It's torture, an ordeal, the test of tests. But as Mickelson himself has put is, the Open is great for players because it allows them to evaluate their games and their competitive instincts under the greatest pressure imaginable in golf. You can make a few mistakes at a U.S. Open and still win, but the margin for error is much narrower than at any other event.
Flamboyant, cocky players don't always do very well at U.S. Opens. Their natural venue is the Masters, with is risk-reward laden back nine. Creative players also don't find the typical Open to their liking--they do better at British Opens, on links courses, where there are often two or three ways to play every shot. No, the players who thrive at the U.S. Open are capable of steady, unflinching play. Woods ran away with his first Open, at Pebble Beach in 2000, but his next two were grinding affairs. Jack Nicklaus won his Opens by subduing courses with iron discipline.
Of course, every so often someone will go nuts at an Open and really light things up. Johnny Miller did this in 1973 at Oakmont, a brutal layout, shooting a final-round 63, the lowest ever, to win. But this kind of performance is few and far between. The players don't particularly want things to change. Much of the year, they play on scoring-friendly courses that reward constant attack, rather than course and game management. But once you get to the PGA Tour, it's pretty clear you can make birdies on a consistent basis. To prove that you're among the best, you need to show that you can make pars under extreme duress.
So, in the end, a bummer for the fans. But remember as you're watching a soaked Bethpage torment the players who have arrived to compete that while they may look as if they're dying, they're truly thrilling to the contest. Fans might choose to change the channel or go home early, but the players don't want to be anyplace else.