In the mind’s eye, there’s Payne Stewart standing in disbelief on the severely sloped 18th green at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, his 8-foot birdie putt attempt rolling 25 feet below the hole. Ah yes, the U.S. Open, agony and very little ecstasy.
That was then — and might be again next year when the Open returns to Olympic — but this is now, the 2011 Open at Congressional Country Club in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The bewilderment and suffering are much the same.
As they should be for America’s golfing championship, an event designed to extract all the sweat, tears and three-putts an entrant can afford and some he can’t.
Sandy Tatum, the San Francisco attorney and former president of the U.S. Golf Association, once proclaimed, “We’re not trying to embarrass the best players in the game, we’re trying to identify them.”
Sometimes they’re identifiable by their hang-dog looks or their frequent gripes. Only the other day when England’s Lee Westwood, No. 2 in the world rankings, was asked who would be the winner of the Open — which begins today — he said, “The course.”
Nothing new. Jack Nicklaus was two-over par 290 when he took first in the ’72 Open at Pebble Beach. The late Tony Lema, who came from the East Bay and the Marines, and along the way won the 1964 British Open, wrote in “Golfer’s Gold,” the Masters was enjoyable, the U.S. Open was work.
Tuesday, Phil Mickelson updated that observation, saying, “The thought process from the get-go at Augusta National is to hit the ball as hard and as far as you can and worry about the next shot later, where [at the Open] the whole thought process is to minimize the misses.”
To be as prudent and careful as possible. To tip-toe through hell, as Sam Snead, who never won an Open, so delicately phrased it.
The Open is a moveable feast, shifting from site to site, from the dampness and fog at Pebble where it was played again in 2010 to the humidity and heat of Congressional.
It goes from Oakmont, outside Pittsburgh, to San Diego’s Torrey Pines, on the bluffs above the Pacific. But wherever it lands, it lands with a thud which captures the attention of everyone in the game.
Nothing is quite as frustrating and enervating as the U.S Open and nothing is quite as rewarding. When Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland took last year’s Open at Pebble, the look on his face was as much of relief as of joy.
A two-time winner, Dr. Cary Middlecoff — he was a dentist who gave up his practice to go on tour — said of the struggle, “You don’t win an Open, it wins you.” Just hang in and hang on.
In 1951, at an Oakland Hills course near Detroit newly toughened by the late golf architect Robert Trent Jones, the complaints were many and the scores were ridiculous.
The winning total was a 7-over-par 287, which wasn’t a shock, and the winning golfer was Ben Hogan, which wasn’t a shock either.
Hogan grasped the trophy and said of his victory, “I brought this monster to its knees.”
Congressional may not be quite a monster, but it’s a damn tough golf course.
Site: Congressional Country Club (Blue Course), Bethesda, Md.
Length: 7,574 yards
TV: Today and Friday, 7 a.m.-noon, ESPN, noon-2 p.m., NBC (KNTV, Ch. 11), 5-7 p.m., ESPN; Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., NBC (KNTV, Ch. 11); Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., NBC (KNTV, Ch. 11)