The Toughest Test

June 09, 2008

SAN DIEGO, Calif. --The U.S Open may not be the hardest major championship to win -- it does produce its fair share of fluke winners -- but it is the hardest of the major championships. There is no tournament that punishes mistakes as severely as the U.S. Open, and there is no competition that wears on the will of the competitors as relentlessly as this torture test devised by the U.S Golf Association.

And those who say the USGA takes the fun out of golf by taking birdies out of the Open would fall within that group of people the esteemed Golf Digest columnist Dan Jenkins calls "point missers." What the U.S. Open provides is a full examination of the players, and that involves probing not just their skills but their mental make-up as well. Winning an Open is all about not letting the course break your spirit.

Think of the four men who have won four U.S. Opens: Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus. Three of them -- Jones, Hogan and Nicklaus -- are on anyone's extremely short list when the discussion gets to "The Greatest Ever." And since Anderson won three Opens in a row right after the turn of the century (not this century, the last one), I'm thinking he golfed his ball pretty well, also.

And when people talk about the greatest performance ever in a major championship it usually starts with the 15-stroke victory by Tiger Woods in the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. The only effort that comes close was the 149 Young Tom Morris shot in 1870 at the age of 19 in the Open Championship at Prestwick.

Under the 36-hole format used in Britain then, no one ever came within five strokes of that score. And if you double it to 298 for 72 holes, Morris' record was not broken until 34 years later when Jack White shot 296 at Royal St. Georges in 1904 -- after the golf ball was vastly improved. But for pure domination, Tiger at Pebble in the Open contested on this side of the Atlantic is as good as it gets.

One of the reasons the Open does produce its share of surprising winners is because the conditions are so demanding it is rare for someone, or a small group of players, to break from the pack. That keeps more people in contention. What Woods did that week at Pebble Beach was a lot like the 31-length victory by Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont Stakes when completing the Triple Crown.

Like Secretariat, Woods dominated. He was playing not against the field, or even against the course, but against his own inner agenda. That's a quality that defines greatness in ways few athletes have dared even dream. It's all about not letting what has been done limit the notion of what you think can be done.

What Woods did in the 2000 U.S. Open is remarkable exactly because of the demanding conditions under which he played. It's remarkable exactly because it was done in a U.S. Open. Tiger finished 72 holes at 12 under par. The next best score was three over par.

Call me silly, call me a purist, but doesn't the fact no one else even came close to breaking par make what Woods did all the more impressive? How is that taking the fun out of the game? There were birdies made that week -- it's just that they were made by only one guy. Pretty cool if you ask me.

Among my favorite quotes about golf is this one by Bobby Jones: "There is golf, and then there is tournament golf." What he meant was that the demands, both physical and mental, are amped up about a billion percent in tournament golf from what you are used to in your Sunday afternoon walk in the park.

Jones should have amended his observation to say: "There is golf, and then there is tournament golf, but ultimately there is U.S. Open golf." The pros play on an entirely different level than us mere mortals, and the U.S. Open is contested on an even higher plane.

One of my other favorite quotes is by Nick Faldo who said: "Golf is not about the quality of your good shots, it is about the quality of your bad shots." What he meant is that anyone playing on this level is capable of hitting truly great shots. So the test becomes minimizing mistakes.

And minimizing mistakes doesn't just mean not making physical errors, it means avoiding the mental errors that all-to-often follow a poor shot. That is part of the examination of a U.S. Open. Who, when they hit it into the gunch, has the discipline to know when taking your medicine and accepting a bogey is the right thing to do?

The winner at Torrey Pines this week will be the person who makes the most 5-foot par putts during the course of 72 holes, not the person who makes the most 20-foot birdie putts. Trust me, there will be more than a few players who make enough birdies to win -- except they will also post a couple of really ugly numbers.

Boy and girls, it's the U.S. Open and as sure as the fog is going to roll in off the Pacific Ocean at least one day this week, we are going to wake up Monday morning to a chorus of complaints from those who will bellyache that that Torrey Pines was set up too difficult. Get over yourself.

Once I was standing a bar with a friend when an acquaintance with the gift of gab approached, prompting my friend to point at the person and say, "Shut up." The acquaintance replied: "But I haven't said anything," to which my friend answered: "I was just saving time."

So to those of you who on Monday will say Torrey Pines was too difficult and no fun to watch I say this: "Shut up." Hey, I'm just saving time. The U.S. Open ain't the Buick Invitational -- and that's exactly the point. This is a dance to an entirely unique rhythm. Go with the flow and enjoy.

Oh, one other favorite quote of mine. When told the players were complaining that he had set up Carnoustie too hard for the 1999 British Open, John Philip, the green keeper, sighed, shook his head and said: "Hogan would have found a way around the place." Exactly, my friends, exactly. Let's see who finds a way around Torrey Pines this week.