FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE

U.S. Open 2023: L.A. Country Club isn't a classic U.S. Open venue, but it's ready to hold a big-time event

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

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LOS ANGELES — You want to talk golf? Let’s talk some golf. This North Course at the Los Angeles Country Club is (a person could say) as good as it gets.

You like Augusta National? You like Pine Valley? This L.A. North (to the locals) has some of both in it. It’s big and wide like Augusta National, and it has some mean-assed bunkering like Pine Valley, plus the big swooping greens that you see at both.

It doesn’t feel like a U.S. Open course. Oak Hill, where the PGA Championship was played so memorably last month? That is a U.S. Open course.

Still, your friends in Liberty Corner, N.J., home quarters of the USGA, are putting on a national championship here this week and you’re invited to watch. Yes, Riviera is six miles down the road (Wilshire Boulevard). A U.S. Open was played there—in 1948, won by Ben Hogan. Riviera seems more like a U.S. Open course than this one does, but you know Jordan Spieth won an Open at Chambers Bay and Brooks Koepka won an Open at Erin Hills and Jon Rahm won an Open at Torrey Pines, and nobody is stripping those names off the wee silver trophy the winner hoists each year on Father’s Day.

This is the 123rd playing of the Open. Tiger is not playing. He grew up in suburban Los Angeles and LACC was the kind of club that gave him the willies, as it was about as private and elitist and racist as another nearby course, Rancho Park, was public and inviting and affordable. Rancho was the unofficial golfing home for Tiger’s surrogate grandfather, the great Charlie Sifford, and Tiger, as a kid and even as an adult, has had no use for these kinds of elite clubs, though he’d surely be playing if he could. Anyway, the club has changed over the decades. Now you can be in the entertainment business and get in. You can be an athlete. You can be Black and Jewish and get in. If only Sammy Davis Jr. was still around!

As I understand the history, the first person to suggest LACC for a U.S. Open, way back when, was a buddy of mine, Sandy Tatum. Sandy grew up in Los Angeles, was a damn good player and a legendary president of the USGA. He would say, “What’s the point of having these Picassos if you stick ’em in the basement?” In other words, our landmark courses should get a chance to shine. As there is really no such thing as a “classic” U.S. Open course anymore, maybe it makes sense to be here. I’m kind of biting my lip as I type that. There is, after all, Oak Hill.

Sandy was progressive as a person and as a golf impresario. He had a gay brother who was married for a time to Phyllis Diller and managed her career. Sandy won the NCAA individual golf title at Stanford in 1942. More than a half-century later, he urged Woods not to turn pro after his sophomore year at Stanford. Sandy once told me that Woods had no use for him after that.

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Courtesy of Whitemarsh Valley CC

There are two courses here and an enormous putting green with a wrap-around porch, dotted with rocking chairs and looking out at the property. The South Course is every bit as good as the North but more user-friendly. A phrase of the club covers this progression through the years: You start on the North Course, age out of it and to the South, then to the putting green, then to the porch. The Four Stages of Life, LACC-style.

What Tiger would give to be in the field this week. He has missed a half-dozen or so Opens since turning pro in 1996 and hasn’t played in it since 2020.

Phil Mickelson would complete the career grand slam with a win here, but while the amiable Cam Smith, your reigning Open champion, was wishing him well, he was not particularly liking Phil’s chances, owing to the narrow fairways. “It would be awesome to see him do it this week,” the Aussie said. “I think the golf course as far as I’ve seen sets up for a straighter hitter, so maybe not.” I don’t know. The fairways do have a lot of pitch to them, but they’re wide. I paced one off at 60 yards. Gotta love Phil’s chances. On Sunday, he was practicing in shorts. It was cool and gray, but Phil knows what he’s doing!

The two great governing bodies of this great and odd and wonderful game put on the two greatest championships, the R&A (Open Championship) and the USGA (U.S. Open). Without these organizations and the rules they impose on us, golf would be KAOS! (Old Get Smart joke word; the show was filmed about seven miles from here, at the old Warner Brothers studio.) At the Masters this year, there was a little club-info sharing between two caddies. We all saw it. Augusta National officials decided to let it slide. Well, that would never happen at the U.S. Open! Besides, Matthew Fitzpatrick, winner of last year’s U.S. Open, does not want his caddie (Billy Foster) giving club information to another caddie. “I’ve got a lot of friends out here, but I’m still trying to beat them, and they’re trying to beat me,” Fitzpatrick said. “You don’t want to be giving them advice.” That’s the spirit, kid!

Speaking of kids, I have a new rooting interest this week: Nick Hardy, 27, of Northbrook, Ill. Ryan French, godfather of Monday qualifiers, writes about Hardy often, including the unlikely Monday qualifier (USGA final qualifying) that got him into the field at LACC. He shot a 71 before lunch and a 61 after it, coming home in 29. This was at Springfield Country Club in Ohio. That’s some good golfing! Now he’s staying at a private home near Riviera, the kind of house where you remove your shoes at the front door and he’s driving around in a courtesy-car Lexus, courtesy of the USGA and its luxury-car sponsor. In April, Hardy and Davis Riley won the Zurich two-man better-ball event in New Orleans. Next year, Hardy will play in the Masters for the first time. Last year, at the Country Club, he finished T-14 in the Open. He’s really good.

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But beyond that, he’s poised, hard-working, open and fun. Hardy was born the year Tiger Woods turned pro. He was talking on Monday about Tiger’s three U.S. Open wins, at Pebble Beach in 2000, at Bethpage Black in 2002 and at Torrey Pines in 2008. He has made a study of Tiger’s life and times.

“I love how he takes his anger, his frustration over a shot, and turns it into focus on his next shot,” Hardy said. “His ability to focus on every single shot. And now I see that with Jon Rahm. With Scottie Scheffler. The level of care. The ability to channel the anger and turn it into competitiveness.”

Hardy had never played with Woods. He met him once, in 2015, on the practice green when the Open was at Chambers Bay. They were the only two out there. Hardy was an amateur, a teenager, a kid. “My father said, ‘Tiger, Nick here is your biggest fan.’ I shook his hand. I was extremely nervous. But he was very nice. It’s too bad he’s not here.”

It is. It’s a shame Tiger Woods is not in the field. But Nick Hardy is. Matt Fizpatrick is. Phil Mickelson is. Cam Smith is. Scottie Scheffler is. Jon Rahm is. One of those six guys will win this thing, one of those six guys, or one of 150 others. It’s the U.S. Open. You play your way in. One-hundred and fifty-six golfers. Every last guy played his way in.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com

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