BROOKLINE — A US Open story:
When the national championship returned for the first time in 22 years to vaunted Winged Foot in 2006, golf’s two most dynamic players were headline material from Day 1. Tiger Woods because he was returning to competition for the first time since the death of his father, Earl. And Phil Mickelson because he had won his second Masters two months earlier and the thought of a Grand Slam was delectable, no matter how much of a long shot.
These were the days of prime Phil — thumbs-up to all, and to all a wide smile — and perhaps a hundred kids were waiting for him to leave the clubhouse because, after all, Lefty signs everything for everyone.
But on this practice day, he felt otherwise. He wanted no part of the gauntlet, so he asked Mike Davis, then the senior director of rules and competition, if he could be shown a back door to the players’ parking lot.
Davis sought out a veteran clubhouse attendant who weaved Mickelson through perhaps six or seven corridors and a handful of doors and voilà, the parking lot. No matter that there was a 6-foot chain-link fence between him and his courtesy car, Mickelson said thank you and promptly went full Spider-Man.
With feet the size of skateboards and metal spikes hardly impeding him, the People’s Choice was over this hurdle like Edwin Moses. Sorry, kids, maybe next time.
All in all, a disconcerting scene. “All I could see were the headlines,” said Davis. “Masters champ impaled on fence, will miss US Open.”
Five days later, Mickelson became unraveled at the 72nd hole. When par would have meant a third straight major win (he had won the 2005 PGA Championship), Lefty made a double bogey to finish joint fourth.
The moral to the story:
Sadly, some players aren’t who you think they are, but the US Open is what you expect it to be.
To get a better feel for what might unfold the next four days when The Country Club hosts the US Open for just the third time since 1913 when Francis Ouimet practically put the game on the map, it is prudent to go to those who sort of know the landscape. Jon Rahm is the defending champion, Brooks Koepka in 2018 became just the seventh to successfully defend his title, so they boast what we call “creds.”
“I knew it coming in, but [they’re] not the biggest greens out there, right?” was a definitive rhetorical question by Rahm. “And the rough around the greens is about as healthy as I’ve seen in a while.”
Said Koepka with a wry smile, “I love it, man. It’s a tough test. I don’t like these 25-under [tournaments] where you have to shoot 60 every round just to compete. I like it when it’s a battle. That’s kind of my style.”
So, the boxes are checked: Small greens. Thick, lush rough. Mental fortitude.
But that only partly explains how it is that the US Open has brought forth a product that is remarkably consistent. Going back to 2010, a stretch of 12 US Opens, every winner has been a world-class talent, and with an average winning score of 276, breaking par has been a massive task.
How challenging? Roughly 1,800 competitors have teed it up in US Opens the last 12 years and only 110 have played 72 holes in red numbers, and four times since 2012 we’ve had a US Open where no one broke par for four rounds.
So, if you’re reading between Koepka’s lines and wonder if he means that the weekly PGA Tour test is relatively easy and too many competitors can’t adjust their mental gauges for the US Open, give yourself a star. It’s exactly what he means and it’s difficult to argue otherwise.
Even a novice caddie at this US Open business, Drew Cohen of Wellesley, observed that “you could get an 8-iron” on shots out of the rough Monday and Tuesday, but by Thursday and Friday you’d better adjust. “You’ll probably be hitting wedges,” said the caddie for Michael Thorbjornsen, who is a sophomore at Stanford.
When you watch the golf at The Country Club the next four days, study the mannerisms when players chop it out of the rough. See how they react when a ball meanders just wide of one of these greens that are in the neighborhood of 3,000 square feet (that is very small in the world of championship courses) and nestles into rough that leaves them a near-impossible shot to get close. Study the grimaces when they realize the ho-hum 67 they are used to signing for isn’t possible.
Pro golf on so many weeks is a comfortable environment for elite athletes who have elite equipment and elite agronomy at their command.
But no one makes players more uncomfortable than the USGA — whether you consider it contrived or applaud what they do — and when designer Gil Hanse comes to restore and update classics, as he did here with The Country Club, he is masterful at taking players out of their comfort zones.
Embracing all the blind shots that The Country Club brings at you, Hanse was more than OK to add in another one or two by pushing back tee boxes. “It’s going to be an interesting mental test,” he said.
Makes sense, then, to focus on those who have earned their PhDs in US Open mental toughness. Rahm and Koepka come to mind. And Jordan Spieth is another.