OAKMONT, Pa. — Something’s missing from this U.S. Open, something that at least partially makes up for the barrage of bogeys we — and the poor players — are about to be subjected to: a sentimental favorite on the American side. By that I mean an accomplished veteran golfer who has yet to win a major championship, a guy who everybody agrees is “owed one.”
In 2004, that guy was Phil Mickelson — 22 PGA Tour titles, no Slams. But then Lefty rolled in a birdie putt on the last hole of the Masters and got himself a green jacket.
In 2001, that guy was David Duval — 12 Tour titles, a round of 59 in the ‘99 Hope, but never any better than a bridesmaid in one of the Big Four. But then Duval broke through in the British Open.
Mark O’Meara in ‘98 (14 Tour victories, zero majors), Davis Love (10, 0) in ‘97, Corey Pavin in ‘95 (12, 0) — all have played the role of the Deserving Player Who, After Years Of Denial And Near Misses, Finally Wins A Major.
But where is that golfer this week? Who from the U.S. standpoint — this being, after all, our championship — is a worthy candidate for delayed gratification?
What a void. There’s nothing better than a major in which an esteemed player — one who has been languishing in the Waiting Room for years — at long last gets his just desserts. It’s funny, though. You run down the list of Americans here, and there isn’t a single one you’d call deprived, not a single example of Glory Withheld. Does Fred Funk (eight Tour wins) have any gripes because he has yet to win a major? Does Joey Sindelar (seven)? How about Scott Verplank (five), Stewart Cink (four) or Chris DiMarco (three)? Please. They’ve all had nice careers, made a bunch of money, but the U.S. Open trophy will survive if their names aren’t on it.
John Cook, who isn’t at Oakmont, is the only American golfer under 50 who has won 10 PGA tournaments (11, to be precise) without capturing a major. And Cook, I hasten to add, is a mere four months away from being eligible for the Champions Tour. It just seems like everybody of true significance in U.S. golf has already won at least one Slam — Jim Furyk, Justin Leonard, everybody. Heck, even Shaun Micheel has won one (not to mention Todd Hamilton, Ben Curtis and Rich Beem).
All the potential feel-good stories this week come from the other side of the pond. You looking for a golfer who’s Got One Coming To Him? Try Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie (30 European Tour titles, three seconds in the Open). Or England’s Lee Westwood (16 European titles, two Open top 10s). Or Ireland’s Paddy Harrington (11 European victories, four Open top 10s). If you’re going by the merit system, those are the fellows you should be pulling for.
There’s only one problem: A Euro hasn’t won the Open since 1970 (Tony Jacklin) or any major since ‘99 (Paul Lawrie, British Open). Oh, well.
Montgomerie’s Open travails have been endlessly chronicled. His most painful near miss might have come last year at Winged Foot, when he double-bogeyed the 72nd hole a few minutes before Mickelson did — and handed the championship to an unsuspecting Geoff Ogilvy. But Monty played Oakmont superbly in ‘94 … only to unravel in the three-way playoff won by Ernie Els. At 44, he might have one more Open run in him.
Harrington had a Colin-oscopy himself at the end of last year’s Open. “I [needed] three pars to win,” he recalls, “and I was very comfortable in that position. I was playing great. I’m well capable of doing it. Whether it happens this week. …”
For the record, Paddy finished the last round bogey-bogey-bogey to end up fifth, two strokes behind Ogilvy. Still, it’s the closest he has come in the Open and, coupled with his recent victory in the Irish Open, makes him one of the favorites here. He doesn’t appear to have been quite prepared, though, for the difficulty of the course.
“It makes Winged Foot seem very … seem very pleasant,” he cracks.
Oakmont — with its 288-yard par-3 8th, its treacherous greens (“the toughest we’ll ever play in the U.S. Open,” Els says) and its unholy Church Pew Bunkers — can have that effect on golfers. One of them, however, will emerge victorious this weekend. Maybe it will be one of our three lend-lease sentimental favorites. Perhaps, come Sunday (or at least Monday), Montgomerie, Harrington or even Westwood will no longer be filed under Best Players Never To Win A Major.