Every U.S. Open round has its own personality. The machinations of the USGA — where it puts the pins and tees - have much to do with it. So, sometimes, does Mother Nature. But if Thursday is any indication, we could be watching a different kind of Open this week, something more along the lines of a Six Flags ride.
When you think of our national golf championship, you think of players grinding out pars, players in damage-control mode, players going about their business ve-ry cau-tious-ly. It's the nature of the beast. Par, after all, is a good score in the Open. Heck, par is often good enough to win.
But that's not what we saw in the first round at Congressional. What we saw in the first round was a game of Chutes and Ladders. Bogeys, birdies, birdies, bogeys — just a lot of volatility from hole to hole.
Take Matt Kuchar. Usually when you have five bogeys, including a double, on Thursday, you're wondering whether you're going to make the cut. But Kuchar also had five birdies to finish with a thoroughly respectable 72 — and is still very much in the picture at 1-over.
It was like that for quite a few players. A sampling:
Brad Benjamin: five birdies, five bogeys (a double among them), 72.
Brandt Jobe: five birdies, five bogeys, 71.
Bubba Watson's last seven holes went like this: four straight birdies to get to 3-under, followed by three straight bogeys to end up even par.
Angel Cabrera, meanwhile, had a 12-hole stretch that featured four birdies and four bogeys. He, too, shot a 71.
"If you've got your ball in position off the tee, there were certainly plenty of nice pin positions, a few pins and bowls that you feel like you can make some birdies," said three-time major winner Padraig Harrington, another in the group at 71.
Then there was this from Ryan Palmer, who was the low American at 69: "I hit a lot of wedges today. The greens aren't quite as firm yet or fast. There's definitely some birdies to be had."
It was more than just the conditions, though (e.g. the early-morning rain that softened the greens). It was Congressional itself. As Phil Mickelson noted earlier in the week, the course has some brutally hard holes, but it also has some fairly easy ones - by Open standards, at least. So if a player hits a rough stretch, it may not necessarily ruin his round. There are places, particularly on the front side (1, 5, 6, 7, 8 and even 9 when the tee is up) where he can make up lost ground.
Louis Oosthuizen, for instance, began his day with bogeys at 1 and 2. Ordinarily, this might have been a prelude to disaster, to a Saturday morning hotel checkout. But the defending British Open champ pulled himself together, made six birdies the rest of the way and stayed in contention with a 69.
"I made four bogeys," he said, "but on this golf course, there are a lot of bogeys out there. But you've at least got opportunities for birdies."
Yes, you do, and it makes for a better Open. One thing that helps create these birdie chances is Congressional's fairways, which are wider than at most Open venues. They enable players like Oosthuizen, players confident in their driver, to use the club more and shorten some of these longer holes.
"It's one of my favorite clubs," he said, "and I enjoy hitting it off the tee. It's a long golf course, and you want to try and get it as far down there as you can."
But that doesn't mean Congressional doesn't have teeth. Despite optimum scoring conditions — "about as good as it's going to get," in the opinion of Stewart Cink, who put up a 71 — only leader Rory McIlroy really had his way with the course. The 22-year-old wonder from Northern Ireland had the kind of opening round Colin Montgomerie did in 1997, the last time the Open was at Congressional: a magical, hiccup-free 65.
But aside from the kid, nobody really tore it up. The low men after him were Y.E. Yang and Charl Schwartzel at 68. (In '97, I'll just point out, we had a 65, which was then 5-under, and two 66s in the first round.)
Still, who wouldn't rather see an Open like this — an Open that's more than just four days of slow bleeding, an Open that's bursting with birdies and bogies and thrills and spills? It doesn't matter that, by the end of the day Sunday, the leaders might be clustered around par. What matters is how entertainingly they got there.
This could be fun. This could really be fun.
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