OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. — On second thought, maybe this isn’t such a bad place to hold the U.S. Open after all. Hey, golfers are allowed mulligans, so why not sportswriters? Granted, Olympia Fields lacks pizzazz — and the contestants have been carving it up like a loaf of Spam — but there is this to be said for it:
It’s a course for all ages — and from the look of things, all talent levels, too. Still on our leader board through 36 holes are 53-year-old Tom Watson, 48-year-old Eduardo Romero and 46-year-old Nick Price, keeping pace with twentysomethings Tiger Woods, Fredrik Jacobson and Jonathan Byrd. Woody Austin, an utterly nondescript pro, shot a 64 yesterday. The day before, Brett Quigley, another virtual stranger, put up a 65.
Perhaps, every 103 years or so, it’s OK to have an Open like this. Open tracks don’t always have to be as cruel as a boot camp drill instructor. What harm is done, really, if a modestly demanding layout like Olympia Fields gives hope — fleeting though it might be — to the Jay Don Blakes and Tom Gillises of the golf world? And who can complain about a legend like Watson still being in contention at the midway point?
Isn’t that what makes golf unique among our games? That Julius Boros can win the PGA at 48? That Jack Nicklaus can win the Masters at 46? That Hale Irwin can win the U.S. Open at 45? That Robert de Vicenzo can win the British Open at 44?
Age has its advantages, surprising ones. Watson, for instance, says he “hits the ball straighter now than I did at Pebble Beach” in ‘82, when he faced down Nicklaus to capture his only Open. And why is this? “I could turn a little easier then than I can now,” he explains. Being young and supple, in other words, ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Price has an easy explanation for the staying power of the Old Guard: “Viagra.” But seriously, folks …
“I think a lot of guys in my age group, certainly Scott Hoch and Jeff Sluman, who I played with today, are still practicing [devotedly],” he says. “I mean, that’s the key out here. You’ve got to put in the time over the months and years and prepare. I certainly have. My summers are a little slower because I take time off to be with my kids, but certainly from January through May I’m working just as hard [as ever]. Well, maybe not quite as hard as I did in my 30s, but golf is still fun.”
And to have a Champions Tour refugee like Watson post a 65 in the first round “gives us 46-year-olds hope,” he says. “Isn’t it great?”
It sure is. It increases the voltage at any tournament when a golden oldie shows everybody how it’s done. It also restores our sense of perspective. We’re constantly being told that athletes are getting better and better, but if Watson can do something like this in his 50s, don’t you have to seriously question that assumption? Think about it. Will Phil Mickelson be leading the U.S. Open at 53? Will Davis Love? (Heck, Phil would like to be leading the Open at 33.)
Funny, isn’t it? Golf isn’t exactly the most inclusive of sports (see Lee Elder and Annika Sorenstam), but it has never been afflicted, fortunately, with ageism. The Open grants special exemptions to old pros and extends an invitation to the winner of the Senior Open (e.g. Watson, Hale Irwin and Don Pooley). And on more than a few occasions, these players have pleasantly surprised us by getting themselves in the hunt.
Ben Hogan, your grandfather will tell you, took a serious run at the ‘60 Open when he was 47. He was just three shots back going into the final round. In ‘73, Julius Boros was actually tied for the lead entering the last day — and he was the same age Watson is now. Then there’s Lee Trevino, who got a piece of fourth in ‘86 at 46. And let’s not forget the wondrous Harry Vardon. He almost won the darn thing in 1920, by which time he was halfway to 100. Ol’ Harry was six up with seven holes to play before his ball began to misbehave.
It helps this year that Olympia Fields is “there for the taking,” as Watson put it. “You put the ball in [the fairway],” he says, “and with the soft greens, you can hit it pretty close to the hole. It’s not as difficult as you’d expect a U.S. Open course to be.”
But it has produced a tournament with scads of story lines, many of them quite appealing. How can you not like Trip Kuehne, a part-time golfer and full-time accountant, shooting a 67 yesterday to make the cut? Or oldsters Bernhard Langer and Mark Calcavecchia sticking around while young turks Rich Beem and Adam Scott pack up and leave?
“I think it’s fairer for everyone out there,” Price says. “You don’t have to hit the ball 295 yards to play this golf course. … If they had set Bethpage [Black] up like this, I think we probably would have had one of the best U.S. Opens of all time.”
This Open looks like it might make up for it. You get the feeling anything could happen the next two days — basically because everything already has.