OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill.
There are three basic ways to win a major golf championship. You can get struck by lightning (Rich Beem, Larry Mize), you can be blessed with overwhelming talent (Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus) or you can give yourself so many chances that, eventually, the law of averages kicks in.
Jim Furyk is a classic example of the third type. Before his victory in the U.S. Open yesterday, he’d posted 12 top-10 finishes in majors without winning. He’d been fourth (four times), fifth (twice), sixth (twice), seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th, but never first. It’s almost like he was doing research, seeing how others went about it — how Ernie Els pulled it off at Congressional in ‘97 or how Mark O’Meara prevailed at Birkdale in ‘98 or how Mike Weir managed to eke one out at the Masters this year. Furyk was well up on the leader board in all those places, but there were always other people who played a touch better.
At Olympia Fields, though, he was all alone. The week he’d been waiting for since he turned pro nearly a decade ago had finally arrived. And in typical Furyk fashion, there wasn’t anything particularly dramatic about it. He so distanced himself from the field in the first three days, shooting 67-66-67 to give himself a three-stroke cushion, that all he had to do in the final round was grind out a bunch of pars — and hitting fairways and greens has always been his forte.
Furyk, it seems, has spent his entire career on the fringe of the spotlight — that area between light and shadow, celebrity and obscurity. He has won a tournament six years running, but only one, never two (lest someone accuse him of being a great player). Though a frequent witness to history, close at hand when O’Meara, Weir and Davis Love (‘97 PGA) joined the Major Champions Club, he hadn’t made any history himself until yesterday.
But now it’s his turn. That’s how you have to look at this Open: It was just Jim Furyk’s turn. He’s too good a ball striker, too consistent a player not to have at least one moment like this. His record-tying score of 272, 8-under par, will never be lumped with Woods’ 272 (12 under) at Pebble Beach or Nicklaus’ 272 (8 under) at Baltusrol because Olympia Fields surrendered so many birdies. But he did beat Tiger by 11 shots — and the second-place finisher, Stephen Leaney, by three — so he couldn’t have played too terribly.
“He just kept me at arm’s length all day,” Leaney lamented. “I just wasn’t able to put enough pressure on him. Three or four strokes was as close as I could get.”
Furyk claims his inability to win a major in the past was never “a weight on me.” If he’d never won one, he said the other day, “I can accept that, and I’ll be fine.” But capturing a major title clearly alters the perception of a golfer. And not capturing one clearly affects how he’s viewed, too.
Ever hear of Harry Cooper? He racked up 31 Tour victories in the first half of the 20th century, a total surpassed by only 13 players. But he never won a major, and so his feats have been largely forgotten. Doug Sanders is another one. He won 20 titles in the ‘50s and ‘60s (and compiled an equally impressive record on the party circuit). What he’s most remembered for, though, is losing a British Open playoff to Jack Nicklaus in 1970, one of four majors that escaped him by a single stroke.
This is the purgatory Furyk was bound for if he didn’t, at some point, make off with a major. He’s still young — 33 — and figures to end up with 12 to 15 Tour wins, maybe more. But if one of them wasn’t a Masters, an Open (either one would do) or a PGA, he would have been placed on the same historical shelf with Scott Hoch and, say, Bruce Crampton.
But now it’s permissible to compare him to guys like Tom Kite, Don January and Gene Littler, one-major winners whose steady play, year in and year out, was probably never properly appreciated. All three accomplished more in their day than Furyk likely will in his, but he’s the same sort of player. And — who knows? — maybe his victory at Olympia Fields will loose him to win multiple majors, to become the next Larry Nelson or Payne Stewart. (Look at Weir. He followed his win in the Masters with a tie for third in the Open. And he and Furyk, I’ll just point out, are exactly the same age.)
It’s Tiger Woods’ world. The rest of the players have to fight over his table scraps, whatever he leaves behind. Tiger wasn’t up to winning the Open this year, so Furyk — the colorless grinder, the anti-Tiger — gladly took it.
“I was talking with my family about winning this golf tournament before I came,” he said. “I’d had a great year so far; I’d played very solidly — even though I hadn’t won. I came [to Olympia Fields] with a very good mindset.”
And he left with the Open trophy — can you believe that?