- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. — Forget Bethpage. Olympia Fields played host to the real People’s Open.

Jim Furyk took his 72-stroke victory lap at the 103rd U.S. Open yesterday, collecting his first major title and cementing Olympia Fields’ place in history as the site of the ultimate equal opportunity Open.

“It’s beyond some dreams,” Furyk said after besting obscure Aussie Stephen Leaney by three strokes en route to tying the Open scoring record of 272, 8 under. “It was such a special day for me and my family.”

The 33-year-old Furyk, who began the day at 10 under with a three-stroke edge on Leaney, was never really threatened during the final round. His two highest profile challengers, Vijay Singh and Nick Price, began the day at 5 under but immediately imploded. The pair, with five majors between them, each played the layout’s relatively easy six-hole opening stretch in 2 over, permanently taking leave from contention.

And the 34-year-old Leaney, who has spent his entire career watching major finales on TV, bowed under final-pairing pressure, making four bogeys before the turn to slam the door on suspense.

Meanwhile, the steady Furyk ground out a string of pars that was broken only by a birdie at No. 6, taking a quasi-comical five-stroke lead with him to the 10th tee. With Furyk’s lead virtually insurmountable, the only drama that took place on the back nine came courtesy of a young lady who decided to bare her chest to the conquering hero after he played his approach to the 11th.

“I was definitely caught off guard,” Furyk said of his run-in with the streaker. “For a moment there, it was more like a British Open.”

Despite that moment of levity, posterity isn’t likely to look back on the 103rd U.S. Open with a grin. Irrespective of Furyk’s record-matching total, what transpired in suburban Chicago was far from epic stuff. After all, Olympia Fields didn’t start acting like a proper Open venue until late Saturday afternoon.

This was, of course, the same layout that selected Johnny Farrell over Bobby Jones the last time the Open came calling (1928). And this time around, it certainly had similarly indiscriminate moments. Scoring records were shattered all week. And given the USGA’s love affair with sadism, they aren’t likely to bring their prized event back to the 7,190-yard, par-70 track for another 75 years.

In the final analysis, Olympia Fields got exactly the champion it deserved.

The course required neither the length nor the precision of past Opens. The combination of receptive greens and extremely manageable rough opened the door to the entire field.

It allowed a stunning one-round renaissance from 53-year-old Tom Watson, who played inspired golf for his ALS-afflicted caddie, Bruce Edwards.

It didn’t suit the power play of golf demigod Tiger Woods (3 over), who looked very human for a fourth consecutive major.

And it gave us an ordinary Jim as its champion.

Furyk isn’t one for witty repartee. In fact, he typically exudes only slightly more charisma than the average corpse. His mustachioed caddie, Mike “Fluff” Cowan, is more popular among most golf galleries.

Quite simply, Furyk is something of a Tour everyman. He’s always been known as a good player, not a great one.

“Consistency,” Woods said when asked to describe Furyk yesterday. “If you’d pick a major championship for him to win, you’d figure it would be this one. The way he plays his game and the way this course is set up, this is the perfect venue for him.”

Furyk has always been a guy nobody is surprised to see in the top 10 but everybody is surprised to see on the winner’s podium. Yesterday’s victory was just his eighth in 10 years on Tour, an extremely modest number for a player who has collected 77 top-10 finishes. And he’s a guy who had never finished in the top three in 31 major tries entering this week.

“There’s a lot of great players out there that haven’t won a major championship, a lot of guys who have far better records than me,” Furyk said.

He might not be colorful, but he’s laudably humble. And he’s the closest thing you will find to the average amateur among the game’s top-20 players.

Unlike many of his Tour brethren, Furyk wasn’t a country club kid. He grew up in Lancaster, Pa., and learned the game on public courses.

And he’s got an amateur’s swing, a jerky, loopy, multipart flail that looks like it belongs at the local driving range. But even though it looks aesthetically toxic, there’s something beautiful about a homemade swing. In the modern era of swing instructors and sports psychologists, Furyk’s only assistance has come from his father, Mike, who taught him to play and still accompanies him at virtually every event he enters.

“My dad was my teacher,” Furyk said after becoming golf’s third straight major first-timer. “He took some criticism. He took some blame that my swing was awkward, and people didn’t feel it would hold up.”

Yesterday, Mike should have taken a few bows for refusing to alter the natural swing that held up beautifully under the stress of what is typically the most rigorous annual examination in golf.

“I had a difficult time even speaking with him this morning to wish him happy Father’s Day,” said Furyk, tears in his eyes during the event’s presentation ceremony. “I think this is a heck of a present.”

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