- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2005

PINEHURST, N.C. — Our national golf championship — men’s division — will be contested this week amid the pines and perspiration of North Carolina’s Sandhills. It’s one of the four legs of the Grand Slam, a major tournament any way you slice it (if you’ll pardon the expression). Household names like Steve Elkington and Jose Maria Olazabal will swallow their pride and try to qualify, if need be, just for the privilege of playing in the U.S. Open.

So here’s my question: How did such a great event become so … quirky? Its conditions are so different from other majors — and the champions it produces are so different — that it has kind of evolved into golf’s version of the French Open in tennis. In fact, I’m a little surprised the USGA didn’t replace the bentgrass greens at Pinehurst No.2 with red clay, just to see whether they could jack up the scores even higher.

Let’s face it, the USGA lives in a world of its own — as do the French — which is probably why the two tournaments have begun to resemble each other. David Fay and his henchmen come to an Open venue and essentially raise the rims to 11 feet, completely Change the Game with their skinny fairways, jungle-like rough and Formica-hard putting surfaces. This skews the outcome and gives us winners that, interestingly, rarely win one of the other majors. (Which makes you wonder what the USGA’s Sandy Tatum was talking about, years ago, when he said his organization wasn’t trying to embarrass the best golfers in the world, “we’re just trying to identify them.”)

Consider: Fourteen different players have won the U.S. Open in the last 20 years. Only four of them, though, have won a major other than the Open. You won’t find a disparity like that in any other major. Over the same two decades, the British Open has had 17 different champions; eight of them have won a major other than the British. For the PGA, the breakdown is 17 and seven; for the Masters, it’s 14 and six. So … is the USGA really identifying the best golfers in the world, or is it merely identifying the ones whose game is best suited to the peculiarities of the Open?

It’s the same way with the French Open. Just five of its 14 winners since 1986 have won a major besides the French. Our tennis U.S. Open, by contrast, has been won by one great champion after another — Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg, Andre Agassi, Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Roger Federer. All have won at least two different majors, most have won three and Agassi has a career Slam on his resume. Among recent Open titlists, only Andy Roddick, who’s still young, and Patrick Rafter haven’t won one of the other majors.

Why can’t our golf Open be like that?

Instead, it turns out USGA creations — golf’s version of the “clay-court specialist” — such as Andy North, Scott Simpson, Lee Janzen and Steve Jones (the equivalent of the French Open’s Michael Chang, Andres Gomez, Sergi Bruguera and Thomas Muster). Yes, Hale Irwin won three Opens, and that’s impressive, but is it any more impressive than Gustavo Kuerten winning three French Opens? And where, just out of curiosity, would you rank Kuerten on your list of all-timers?

That isn’t to say the aforementioned aren’t good players, just that their games haven’t traveled as well as other major winners’. And isn’t that how you separate the best from the rest — whether they can win under a variety of conditions?

Retief Goosen, two-time winner of our golf Open, says, “The U.S. Open is all about patience, really. It’s difficult to get out there and make six birdies in a row and things like that. Six pars in a row is pretty good around a course like this.”

Couldn’t the same be said of the French Open (except for the birdies and pars, I mean)? At Roland Garros Stadium, it’s about outlasting your opponent — standing on the baseline, pounding ground stroke after ground stroke at him until somebody blinks.

No one is expecting this U.S. Open golf championship to be much different from its predecessors. “Quite a bit over par would be the score I would anticipate winning,” says Phil Mickelson. “Without rain — and it doesn’t look like we’re going to get any — we have the potential for 18 holes that could be [as unplayable as] No. 7 at Shinnecock.”

To which North adds, “These guys won’t be able to walk off the course at the end of the day, they’ll be so emotionally drained.”

Yup, that’s our Open, the one we’ve all come to … tolerate. Barely.

Before I go, I’d just like to wish all the competitors in this self-flagellation contest bonne chance.

It means “good luck” — in French.

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