- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

PINEHURST, N.C. - The last pairing to tee off in the U.S. Open yesterday shot the two worst scores of the final round. When has that ever happened before — in any golf tournament, anywhere? The guys in the last pairing are supposed to have as good a chance to win as anybody, but Jason Gore barely finished in the top 50 after needing 84 swings to navigate Pinehurst No.2, and Retief Goosen’s 81 left him eight strokes behind surprise winner Michael Campbell.

Bizarre, utterly bizarre.

But then, that’s what the U.S. Open has become — a freak show, a 72-hole Ralph Steadman cartoon. Or, as Tiger Woods put it, “You can hit good shots and get absolutely hosed.”

God bless Tiger. His closing 69, which lifted him into second place, was the only thing that was normal about yesterday. And his round could easily have gone the other way after the first two holes, when putts from off the green rolled right back to him. You get that a lot at Pinehurst — putts and chips talking U-turns on the tabletop greens … or running through the putting surface and trickling off the other side. The USGA is convinced this constitutes “a great test of golf,” though, and keeps setting up its courses to produce these bloopers.

But it ain’t golf. It’s USGAolf — a totally different animal. It’s like baseball in the Astrodome in the pre-steroid era, when nobody ever hit a home run. Just another game entirely. A “rally” in the Open is when somebody strings together a bunch of pars (or when the leader makes a bogey and moves everybody up a notch). It’s just a strange, strange tournament … and getting stranger all the time.

Yeah, you could make the argument that Gore’s blow up — as well as the collapse of D.C. native Olin Browne (80) — was utterly predictable, an accident waiting to happen. Neither, after all, had given any previous indication that he had Major Championship Stuff. But how do you explain the egg Goosen laid?

I mean, here’s a player who had been utterly imperturbable in winning the Open in 2001 and again last year. His first three rounds at Pinehurst, moreover, had been just as unflinching — 68-70-69. And then he goes out, with a three-shot cushion, and drops 11 strokes to par? That’s as unbelievable as Campbell walking off with the title.

Goosen and Gore were on the clock — golfspeak for being timed by USGA officials because of their slow pace — “from No.11 onward,” Goosen said. But the two weren’t really dilly-dallying; it was just taking them forever to get the ball in the hole.

“I played rubbish,” Goosen said. “It happened to Ernie [Els] last year [when he shot an 80 on the last day], and it was my turn this time.”

In the U.S. Open, it’s always somebody’s turn, somebody’s turn to be embarrassed. Woods said he “never would have guessed” Goosen would come unhinged, but that’s what this tournament does to people. In fact, that’s probably what the “U” in U.S. Open stands for — unhinged. (The “S,” I’m guessing, stands for either scared, stupefied or “Somebody call for an ambulance.”)

Then again, maybe the “U” in U.S. Open stands for unique because it’s definitely that. But it has taken uniqueness to almost unacceptable levels. When your leader board heading into the final round includes the names of Gore, Browne, Mark Hensby, Peter Hedblom, Peter Jacobsen, Arron Oberholser and Steve Allan, well, you don’t see that at the Masters, do you?

None of this is meant to denigrate Campbell, a 36-year-old New Zealander of Maori descent, who played fabulously from beginning to end. What a comeback the man has made. After all, in 1998 he “was going to give up the game,” he recounted yesterday, after suffering a wrist injury and losing his card on the European and Australasian tours. Indeed, he almost didn’t qualify for Pinehurst; he had to endure both local and sectional qualifying, squeezing through in the latter by a single shot.

But in the Open, he played like the player who was considered such a comer in the early ‘90s, like the player who led the British Open after three rounds at the age of 26 (and just missed getting in the playoff with John Daly and Costantino Rocca). It also helped, no doubt, that he managed to stay under the media’s radar for three days, allowing him to concentrate on the rather sizable task at hand.

The stories in the Sunday papers were all about “Goosen going for his third Open, Gore’s Cinderella story, Tiger lurking, Vijay lurking. … And then there was little ol’ me,” Campbell said. “I snuck in there and really played nicely.”

He did, indeed, ending up at even par, two shots better than Tiger and five better than anybody else. And we have the USGA to thank for it, for these funhouse-mirror Opens that pretend to identify the best player in the world, but instead give us — on a much too regular basis — Steve Jones, Lee Janzen and now Michael Campbell.

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