Difficult Open conditions break even the best
PINEHURST, N.C. -- The truly compelling thing about the U.S. Open is that it is not only an examination of shot-making ability, but also an exploration into the inner depths of a player's psyche. There is a reason why the only four-time winners of the U.S. national championship are Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones and Willie Anderson. Their minds were as tough as their games.
In this event, where bogeys far outnumber birdies, and where the winds of fortune can turn on a dime, the mental resolve of a player is chipped away at with relentless persistence by the demands of the golf course.
In the mere matter of a few swings on a sunny Father's Day, Retief Goosen went from the best U.S. Open player of his generation to a confused man who needed 81 strokes to get around Pinehurst No. 2 during Sunday's final round. The fascinating thing is he did not play all that badly. That's how difficult this tournament is.
All golfers know that mastery of this fickle game is borrowed and never owned. That was readily apparent with Goosen on Sunday. It was not like all of a sudden he was hitting the ball sideways. He wasn't. It was just that all of a sudden putts that were dropping over the first three rounds missed, and balls that hung up on seams of sod instead of draining off into bunkers and chipping areas over the first 54 holes on this day released and found trouble.
Truly, the U.S. Open is like a slow water torture: Drip by drip it wears away at the resolve of the player, and even those who are mentally tough -- as Goosen has shown in winning two U.S. Opens -- eventually crack when too many good shots end up bad. That's what happened to the stoic South African on Sunday.
On No. 2, his approach shot barely trickled off the green, caught one of Donald Ross' slopes and scurried 10 yards away into a swale. Two chips and two putts later he had a double bogey. That was followed with a 4-foot par miss on No. 3 and a 7-foot par miss on the fifth hole. On No. 6 -- a par-3 -- his tee shot landed on the green, paused in what appeared to be a complete stop, then trickled into yet another chipping swale, leading to another bogey. The snowball was now rolling uncontrollably down the hill and all Goosen could do was watch.
These are the moments when players will later say it is as if their mind had traveled outside their body and they were watching helplessly as bogey led to bogey. Goosen made five bogeys in a row at one point Sunday.
What happened to Goosen in the final round was shocking only because it happened to Goosen. In winning his second U.S. Open last year at an extremely difficult -- perhaps absurdly difficult -- Shinnecock Hills, he finished with six consecutive one-putt greens. That reliable putter and the fact a marching band could seemingly cross the fairway 70 yards in front of him without causing him to flinch had created an image in the eyes of many he was completely unshakable.
But the U.S. Open has a way to shake anyone, even this silent, unsmiling man who appeared to play without a pulse. This is an event in which each shot demands full concentration. One mental misstep, just a few minutes of thoughtless play, can lead to a player looking up a half-dozen bogeys later wondering what happened.
Just check out the top of the leaderboard at Pinehurst. Better yet, just look at the top of the leaderboard after Saturday's third round. None of the top three players coming into the final round could break 80 on Sunday. In addition to the 81 by Goosen, there were an 80 by Olin Browne and an 84 by Jason Gore.
Was it an unfair course setup that caused these numbers? Not at all. It was an extremely difficult golf course set up to very exacting specifications. That winner, Michael Campbell, and runner-up Tiger Woods were both able to break par on Sunday spoke to the playability of the golf course. It also spoke to the intensity of their concentration.
That both Campbell and Woods were able to go into red numbers was a testament to the mental focus they bring to the game. On this day, Pinehurst No. 2 was not able to break them. After starting with two bogeys, Woods played the final 16 holes three under par. Where he proved to be no match for Campbell was consecutive missed par putts of the very makable variety on Nos. 16 and 17. The New Zealander, meanwhile, never made consecutive bogeys in the final round, and twice followed bogeys with birdies, never allowing the momentum to swing against him.
The joy of the U.S. Open is a peculiar kind of exhilaration. This is not a tournament where a player can get on a roll, make a slew of birdies and run away from the field; Johnny Miller in 1973 at Oakmont, where he closed with a 63, and Tiger Woods in 2000 at Pebble Beach, when he went 12 under par, are the exceptions to the rule. This is a tournament in which there is never any place to hide, never any place to rest. This is a tournament in which a momentary loss of concentration is akin to falling asleep at the wheel.
On Sunday, Goosen, Browne and Gore lost control and never got the wheels back on the road. That's what the U.S. Open is all about. The winner is not someone who beats the course, but rather the player who refuses to let the course beat him.
Michael Campbell had that resolve on Sunday. Goosen took a hard hook to the jaw with a double bogey on his second hole and never recovered. It was not that his game was no match for Pinehurst No. 2, but rather that -- on this day at least -- his mind was not up to the demands of a U.S. Open setup.
It's watching that examination of the human will that makes this such a compelling golf tournament.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine