The U.S. Open on Sunday afternoon turned into a race to try to frame Rory McIlroy’s performance historically instead of a race for the trophy. If McIlroy hadn’t stumbled at Augusta on Sunday, not only would he be halfway to the Grand Slam, but we probably wouldn’t have been able to convince ourselves there was any doubt on Sunday. By the time McIlroy made an easy birdie on his opening hole¹, any last drop of excitement was sucked out of what was already a one-man show.
With the Phillies putting in a narcoleptic performance against another soft-t0ssing lefty it wasn’t much of an afternoon for television, especially for me, considering I make no secret that I’m not a McIlroy fan. He’s got a great game, and this week was total domination, but I rarely look at results when selecting a golfer to root for. I can’t really explain my distaste for McIlroy, other than I just know it when I see it. It’s like the reaction I had when seeing Y.E. Yang’s shirt. Some of my feelings stem from a rush to coronate McIlroy before he won much of anything, and now that he’s got his signature performance there seems to be a rush to overstate what it might mean.
It wasn’t just McIlroy’s performance that made this unlike any U.S. Open I have ever seen. McIlroy would have won regardless of the course set-up, but Congressional totally failed as a venue in my mind this week. Part of that can be blamed on the weather, but also there was a failure in setting up the holes. It seems obvious to me that the USGA reacted to McIlroy’s early run by keeping the course vulnerable, thinking that birdies might be the only way to keep this thing close, and if a course is going to get exposed, why not a historic exposure? They’ll deny this all day over at the USGA, but how else do you explain a course that seemed to get easier as the week went alone instead of harder? How do you explain twenty golfers finishing under par? That’s more than just rain.
And, I suppose some people’s reaction to this will be, well what does it matter what they shoot? Par is an arbitrary number, and that is true, but you are messing with the U.S. Open’s identity with a course set-up like this. The Masters has Augusta National, The Open Championship has the historic links courses and the British weather elements, the PGA has the deepest field of the year, and the U.S. Open is supposed to be the hardest test of golf. This week was nowhere near that, certainly not for Rory, or for several members of the field. I still think there was a slight shock factor this week. You’ll notice several guys shot 73-75 the opening day, and then lit it up the rest of the way. As soon as they realized 65s were out there, things opened up. Part of the difference was Rory realized it right off the bat on Thursday. He got an 8 or 9 shot jump in the opening round on most of his closest competition.
- Kevin Chappell (76-67-69-66)
- Lee Westwood (75-68-65)
- Webb Simpson (75-71-66)
- Bo Van Pelt (76-67-68)
- Dustin Johnson (75-71-69-70)
Those aren’t typical U.S. Open scoring patterns (and plenty more players had something similar), and I think they tell a good bit of the story. Not only was the course hardest on Thursday, but I think it might have been relying on reputation for a good bit of that difficulty. So, now that McIlroy has become a 22-year-0ld Major Champion, what does it all mean, really?
Hyperbole will still carry the day in the coverage of sports. It’s coming from all over, and even Rory’s contemporaries are taking part. Yesterday Paddy Harrington suggested McIlroy would break Jack’s record of 18 Majors. The phrase Tiger-like was used to the point of exhaustion all week. If we’re comparing this result to one of Tiger’s wins I’d say it is more similar to the ’97 Masters than the 2000 U.S. Open. McIlroy is a top player, but also is very streaky as well, and we saw the culmination of that this week. It was four days like his weekend romp at Quail Hollow last year. And, while I think we’ll see Rory on top form more often, I don’t know if it will come every week. I’m going to hold off on awarded those other 18 majors. And, Tiger in 2000 was already the clear dominant player. McIlroy this week reinforced his incredibly high ceiling, but to say he’s tracking Woods’s career arc I think would be a huge fallacy.
Getting back the course, the play this week concerns me in regard to Merion 2013. Merion will play several hundred yards shorter than Congressional, and though the character of the layout makes the yardage somewhat deceptive, you can’t deny that the 2013 Open could turn into a wedge and putter contest. There were plenty of short irons at Congressional, and many of them ended up dancing around the hole. Right now I’d start praying for a very dry lead-up to Merion. If they can’t keep it firm, the players will tear the course apart. We’re moving toward a game where there isn’t a long enough course out there. Five hundred yard par-4s are nothing for these guys. Firm conditions and wind are the only thing that can keep scores in check in today’s game. Next year at Olympic will be an interesting look. The USGA hasn’t been to Olympic since 1998. That’s pre-equipment explosion. No one has ever shot under par in an Open at Olympic, what will the winning score be next year?
Lastly, I’ll close with the continuing disappointment of the American contingent. For whatever reason the Americans seem more comfortable just making a nice living than some of the other guys. Many of the players we want to push into the spotlight don’t seem comfortable, and would prefer making a few million dollars a year in relative anonymity than facing the burdens a number one ranking would bring. The failure of any American young gun: Johnson, Mahan, Fowler, Kim, Watney, Watson etc. to make any noise I don’t think can be ignored. The pool of American golf remains the deepest, but I don’t know that we’re cultivating a multiple major winner like you’d assume McIlroy (or any number of other foreign players) might turn into. I’d love to think that McIlroy’s historic romp would throw down the gauntlet to young Americans, but I highly doubt that will be the case.
So, congrats to McIlroy, no one has sucked the drama out of a major like this for quite some time. It appears that Rory will have fans in excess, so there will be no need for me to grab the pom-poms as well.
¹The first hole sums up everything you need to know about my feelings about Congressional. If you can hit 3-wood/wedge into a bowl for an easy birdie on the first hole, it just doesn’t feel like an Open to me. And, in contrast, the pushed back tee on 18 and hole location resulted in one birdie all day. On Saturday, the tees were up 50-60 yards. Why?
(Grantland-ed Again, to amuse myself on an otherwise boring afternoon)