Victory Lap.

If There Was a Checkered Flag, Rory Could Have Picked it up Friday.

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.

  1. Kevin Chappell (76-67-69-66)
  2. Lee Westwood (75-68-65)
  3. Webb Simpson (75-71-66)
  4. Bo Van Pelt (76-67-68)
  5. 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)

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Runaway?

Here We Go Again.

As I sit down to type this, let’s take a look at the Top-8 right now at the U.S. Open:

  1. Rory McIlroy (-10)
  2. Zach Johnson (-4)
  3. Y.E. Yang (-3)
  4. Robert Garrigus (-3)
  5. Sergio Garcia (-2)
  6.  Charl Schwartzel (-2)
  7. Luis Oosthuizen (-2)
  8. Ryan Palmer (-2)

Word association?  Puke.  Forget what I said yesterday about the scoring conditions.  Things didn’t toughen up over the course of the day, there was a ton of rain overnight and Congressional is vulnerable.  Big-time, especially to Rory McIlroy who has still yet to make a bogey.  For him to have a six shot lead at this juncture I imagine is almost unprecedented, and his lack of a bogey is just as remarkable.  Rory’s made a habit of scorching major championship venues of late, he just hasn’t been able to put four rounds together.  We’re already giving him credit for a bounce back, but the only way he could truly do that is to play well on Sunday.  Although, if he goes on like this, not missing a shot, perhaps an 80 would be good enough come Father’s Day.

I look at the scores and think that a good portion of the field talked themselves out of this one before it even started.  They arrive at the U.S. Open, they think it’s going to be brutal, and so they get into a mode where they almost assure themselves of shooting 74, when a much lower number is out there.  It’s like going to a five-star restaurant and raving about the food even though it was mediocre just because of the price you paid.  Certainly you still have to keep the ball in play, but I don’t see any reason why more players aren’t having a bit of success.

Other early movers on Friday include Phil Mickelson, who has it back to even par with a (-3) start, but he’s still lost a shot to his playing partner, McIlroy, on the day, and sits a whopping 10 shots back.  Aside from Mickelson, there isn’t a lot of noise being made by the American contingent.  Zach Johnson is leading the way, but only 6 of the top-16 spots are currently occupied by the home team, so to speak.  Of course, right now it is kind of a one-man event  and then the other 155 guys are jockeying for position and hoping for another collapse.

How low can Rory take this thing?  12-under?  And, if he does get it that deep, where does the USGA go with the set-up? Keep it easy so people can run him down with birdies, or at least have the chance?  Or do they shift focus, and trick it up a bit so he doesn’t end up obliterating every single scoring record.  We’re only about 27 holes in, but so far, not really loving Congressional.

The Tiger-Less US Open Formula.

Prepare Aronimink for Bad News.

This is how Tiger rolls these days.  I didn’t cherry pick this picture from after one of his knee surgeries or anything like that. This is Tiger Woods, this week.  He doesn’t look like a guy who is going to be playing golf in the near future.  And, it’s not like Tiger is going to take the boot off and walk right to the first tee of a PGA event.  He’ll need time to get back, and that puts the entire summer schedule in doubt at this point.  There was a time when the formula for any good event, US Opens included, was to have Tiger in contention.  With that piece in place, everything else was complimentary.  Now, we need a different place to start.

It seems like the natural place to go, especially for a the US Open, would be to focus on the golf course.  The most difficult test of the year, often played at one of the country’s most historic layouts.  Last year, you have Pebble Beach, which is a television show on its own.  Like I said earlier in the week, there is nothing wrong with Congressional.  It’s a very good golf course, but it’s not one that people will get excited about.  And, in an unfortunate development, a lot of the early talk seems to be about the condition of some of the greens.  They are already browning, and showing signs of poor health, and it’s early in the week.  To get them to the speed the USGA will want by the weekend, they could be walking a dangerous line. To be fair, the players all seem to think Congressional will be a fair and worthy test, but will it be an exciting or dramatic one?

For that to take place, I’m not sure what has to happen.  The biggest non-Tiger story line in golf right now seems to be the decline in American dominance.  The emergence of foreign stars (especially those from Europe) has brought us to a golfing world where no American holds a Major Championship.  The top of the World Rankings is littered with European players. In some sports this might create an Us vs. Them mentality among the fans, but the casual golf observer I don’t think cares at all about this rivalry that the media is trying to drum up.  The people who do feel it, people like me, would be watching the event regardless.  I might have some angst toward the likes of Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy, but a lot of people don’t have feelings either way, certainly not strong enough to create any real drama.

For this to come off as a successful event I think they’ll need the following:

1.  Phil.  Phil has replaced Tiger at this point as the guy who most fans will be checking on to see if he is in contention.  The beauty of Phil near the lead, especially at a US Open, is that almost anything can happen.  He’s just as likely to implode as he is to win, and when he goes down, it’s usually in spectacular fashion.  You can also feel how badly Phil wants to win this tournament just by looking at him, and that resonates with the viewers.  Other players, guys like Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler and Rory have profile, but not yet like Phil.

2.  A vulnerable course.  For US Open standards that is.  I think if the winner ends up at 4 to 6 under par, we’re likely to see a more exciting event than if the winner is a few over par.  I am a firm believer that the US Open should be the toughest test of the year, and I appreciate the grind, but I know that a lot of people do not.  A birdie on Sunday at Pebble last year was too much of a rarity, even for me.  Even a hard course needs a mix of birdie and bogey holes.  If guys are just playing for conservative pars, because that’s the only play…well, I don’t think that’s the point.  If they get some rain, or if they have to water to keep the greens alive, maybe we’ll see some birdies down the stretch for a change.

3.  Tightly bunched field.  Think of the Masters this year.  The names at the top on the back nine might not have been the most exciting or recognizable, but the lead was changing hands, guys looked dead only to come back, guys shot up the leaderboard with eagles.  It was anyone’s game until the end when maybe the least likely candidate emerged.  One problem an US Open sometimes faces is that the difficulty of the course thins out the field quickly.  You might have two guys at a couple under par and then four or five shots back to the rest of the field.  If those two guys aren’t Phil and someone else, that isn’t going to be very fun to watch.  Last year a good five guys had a look on Sunday, and they’ll need more of the same this year.

4.  A Cinderella.  The last thing that could save the event is some guy totally out of nowhere.  An amateur, someone with a great story, but the chances of that happening are pretty slim.  Any amateur in contention would create some interest, but we haven’t seen that in a while.

Ten Guys To Bet Against, My Definitive Top-10:

  1. Angel Cabrera
  2. Lee Westwood
  3. Phil Mickelson
  4. K.J. Choi
  5. David Toms
  6. Hunter Mahan
  7. Sergio Garcia
  8. Martin Laird
  9. Dustin Johnson
  10. Ian Poulter

Happy U.S. Open Week

Words That Don't Describe Congressional's Clubhouse: Quaint.

Little late getting underway today.  Was on the old golf course myself this morning.  I birdied the first and last holes.  No other comments to be made.  Rolled in a 20 footer on 1, and then hit a 3-wood from 252 on 18 to about 12 feet and carefully lagged it up there for a 2-putt birdie.  Hopefully a positive ending will obscure the rest which is good for nothing except boosting my way too skinny handicap.

Anyway, it’s a Monday tradition here to kick off U.S. Open week with a post.  The last two years, I’ve gone back a decade to look at the 1999 and 2000 events.  One was Payne Stewart’s curtain call before his tragic plane crash.  The other was Tiger obliterating the field and making people ponder if 30 majors was a possible number for him.  Unfortunately, this year is the 10-year anniversary of a yawn fest at Southern Hills that featured the worst display of 72nd hole putting probably of all-time.  A tiny miss by Stewart Cink kept him from a playoff and admittedly threw his entire career into a fog.  The eventual winner, Retief Goosen, was a relative unknown to American audiences at the time.  There’s nothing really powerful to reflect on, so we’ll just move forward to some odds and ends for this year’s event.

The Course:

Congressional is, from what I hear, a tribute to D.C. wealth with a bit of high-brow extravagance.  Note the clubhouse.  As far as the golf course is concerned, it’s a place that most average players would walk onto and declare it the nicest course they’ve ever seen.  On top of that, it’s just undergone a 2-year overhaul to get ready for this tournament.  I expect pristine and difficult conditions.  If the weather stays dry, the scores should be pretty high.  From a picky, course critic’s view, Congressional is always criticized for not having any memorable holes outside of what is now the 18th.  It’s a bit of a monotonous death by long par-4.  More Aronimink than Merion for the locals, but the course is plenty good and with the change in finish away from what used to be a par-3, I think the course certainly merits an occasional Major, but I wouldn’t rush to put it into the USGA’s regular rotation.

Tiger News:

Tiger is not playing.  We’ve known this for a bit now, and the real Tiger story of the week has become Steve Williams on Adam Scott’s bag.  I think this deal has been blown way out of proportion.  It’s common practice for someone to pick up a bag as a favor for a week or two and Williams asked Tiger’s permission.  Adam Scott is in the process of changing his caddy, so he’s not really dropping anyone to pick up Steve.  I’m sure the speculation machine will be cranking full-blast, though. And, really, it doesn’t hurt Williams to pinch-loop.  There may come a day when he is looking to move off Tiger’s bag, but I’m thinking Eldrick has paid him enough to go into early retirement.

Phil Factor:

Mickelson has finished 2nd five times in the U.S. Open, but has never closed the deal.  It’s a pretty glaring hole on his resume.  The British Open Championship was never believed to suit his game, but the numerous chances he’s had stateside would suggest he should have picked one up by now.  He’ll enter the week as the U.S.’s best shot, whether he deserves that crown or not.  Unlike Tiger of late, Phil still looks like someone who can be dangerous on any given week.  He’s making a lot of birdies, but he’ll have to find an occasional fairway.  Coming to Congressional, it’s impossible not to think of another guy who couldn’t close out an Open.  Tom Lehman dunked his chances in ’97 on the 17th hole (the new 18th), and Ernie Els won his 2nd title.  It was Lehman’s last best chance over a stretch of years where he was contending annually. One of these years will be Phil’s last real shot.

The Euros and Featured Groups:

The Europeans are dominating the world rankings.  No American holds a major title.  Some of that is reflected in the featured groups.  The Top-3 players, all from Europe start it out: (All Tee Times)

  1. Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer (8:06 AM)
  2. Graeme McDowell, Luis Oosthuizen, US Amateur Champ Peter Uihlein (7:55 AM)
  3. Matt Kuchar, Paul Casey, K.J. Choi (7:44 AM)
  4. The Spainards: Mike Angel, Sergio and Alvaro Quiros (1:24 pm)
  5. The Italians: Molinari, Molinari and Massero (1:35 pm)
  6. Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler, Ian Poulter (1:57 pm)
  7. Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson (1:35 pm)

The Coverage:

For those who sour at the Masters holding back some coverage, even in modern times, the US Open just gladly throws itself onto the table.  It’s everywhere.  Coverage starts on ESPN at 10 AM and goes to 6 pm on Thursday and Friday.  ESPN will be streaming it live and/or possibly doing feature group coverage as well on their website.  Saturday and Sunday you can enjoy full-round coverage of the leaders on NBC.  Bask in it. All the Johnny Miller you’d ever want.  Oh, and he did shoot 63 at Oakmont once.

So, that’s about it for today.  I will jinx someone on Wednesday.  It’s impossible to pick these things (except for Tiger’s 7 of 11 run), so I might try to use a jinx on a Euro, or maybe I’ll get lucky, we’ll see.  The other day I was thinking it’d be sweet to skip summer.  Boom, football and baseball playoff season, and no more 100 degree days.  Well, I’d miss the US Open.  Love to see these guys grind every once in a while.

Quiz of the Day:  A to Z Grab Bag:  Category: Possible Re-Hash.  My Score: 25/26.  

Lord of the Rings? Ok, dorks, you win this time.

Quiz of the Day 2: US Open Venues:  Category: Golf Loser.  My Score: 81/109*

That’s two free points for their mangling of Pinehurst #2.