All Hail Coore and Crenshaw.

These Geniuses Could Probably Fix Pickering.

These Geniuses Could Probably Fix Pickering.

I can’t wait for the U.S. Open to start this week, partly because it is possibly my favorite major, but also because I want to see what Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore have done to the place.  I’ve seen pictures.  I’ve heard stories, but I don’t think it’s going to sink in until we see the course under tournament conditions.  I have a pretty strong memory of Pinehurst.  The 1999 U.S. Open, for obvious reasons, was probably the pinnacle of my golf fandom.  Pinehurst produced an unmatched leaderboard that year, but it did so with ribbons of fairway and heavy rough.  Crenshaw and Coore have blown the place up, restoring all that original grandeur.  The fairways now meld into waste areas, the rough is non-existent, and it should be as spectacular and difficult as ever.

Coore and Crenshaw restore as well as they create.  There are several highly regarded designers out there right now (Doak, Hanse, etc), but I don’t know if anyone gets as consistently praised as these two and they deserve it.  This U.S. Open might help put golf course architect at the top of Ben Crenshaw’s resume rather than Masters Champion, and I honestly think in 50 or 100 years if we’re still playing golf and all the great courses haven’t been taken over for windmill farms, that Crenshaw could be better known for his courses than his on-course exploits.

The older the golf course and the older its designer, the more esteem we seem to give, the thought being that a new course can not instantly be great.  We’ve started to get away from that a little bit with the help of places like Bandon Dunes, or the Coore & Crenshaw masterpiece, Sand Hills.  But, I think time will only make us fonder of the work these two guys are doing.

So, what are we expecting for this U.S. Open at the digitally remastered Pinehurst?

For me there are three stories this week.  The first, is the course, which I just touched on.  Not only is this the wide release debut of the redesign, but Pinehurst is tasked with hosting back-t0-back events.  The women will have their U.S. Open on the same course next week.  So in addition to how it’s playing, there will be a level of concern about how the course is holding up.  I think it’ll do just fine.

The players will be taking center stage, though, and leading the way are Phil and Rory.  With Tiger still sidelined with his back injury, we look to Phil and Rory to fill that void and both are doing an admirable job, with on and off-course exploits.  Rory has been alternately brilliant and awful since his 17th hole split with The Woz.  The course seems to set up perfectly for what Rory does well, when he’s doing it well.  Then, there’s Phil…

Phil has had an inconsistent year at best, but he’s mostly gotten a free pass because everyone knows he’s been pointing to this week.  Phil has become all about the majors in recent years and more specifically all about the majors he hasn’t won.  The career grand slam seems to be the last realistic goal that Mickelson wants to check off his list.  He’s never going to catch Tiger, so winning the U.S. Open would give him all four titles and no longer make him “that guy who finished second 6 times.”

In true Phil fashion, Mickelson added a bit of spice to the proceedings with his involvement in an insider trading investigation.  Phil had a little impromptu meeting with some FBI agents at the Memorial, who apparently wanted to know about one of Phil’s gambling buddies and some stock activity.  Mickelson claims he has no involvement, but I guess we’ll find that out soon enough.  If you asked me to construct a list of PGA players who I thought might get caught up in an insider trading scandal, Mickelson would shoot to the top of that list, but that doesn’t mean I won’t still be surprised if he’s guilty of something.  Philly Mick couldn’t handle prison, not even fancy Martha Stewart prison.

Getting back to Phil on the course, this does seem like it’s his last chance.  Right after Payne Stewart won in 1999 he was talking about how gratifying it was to take advantage of the opportunity, because he knew deep down that his chances were going to be limited.  Stewart was 42 at the time of his tragic death just months later, but he knew that his window for serious major contention was closing.  Mickelson is 43, and while equipment has made golfers effective later into their careers, with his physical ailments, family, and the crazy depth of the modern fields, you can’t feel too confident saying Phil could win his U.S. Open at 48, or 50.  It might need to happen now at a course where he should be able to work his magic and where he has some positive memories from past results.

After this year the Open goes to two new courses in three years (Erin Hills and Chambers Bay sandwiched around Oakmont), before visiting what would be a good Phil window in 2018-2020 (Shinnecock, Pebble, Winged Foot), but by then it may be too late.

I think it’s going to be a great week at Pinehurst.  This time last year we were worrying about the torrential rains ruining Merion, and that turned out to be mostly be wasted energy, but it’s nice to head into the week with no real worries about the golf course.

The Definitive, Yet Arbitrary, Top-10:

  1. Jim Furyk
  2. Rory McIlroy
  3. Dustin Johnson
  4. Sergio Garcia
  5. Henrik Stenson
  6. Miguel Angel Jimenez
  7. Bill Haas
  8. Jason Dufner
  9. Hideki Matsuyama
  10. Jordan Spieth

 

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Bubba Carves Way to Masters Title.

Bubba Watson Dodged an Albatross.

When the Masters started, it was supposed to be a three man race.  The top of the field was so clearly delineated by Tiger, Rory and Phil that imagining a different outcome was difficult.  If last year’s tournament was a wide-open sprint at the finish, this year’s was going to be a four-day heavyweight battle.  Golf rarely plays to a script, though, and over the last three years the history books are dotted with far more first time winners than repeat major champions.  By Saturday afternoon, Mickelson was the only favorite still with a chance to win the tournament and he became the overwhelming favorite.  When Peter Hanson bogeyed the first hole, you expected Phil would never relinquish the lead, but then Louis Oosthuizen  holed out from 260 yards and the tournament was dumped on its head.

Oosthuizen’s incredible shot not only vaulted him into the lead, it removed the sense of inevitability that was forming early Sunday afternoon.  Phil Mickelson was coming off a back nine 30 on Saturday, Peter Hanson didn’t appear up to the task of holding the lead, so without Oosthuizen’s shot a challenger hadn’t announced himself.  When Louis vaulted to 10-under, though, I think it breathed life into the whole field.  OK, we’re not just waiting around to hand Phil another green jacket.

The other definitive shot was Mickelson’s errant and unlucky grandstand missile on the fourth.  So often the crowd and grandstands bail out guys on Tour, but this time it was a violent bounce that sent Mickelson into an unplayable situation and set him up for a triple bogey.  It threw Mickelson five shots behind Oosthuizen and from that point on, the entire field was in a race to get to 10-under–the number Oosthuizen hit on the 2nd hole.  The affable and unflappable Oosthuizen who when he is on (an every other year occurrence apparently) is very difficult to beat played a conservative brand of golf over the last 16 holes that allowed some others to make a run.

Matt Kuchar was around, Lee Westwood’s rally ended at 8-under par, Phil couldn’t summon a back nine eagle to kick-start his charge and that left Bubba Watson as Oosthuizen’s only competition.  To his credit, Watson waited for the right time to push, starting the run on the par-5 13th and running off four straight birdies after a bogey on 12.  Oosthuizen and Watson setup the playoff and closed the door on the rest of the field with pressure packed pars on the 17th and 18th holes.

Oosthuizen nailed a testy five footer to get into the playoff and then looked to have it won on the 1st playoff hole, but his putt impossibly slid by the edge.  They moved onto the 10th, a hole that has an uncanny ability to settle playoffs.  Bubba drove first into the right trees, opening the door for Oosthuizen, but he couldn’t take advantage and followed Bubba to the right trees.  When you saw Oosthuizen’s ball had come back into play and Bubba was buried at the end of a pine straw corridor, the prospects for Watson became bleak once again.  Oosthuizen was well back, though, and couldn’t make the green with his second.  It set up what might become the most famous hook in Masters history.

Watson, known for his ability to shape the ball and curve it enormous distances took advantage of a space in the pines to snap hook his second onto the green.  Without the benefit of an overhead camera shot, it was hard to envision exactly how much Watson had curved his second, but the way the ball reacted on the green proved that Watson had given it every ounce of hook he had.  I imagine the shot had to fluster Oosthuizen a bit, or at least deflate him.  His 3rd ran well past the hole and when his par putt scorched the edge again, Bubba’s win became a mere formality.

The only thing left were Bubba’s signature tears as he remains, along with Steve Stricker, one of the most emotional winners on Tour whether he captures a Major or the Hartford Open.  The win appeared to be incredibly popular with the Masters galleries, and Oosthuizen was gracious in defeat.  The tournament started as a three man race, ended in a two man playoff, but as always provided the proper drama.

For closing thoughts, the question is the same we’ve faced many times over the last couple of years–how is Bubba going to follow up his Major?  The same has been asked of Oosthuizen, Schwartzel, Kaymer, Bradley and McIlroy.  When these guys are on top form it looks like they’ll easily win four or five majors.  Especially Kaymer and McIlroy, who at different times have been crowned as the next big thing, but to this point winning a 2nd major has proven to be an incredibly difficult task for all of them.  The depth of these fields is remarkable and it’s contributing to the variety of winners we’ve gotten, but you also have to wonder if some sense of complacency and relief comes with that first major.

As disappointing a week as it was for Tiger Woods, I think it may have been even more so for Rory McIlroy.  Tiger never threatened.  He was off his game all week, and while this is a setback, he didn’t waste a chance to win.  McIlroy did.  Rory’s rise up the leaderboard on Friday felt significant.  Especially with Jason Dufner and Fred Couples on top, you could argue that McIlroy held the true lead heading into the weekend, but by the time the coverage started on Saturday, Rory had already gone up in a puff of smoke and double bogeys.  Paired with Sergio, the two tried to out-ugly each other and they both quickly ended their chances of wearing the green jacket.  McIlroy seemed at ease with his fate after the round on Saturday, shrugging off his implosion as no big deal.  And, it might not be, but the longer Rory goes without picking up a Masters or validating his tremendous hype the more difficult things are likely to get.  I imagine we’ll eventually see the end of jovial McIlroy after weekend 76s at Majors.

Moving forward, I have a feeling that by the time the US Open rolls around in June, we’ll be back to focusing on Tiger, Phil and Rory.  And then when the play starts at Olympic we’ll get comfortable with a whole new cast of contenders one of whom will probably emerge to win their 1st Major.

Tiger’s Win Sets Up Epic Masters.

"What is this oddly shaped metal thing?"

Well, it finally happened.  Tiger won a PGA Tour event after a two-year hiatus, and it has sent the golf world into a state of hysterics.  The pundits are acting like they knew it was going to happen all along, the haters have gone back underground to strategize, and golf fans are all focused on the Masters, which has the potential to be a historic affair.  The greatest part of Augusta National is its ability to conjure story lines out of mid-air, no embellishment or hype necessary, but this year people will be looking to the Masters to settle a score.  A Sunday full of unlikely heroes, like Charl Schwartzel, will not be as well received as it was last year.  This year it’ll all be about Tiger vs. Rory, and if Phil wants to throw himself in there as well, all the better.

Golf rarely gets this type of match race.  For a long time Tiger was the unquestioned favorite in every event he played.   A rival was propped up against him in many cases, but his best battles came against journeymen like Bob May.  In the last few years the Majors have been completely without a dominant player.  Take a few usual names, sprinkle in the hottest players and you’ve got your pool of possible winners.  In actuality, that will be the case for the Masters next week as well, but if you walked around polling fans for their champion, I imagine 99% would mention Tiger, Rory or Phil.  If you trimmed the field to just those three players, the TV ratings would hardly budge.

Adding to the excitement is that all three of the big names are in form, or close enough to top-form that you expect them to play well.  Rory has been the world’s most consistent top-level performer over the last year.  It’s impossible to envision a scenario where he isn’t in contention.   Tiger has capped a run of encouraging play with a win, and not just a win, but a convincing victory where he pulled away and made the rest of the field look feeble in comparison.  Mickelson’s form, as usual, is the most erratic.  He looked like the best player in the world a month ago, but has been mediocre since.  Phil has taken over ownership of Augusta, though.  He has the best recent track record there, and more than any other golfer out there Phil needs something to get his attention to play his best.  The Masters will get his attention.

In addition to form, there will be legacies on the line at Augusta that should add to the drama.  In Rory’s case, we have spent a good bit of the past year talking about a symbolic torch passing.  As Tiger struggled with his return, Rory emerged from a crowded field of precocious contenders to be deemed the chosen one.  His win at the U.S. Open, his rise to #1, it was supposed to be the emphatic stamp that finally ended the Tiger Woods era.  I wrote a while back that the biggest obstacle Rory could face in being the “next Tiger Woods,” was Tiger Woods.  If any player was going to truly stunt Rory’s development, keep his win total in-check, it’d be a rejuvenated Tiger.  Well, Tiger appears to be  rejuvenated.  So, is Rory going to kick Tiger off his top-step, or step aside like so many other contenders have done in the past?  And, what would a partial return to Tiger mania mean for Rory’s long-term outlook?  Remember that was Tiger’s 7th win at Bay Hill. Rory has 5 wins worldwide in his whole career.  He has a lot of accumulating to do, how much bleaker are the prospects?

For Tiger, it’s about returning the focus to 19 Majors.  That was the only number that mattered pre-scandal and I get the sense Tiger has been yearning to make that the discussion once again.  When you struggle with your health and making cuts, no one is going to give you five majors, but now that Tiger has won, he can start controlling the dialog once again.  You saw the reaction to his victory, the majority of golf fans just want to watch him play his best golf.  Tiger’s intimidation will be measured once again as well.  We’ve heard recently that a new generation doesn’t fear Tiger, especially on Sunday.  Would one victorious Sunday at Augusta change all that?

In these terms, those of legacies, Phil is once again unfortunately on the perimeter.  He’s stuck in numbers limbo, where it’s hard for him to impress anyone.  A win at Augusta would be his 4th, an incredible number, but not more than Tiger and still two shy of Jack.  It’d be a fifth major.  Another great number, but not terribly significant.  It wouldn’t get him to #1, and past 40, there’s only so much work he can still do.  But, if Phil ever wants to be mentioned as anything more than Tiger’s greatest foil, he’s got to keep winning, keep winning the big events at Tiger’s expense.  Who knows, if Phil wins this year, six green jackets isn’t out of the question.

The Masters isn’t going to answer the questions people will pose beforehand.  At least not in the long-term.  There’s a great chance that Tiger, Phil and Rory will all come up empty-handed.  There’s a chance one could win and bask in the praise for a few months, only to be unseated a couple of months later at the US Open.  But for the four days the tournament takes place it will feel like the be-all end-all of golf.  Especially if these three guys are battling it out, it’ll feel like the only golf tournament that ever mattered.  That’s what people will be hoping for, even expecting.  We’ll see if it can possibly live up to expectations.

Great.

Rory Shows Off His 2012 Win Total.

I guess this is how it’s going to be. Rory McIlroy’s rise to #1 in the World Golf Rankings was inevitable according to most scribes penning love letters to the young lad today.  I suppose I should have seen it coming as well.  Lately sports. for me, has been an exercise in realizing that wishing something won’t happen doesn’t get you very far.  I’ve become the kid in Bad Santa.  Giants–Super Bowl.  Rory–Number One.  Prepare Miami for good news.  The way things are going, there’s no way they’ll be denied the NBA Title.

Rory’s win Sunday provided some compelling theater.  Tiger Woods, who had spent the 1st three days of the tournament fighting himself, suddenly had everything click.  He breezed through an error-free day, which culminated with an eagle on the 18th hole.  The 62 (his best Sunday round ever) brought him within two shots of McIlroy, who still had a handful of holes to play.  From that point on, a series of perfectly executed chips and bunker shots sealed the win for Rory.  I watched without much hope of a different outcome.  Tour pros don’t often skull bunkers shots across the green into a lake, but I guess you can dream.  Johnny Miller was dreaming.  He was dying for a McIlroy/Woods playoff showdown and documented every possible way Rory could make a bogey. It never happened.  Rory won comfortably and became the 1st number won to actually own a major since Martin Kaymer.

Many believe McIlroy will succeed where Kaymer failed, using the number one ranking to springboard his career to even loftier heights.  He’s certainly become the most steady top-tier performer in the world, hardly ever leaving the top-5 of any tournament he plays.  His win yesterday, though, was just his fifth worldwide.  Everything appears to be in place, but he still needs to win a lot of events to realize his obvious potential.  The assumption that he will win dozens of tournaments, loads of majors, is already out there.  In Sports Illustrated’s weekly tournament wrap, one writer suggests that Rory will retire as the 3rd greatest player of all-time.  I’m not sure such bold and rushed predictions are appropriate at this point.

It could be Tiger who has the biggest say in the kind of start Rory gets to supplanting him atop a list of the game’s modern greats.  McIlroy will have plenty of competition from his generation, but there’s no player aside from Woods who can captivate a crowd, or interest the public enough to be a mega-star.  Tiger has already kept an entire generation of players down.  He trimmed the Major totals of Ernie Els, Phil, Lee Westwood, Sergio and many others.  Is that what Rory is going to do to the likes of Dustin Johnson, Keegan Bradley, Kaymer, etc?  Can Woods summon four or five more productive years to remain a factor in all this?  His play Sunday suggests he can, but his inability to put together four rounds suggests his real dominance is forever in the past.

What I can say about Rory is he seems to have a quality that few players have and that’s his ability to make people overreact.  It’s now seen as a given that Rory will win the Masters, or at the very least be the favorite.  Like I mentioned earlier it was just his fifth win, but now there is no longer a single doubt about his ability to close.  In the span of two weeks we’ve forgotten about Westwood and Donald, we’ve forgotten that this was perhaps going to be Sergio’s year to win a major, we’ve forgotten that it was only 3 weeks ago that we crowned Phil Mickelson the prohibitive favorite at Augusta.  That’s all because of Rory, and even if he’s 60 or 70 wins, and 13 Majors short, that one quality is very Tiger-like.  Now we just have to see if Tiger can win before Augusta and see what that does to everyone’s expectations for the year’s first major.

Tiger Woods: Ball-Striking Maven.

Tiger Can't Miss in Abu Dhabi.

There will be some non-golf in this post, so go ahead and scroll down if you must.  We’re at the annual point in the golf season that pits the European Tour vs. the PGA Tour.  Appearance Fees vs. No Appearance Fees.  Fans of International golf will likely crow about the quality of the field in Abu Dhabi this week.  It certainly is top-heavy, but they ignore that somehow Todd Hamilton gets in this event every year.  The PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines cannot brag about drawing the top-10 in the world, but if it is still true that the US has most of the depth, it’s easy to argue that Torrey still has the better field.

In recent years Tiger had always made his first U.S. appearance at Torrey Pines and played the somewhat less glamorous Dubai Desert Classic as his Mideast venture, but this year the lure of that guaranteed oil money was too much to ignore.  Sorry, Torrey Pines.  Hope Phil is a good enough consolation prize for you.  As I said, Tiger is joined in Abu Dhabi by the likes of World #1 Luke Donald, my #1 villain Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Charl Schwartzel, Martin Kaymer, Sergio, etc.  In a real moment of ingenuity, Tiger was paired with Rory and Luke for round number one.

It ended up being Rory’s day–tied for the lead at 5-under par, but the subplot was the near flawless ball-striking of Mr. Woods.  Tiger missed the first green, then hit the next 17.  He was bogey-free, and took 34 putts on his way to a 2-under 70.  Now, 34 putts is an astronomical number for a pro.  I’ve had rounds where I took 34 putts so that means it’s not good.  At all.  The good news for Tiger and his spring-loaded pack of followers who are anxious for his next conquest is that he may have finally turned the corner in terms of his ball-striking.  It’s been a long while (granted only 4 real events) since Tiger was in full spray mode.

That doesn’t address the putting issue, though.  If this was five, six years ago we’d laugh off Tiger’s 34 putts, chalk it up to unfamiliarity with the greens and wait for him to shoot 63 tomorrow.  That could happen, or Tiger could be morphing into something of a Tom Watson character, a player who in the twilight of his PGA Tour run was hitting the ball better than ever but rarely holed a putt.  There’s no way that Tiger will ever get back to true dominance without his once infallible flat stick.  The fore-right, fore-left, pop-up 3-wood watch might become the 30-putt watch.  It’s always something, am I right, Tiger?

***

Phillies trade Wilson Valdez.  It surprised me how many people were a little upset with this deal.  Did we get anything back??  We traded Wilson Valdez.  What do you think?  The left-handed relief flier that comes to Philly from the Reds is about all you could expect.  Also, the Phils trim a tiny bit of cash off the payroll.  Every little bit counts when you’re saving up for Cole (fingers crossed).  Valdez was a fine fielder and is fondly remembered for his late-inning pitching heroics, but we don’t need to be too upset about this one.  It opens up a little window for Freddy Galvis and also probably means more Mikey Mart (an obvious downside).  Someone in the organization just loves that guy.  It’s funny how Philly fans get so attached.  Some cry for change and then get all busted up when Wilson Valdez gets shipped off.  Interesting little paradox.

**Update** Brad Lidge to Washington.  For a cool million.  Lidge will always be remembered for his perfect 2008 season and he deserves a huge chunk of credit for that title.  The Phils were hardly the pitching staff they are now back in those days.  Really, the entire bullpen was heroic.  Of course, Lidge followed up ’08 with one of the worst years ever by a closer and played a role in the Phillies losing the ’09 World Series.  So, there was that.  The Nationals continue to slowly assemble the 2008 Phillies, piece by piece.  Shame Jamie Moyer got away to Colorado.

***

I finished, The Art of Fielding, the Chad Harbach novel.  It didn’t finish that strong for me.  It kind of drifted from baseball, got a bit odd and mythopoetic (I learned that word in Tin Cup), but I still found it to be a decent book.  It’s incredibly polarizing to reviewers.  The initial reviews were great, but you can find dozens of people trashing it online.  That’s kind of the way things work, though, right?  Anything praised will eventually be trashed for being praised on the internet.  I think it deserves some criticism, but I find that very few books end well.  They’re often like those comedies we love (Superbad) where the first hour is incredible and then when forced to wrap things up it becomes forgettable.  Once baseball was pushed aside and the plot needed to be resolved I found myself a lot less interested.  It’s not a bad book, though.  Don’t believe all the haters.

***

When I look at the stats for my blog, after I scroll through the millions and millions of pageviews there is a little section that highlights search terms that led people to this site.  More often than not these terms are “Amber Heard,” or “Mila Kunis black and white,” or even “3 Putt Territory,” believe it or not.  Sometimes, though, there is just something so odd that it really makes my day.  It’s hilarious sometimes what people search for on the internet.  Today someone came through after a search of, “Fred Couples cold top.”  Did someone hear Fred use the term, “cold top?”  Certainly Fred has never hit a cold top in his life–unless he so ON PURPOSE.  But, considering how much I mention Fred and how I love the terms “cold top” and “cold shank” it’s not really surprising at all that this wayward searcher ended up here. If you come back, sir or madam, the only part of the club face that Fred needs is the damn screws.  Thank you and good day.

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)

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.