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It's not fair; that's why it's fun
The best thing about the U.S. Open is not the way some of the world's best players hack through a golf course as if it were an Ecuadoran rain forest, though there certainly is great sport in watching that. You haven't lived until you've seen a touring pro with vacant eyes and a clump of rough the size of an oven mitt stuck to his 5-iron.
But the best thing about the Open is the whining, the moaning and the whimpering from the pros. There is something very democratic about this tournament, even if it's a four-day mirage of democracy. Olympia Fields Country Club will bring many of the world's best golfers to their knees this week, but they eventually will return to their birdies, their Learjets and their lovely wives. We will be left behind to stare at our bad golf games.
For four days, though, we'll hear carping about concrete greens, about rough the length of a ZZ Top beard, about pin placements so treacherous that they come with mountain goats.
And we'll wonder what the big deal is. This is how the game of golf feels to most of us on a regular basis, somewhere between impossible and diabolical. The U.S. Open allows us to chuckle at the players' disorientation. That stand of trees where a distraught pro should receive his meals through a slot in the door? We've been there, dude!
In the 1999 Open at Pinehurst No. 2, John Daly watched his putt roll back toward him on a steep green, swung at it in frustration as it was leaving the scene and took an 11 on his way to an 83.
"They have too many unfair pins," he said. "It's frustrating. ... I'm not going to Pebble Beach next year and watch the USGA ruin that course too."
Daly did play in the 2000 Open. He quit in frustration after one round.
You can be sure some players will complain that Olympia Fields is not fair, to which we will offer the parent's age-old rejoinder: Life ain't fair, kid. In the second round of the 1998 Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Payne Stewart's putt on the 18th hole rolled within inches of the cup, then rolled 20 feet down a slope.
Was that fair?
No, it was the U.S. Open.
This is why we love the U.S. Golf Association. USGA officials seem to take pleasure in lighting the fuse and waiting for the debris to fall on them.
"To be honest with you, if the players don't say something nasty about me and the USGA, then we haven't done what we're supposed to do," Tom Meeks, the organization's senior director of rules and competition, said in a recent interview.
Players have accused Meeks of being sadistic in the way he sets up Open courses, but that's probably a little strong. Cruel, maybe, but in a frisky, carnivore-playing-with-its-food sort of way. At last year's Open at Bethpage State Park, players complained that the 10th hole was so long they couldn't reach the fairway off the tee.
"One of the players gave us an F in course setup for the whole week," sniffed Meeks, still a bit insulted. "I thought overall we did a good job. I'm a former school teacher, and I'll take an A or an A-minus or even a B-plus, but an F means we didn't do anything right. I thought we had a hell of a test."
This is what Paul Azinger said last year after shooting an 82 and missing the cut: "It makes me want to retire. I'm glad to be leaving."
And Nick Faldo: "I had to keep reminding myself I'm a golfer. This is not fighting in the jungle. If we had a 15th club, it would be a machete or a grenade launcher. Something to fire straight."
Jack Nicklaus had a wonderful approach to the tournament. After each U.S. Open practice round, he would listen to the complaints of his fellow competitors, then put them on his list of also-rans.
"I loved to walk in and hear the first 10 guys saying, 'God, this rough is so deep. How do you get out of it?"' Nicklaus said. "You eliminate [those players]. 'Boy, these greens are hard.' Ten more you can eliminate. 'Boy, these greens are fast.' Ten more you can eliminate."
It's fairly simple. Most of these guys want courses that offer the possibility of shooting a 63. Some of them don't like the British Open for the elements, and some of them don't like the U.S. Open for the extreme emotional discomfort.
Meeks said he would love to hear players praise his setups, but he'll have to settle for pragmatism.
"I come to the U.S. Open expecting nothing to be fair," two-time champion Lee Janzen once said. "If you hit it in the rough, you can't hit out. If you put it above the hole, you can't two-putt. Hit it in the bunker, you don't have a shot. If you don't hit the good shots, you don't make the cut."
We don't need his kind of level-headedness around here. We need grousing.