THE U.S. OPEN : A Beautifully Miserable First Round, Wasn't It?

Didn't you love it?

Embarrassing, wasn't it? There were the world's greatest golfers humiliating themselves, playing like the truck drivers' flight or the 20-and-over handicaps at Perth Amboy Municipal.

They learned how to play the game even as you and I play it. They learned what we duffers have to go through all the time. Balls that don't go where you aim them, balls you can't find, balls you don't want to find.

When's the last time, do you think, Jack Nicklaus had a lost ball? Had to walk in the bushes, the way we do and say, "Anybody see an old cut Titleist with Michelob Light on it around here anyplace?"

When's the last time you saw this many guys who couldn't break 80 in a tournament where there was anything at stake other than a tea tray?

They should have made them play a scramble. All these guys' handicaps are going to go up tomorrow.

They should have let them take Mulligans.

The United States Golf Assn.'s motto is: "We're not trying to embarrass the world's best golfers--we're trying to identify them."

Well, I don't think they'd better look around Shinnecock Hills this week. These looked like a bunch of guys playing customer golf to me.

The golf course struck back this week at Shinnecock. Rain squalls in torrents blew in from the Great South Bay and raked the greens and fairways like an avenging army.

Quartering winds lashed the coast from Montauk to the Rockaways, wiping out golf scores in their wake and pockmarking Peconic Bay with their whitecaps.

Sheets of water pelted down on the Hamptons from Quogue to the towers of Manhattan, 100 miles to the west.

The Hesperus sank in better weather than this.

The greens and fairways of Shinnecock Hills were adrift with the floating bodies of the flower of American golf clinging to the flotsam of wrecked scores.

The defending champion came in nine over par. The British Open champion could only manage an eight over. Nobody broke par. Some had trouble breaking 90. One former Open champion was seven over par for the first four holes and walked off the course.

The registered lions of the game struggled along with everyone else. Nicklaus merely defended himself against the course and finally couldn't even do that, going from par to five over in four holes.

Hardly anyone attacked the course, not even the normally go-for-broke Lanny Wadkins or Greg Norman. The field was in full retreat, like Hitler from Moscow, by nightfall.

"It's the way U.S. Open golf should be," summed up former champion Tom Watson, who could afford to be magnanimous. He had a 72, which, as someone pointed out, was way under par on this day.

The par on the card--70--was just a practical joke on this Thursday, as cruel as the old cayenne- pepper-in-the-sugar-bowl routine. If par, in the Scots' definition of the term, is the average score per round, it was nearer to 78 on the opening round of the 86th United States Open.

It was not your basic red-number-on-the-scoreboard golf we have come to love and revere in this country. It was weekend golf. They should have played best-ball-of-threesome. If the weather holds the rest of the week, we may have the highest winning total since the balls were gutta percha and the shafts hickory.

Anybody can fight a good bull. Anybody can hit a letter-high fastball. Anybody can play four aces or a high straight. Anybody can cook chicken.

What made Manolete great is that he could take a hooking bull. Nick the Greek could take a pot with a small pair. Willie Mays made the Hall of Fame hitting the hard curveball or the low-and-away slider. The great chefs make venison taste great.

The USGA prides itself on its consummate ability to take a perfectly respectable golf course and turn it into the agronomical equivalent of a rabid gorilla. A monster made in a laboratory. If they could order weather, Thursday's would be it. Conditions that would make the Royal Navy heave to. Or scuttle for port. If they release this as a movie, it would be, "Action in the North Atlantic."

It was like being in the ring with Dempsey after a steady diet of palookas. This was climbing Everest after a lifetime of taking elevators.

The horror stories were endless. The first 18 finishers were 173 over par. The 18th hole--into the wind--was averaging 5.06. "We can't even get to the fairway off the tee at 9," early leader Kenny Knox marveled.

Welcome to the club. Some of us can't even get off a tee in one.

"It wasn't a game out there," said Ben Crenshaw, who fought his way to a 76. "It was a slugfest. You had to keep getting up off the floor. It was just work. You can't enjoy it."

Whatever gave these guys the idea that golf was something to enjoy? Golf is a sentence. Golf is a punishment for our sins.

It's time these guys found that out. God is a golfer. Why do you think he sent the winds aloft off Great Peconic Thursday? He wasn't after the lobster fishermen.

I hope the USGA doesn't relent and move the tee boxes up 10 or 15 yards today. These guys have to be reminded that golf, like war, is hell.

The most I will assent to is that they be read their rights before they go out there. After all, they're entitled to the same Constitutional guarantees as ax murderers.

The only thing I would suggest to Jack Nicklaus is that the next time he tees it up on No. 10 with all that hay and brush on the right, he tee up an old used or cut ball. And, that he not mark it distinctly.

I understand that looking for his ball, the spectators found several others. The thing to do in a case like that is what we do, say: "Yeah, that's it!" when the first one is found.

He'll find that a great stroke-saver. And it keeps you alive in the press.

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