Olympic Turns Flower of the Game Into Weeds
Who’s winning the U.S. Open? That’s easy. Who always wins a U.S. Open? The course, of course. That’s a no-brainer. Ask Hogan. Palmer. Watson.
Payne Stewart has temporary custody. Provided he doesn’t tick off the course today.
You know, in sports competitors like to encounter the expected, the familiar. Fighters hate to fight left-handers, for example. They louse up your game plan.
Batters hate to face screwball pitchers, knucklers. They like the fastball, hate off-speed pitchers. Ruins timing.
Defensive ends loathe scrambling quarterbacks. They like them to stay in the pocket and get sacked.
Tennis players abhor guys who pester them with drop shots, lobs and louse up their serve-and-volley game.
All these guys tend to want to stand there and snarl at the opposition, “Come out and fight like a man!”
Golf is no different. That’s the way golfers tend to view Open courses like Olympic Club. “Call yourself a golf course, do you?” they want to scream. “You wouldn’t be a patch on a real golf course’s pants, you wimp!”
You see, it frustrates them. They want one of these nice, obliging courses that lets them hit these nice, beautiful 325-yard tee shots onto no-rough fairways and be left pretty, little nine-irons to par-five greens. Then, they want nine-foot putts as straight and smooth as a hall carpet.
Take John Daly. He was livid the first look he got at Olympic Club’s deceptive yardage. Daly described it with guttersnipe, toilet-wall language. It would three-wood and two-iron him to death. He took the driver out of the bag until Saturday. He couldn’t take the A-game out on this course.
Neither could Tiger Woods.
It’s very frustrating to these guys. You see, a golfer is like a knockout puncher. He wants to nail his man, put him away early. He wants to throw these roundhouse rights at the course and hit it on the chin.
But the course is Willie Pep. It moves out of range. It gets him to miss and then it peppers him with left jabs and clever footwork.
The course kind of clinches with him. Takes the power out of his game. Makes him yearn for the more orthodox courses of the tour, places where he can attack.
You see, he has to defend himself here. He’s like a batter choking up, a fighter clinching, getting on a bicycle, a tennis player staying at the baseline, a football player punting on third down.
Olympic does that to you. Any U.S. Open course does.
On Friday, Payne Stewart, who won one of these U.S. Opens and should know better, was cruising along, getting big ideas, when he came to 18. A birdie and he would lead the Open by five big shots. A par and he’s four up.
But he walks into this spider’s parlor with an approach shot that’s above the hole. A wicked smile must have played on Olympic Club’s face. Stewart had an eight-foot putt. He putted. And the ball rolled. And rolled. And he’s got a 20-foot putt.
Naturally, he missed it. The wimp of a course showed him who was boss.
Daly had a similar experience. “If they wanted a Mickey Mouse tournament,” he roared, “why don’t they move it to Disney World?”
With his driver for the first time all week, Daly had five bogeys on the front nine Saturday and eight altogether.
Fred Couples, who needs a driver too, had four sixes and three fives Saturday. He finished with a 79.
There are two kinds of golfers on the PGA Tour. There are the exploding stars, the Dalys, Woodses, Coupleses, the boomers. And there are the grinders.
A grinder is a guy who’s a kind of lunch-pail, hard-hat player. He just goes out there and hacks it out of the rough, implores his tee shots to stay straight, bites his lip, nails. He works on a course as if it were a lathe. He’s a 9-to-5 player.
He’s out there to make money, not history. He doesn’t have this big, overpowering game. He usually goes for a top-10 finish, not the Cup. He needs the money.
If he hits it in the rough, he sighs and just gets it back on the fairway, takes his bogey, doesn’t try for any miracles. Going for it all might cost him next month’s rent.
The leaderboard here Saturday was full of those types of guys. Jeff Maggert, for instance, in fourth place, is almost the prototype grinder. A pro for 12 years, he has made almost $5 million on tour but won only once: a minor tournament, the Walt Disney, five years ago. He has been second 12 times. That tells you all you need to know about Jeff Maggert. If the line were written “Jeff Maggert won the U.S. Open here today,” half the country wouldn’t know whether it was in tennis or golf.
But a Maggert respects a golf course. He has the temperament to accept that he can’t eviscerate it with his big game. He has to creep through it, not go in with bands playing, flags flying.
Lee Janzen, in third place, has won a U.S. Open but he’s your basic grinder too. He tries not to wake up the course. He never goes for the first-round KO. He just plays it as it lies, makes pars, lets the birdies take care of themselves.
Tom Lehman, in second place, won a British Open, but he, too, tends to take what the course gives him, not go for its jugular.
For these other guys, the jet set, it was like being bitten by your own dog this week. A course this short looks beatable. They would think they might never have more than a wedge to any green. The Greater Milwaukee Open is played on a longer course.
But this course is as eccentric as a maiden aunt. It doesn’t look as if it had an ace up its sleeve or in the hole. But it does. It doesn’t respond to bullying. Last time I looked there were 33 80s shot on it.
It has taught the flower of American golf manners. Payne Stewart better not take any liberties with it today. He better just try to smuggle his four-shot lead into the clubhouse and not ruffle any feathers.
That way, Olympic might let him win it. He’s the only guy under par in this tournament. That right there tends to annoy an Open course. Stewart is on probation.
As for the rest of those guys, next week they can go back to hitting nine-irons to par-five greens. This tournament is for working stiffs.