Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The U.S. Open's Lost Decade

It's been ten years since Tiger Woods beat Rocco Mediate in a playoff on one leg to win the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines and we've been plunged into a long national championship nightmare ever since. You may not have noticed how depressingly mediocre the U.S. Open has become because it's been a slow drip of sucking with a blowouts, uninspiring winners and a merry band of incompetent blue blazered golfing dignitaries overseeing it all. Lucky for you I'm on the case and we've had a series of washed-out weekends where I've had nothing better to do than drink copious amounts of coffee, do a bunch of research and grow increasingly agitated so allow me to take you on a quick tour through a decade's worth of underachieving U.S. Opens

Sorry Marcia. A pretty smile is no
substitute for a strong work ethic.
As we take this walk down memory lane, keep in mind how many memorable showings the other three majors have had during this stretch. I'm not even going to compare it to the Masters because that would be like comparing Jan to Marcia - a total mismatch. Even at her worst Marcia was better at everything than Jan (except for running the ice cream shop) . . . oh shut the fuck-up. The bottom line is that the Masters is inherently better than every other major and it always will be - except when Patrick Reed wins and even then it's a debate. Which is saying something.   

The last ten years of British Open history started with Tom Watson almost winning it in 2009. I know the outcome was painful and some of us still haven't recovered but the event was epic. After that we had the feel-good Darren Clarke story in 2011, Phil Mickelson's amazing final round in 2013, a three-way playoff in 2015, the Stenson v. Mickelson duel in 2016 and Spieth going five under through four holes down the stretch last year. That my friends is a great run.

The PGA Championship hasn't been as intriguing but it's basically the Greg Focker water volleyball player of the four majors anyway so no one is expecting that much from it. Even with that low bar, we had Y.E. Yang take down Tiger in 2009, Martin Kaymer beating Bubba in a playoff after Dustin Johnson grounded his club in 2010, Keegan Bradley winning a playoff in 2011 and the dash down the final fairway in the dark of 2014 with Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Mickelson playing on top of each other. The last three haven't been that memorable with the winner pretty much coasting through the final holes but at least two of them were won by a couple of the world's best players in Jason Day and Justin Thomas.

And then . . . there were the last ten U.S. Opens. We'll start with the most recent and then grind our way back to 2009. You may want to take a shot of whiskey and bite a belt because this is gonna be kind of painful.    

2017: Brooks Koepka Wins by 4 at Erin Hills

I pretty much covered this debacle in its immediate aftermath when I wrote at too much length about how they basically just took the Waste Management Open, moved it to Wisconsin and renamed it the U.S. Open. You can read that screed here. The most notable thing that happened that week was Justin Thomas shooting a 63 in the third round and it was also Exhibit "A" for why it may have been the worst U.S. Open of all-time. No one makes nine birdies and an eagle in one round on a U.S. Open course. No one should really be doing that in four rounds on a U.S. Open course. Not on my watch. 

2016: Dustin Johnson Wins by 3 at Oakmont

Hey look at that. I wrote about this disaster after the fact too with Oakmontgate: Winners and Losers so I can just refer to that instead of coming-up with anything new and creative here. Two years removed, however, and I will add that this U.S. Open may age worse than any major ever because of how totally, royally and comically the USGA tried to fuck it up. For those who don't recall the specifics, the USGA informed Dustin Johnson on the 12th tee that he "might" have incurred a one stroke penalty on the 5th hole and that they'd get around to their decision on the matter by the time he finished his round at which point he would discover whether he won, lost or tied. 

The USGA departs Oakmont
after another job well done.
The next two hours saw them get roasted by players and fans on social media as they left DJ twisting in the wind. The USGA should send him a thank you note on every anniversary of his win for bailing them out by winning the tournament by three shots. Oh yeah, they went ahead and assessed the penalty stroke after the round even though it had no effect on the outcome of the tournament. You know, to protect the purity, sanctity and integrity of the game. Or something.

2015: Jordan Spieth Wins by 1 at Chambers Bay

Gary Player called Chambers Bay "the worst golf course I might've ever seen in my 63 years as a professional golfer." Henrik Stenson described the greens as "putting on broccoli." And that was before Dustin Johnson three-putted the 72nd hole to deprive us of a playoff between him and Jordan Spieth which would may have saved the decade. Instead, we had the ultimate anticlimactic finish to a final day that started with DJ, Spieth, Branden Grace and Jason Day tied for the lead. And the thing everyone will remember most is what a dump the golf course was because the USGA decided to over think it and play on a track that had only been open for eight years. In their defense, the United States does suffer from a lack of great golf courses in the same way it suffers from a lack of great strip malls.   

2014: Martin Kaymer Wins by 8 at Pinehurst No. 2

Kaymer had a six shot lead after the second round over Brendon Todd who really put the heat-on with a third round 79 (and that may have been the last we ever heard from Mr. Todd). Going into the final round, the two closest pursuers were the wicked one-two punch of Rickie Fowler and Erik Compton who both shot 72's to Kaymer's 69. As I recall, I think I may have watched less than an hour of this all weekend because no one ever got close enough for it to matter. I recently read a tweet from some writer who declared this one of the three best U.S. Opens since the year 2000. I have no doubt that this same writer loves Coldplay, thinks the remake of The Longest Yard is better than the original and marks his ball with a miniature manhole cover (if he even plays).    

2013: Justin Rose Wins by 2 at Merion Golf Club

All I remember is rain, Billy Horschel's pants and that they finished in near darkness because of all of the delays. I will concede that this one was intriguing because the course is unique and the leaderboard was stacked fairly tightly throughout the four days with Phil at the top of it until he botched the first five holes on Sunday. I'll also remember this one for the way the press mocked the length of the course with one reporter saying that, with the wet conditions, the winning score would be fifteen under. The winning score was one over. Robert Karlsson who shot 86 on Saturday saw the same reporter on Sunday morning and said, "well you were right, fifteen under definitely would've won it." 

2012: Webb Simpson Wins by 1 at Olympic Club

Can we all just agree that Olympic Club should be taken out of the rotation because it produces such humdrum winners? No offense to Webb Simpson but before him we had Lee Janzen, Scott Simpson, Billy Casper and Jack Fleck. The five of them combined to win just two other majors - both U.S. Opens with Janzen winning a snoozer at Baltusrol and Casper getting his other one at Winged Foot in 1959. Simpson has never finished higher than 13th in any other major and his closest pursuers in 2012 were Graeme McDowell, Michael Thompson, Jason Dufner, Jim Furyk, Padraig Harrington, David Toms and John Peterson. That's not a leaderboard. That's an insurance seminar at a Red Roof Inn.

Not sure what became of Win after that.
Not even sure if she made it out alive.
2011: Rory McIlroy Wins by 8 at Congressional

And it wasn't that close. Rory led by 3 shots after the first round, 6 after the second and then took an 8 shot lead into the final round. It was cool in the beginning because it was one of Rory's first ball-striking clinics but, after awhile, you were just like enough is enough. 

The highlight of the week for me was that a friend of mine was chaperoning Win McMurray for the Golf Channel so I got to hang with her and have a beer in the middle of the clubhouse crowd. It was great until the paunchy guys in golf shoes and straw hats started slowly closing-in around us murmuring her name at which point my buddy literally said in his best Liam Neeson voice, "we gotta move." And just like that she was gone.        

2010: Graeme McDowell Wins by 1 at Pebble Beach

This was the tournament where the first car of Dustin Johnson's ten car pile-up of a major career slammed into the pile. He entered the final round with a three shot lead and proceeded to play the first four holes six over. Then it became mostly a two man race between Graeme McDowell and France's Gregory Havret. I'll just let that last sentence stand on its own as validation for this entire article.  

2009: Lucas Glover Wins by 2 at Bethpage Black

Much like 2013, rain wreaked havoc with the scheduling so that you never knew when the leaders were playing and the majority of the final round had to be completed on Monday. At least there was some drama as Phil briefly tied for the lead with an eagle on 13 before giving those shots back with bogeys on 15 and 17 to finish in his usual runner-up position. David Duval made a run to within a shot of the lead before bogeying 17 to fall two back. That allowed Lucas Glover to cruise home despite shooting three over in the final round. Again, no offense to Glover but he's only got three career wins including this one and he's missed the cut in 21 of the 36 majors he's entered. Rumor has it that his wife was so pissed that he won the U.S. Open instead of the Masters that she took a dump in the trophy. And then threw it at him. 

That seems like a fitting place to end this. The first groups will be teeing off at Shinnecock in less than twenty hours. Let's just hope the USGA has set-up the course with the goal of identifying the best golfer and not the golfer who successfully executes the most conservative game plan or has the best luck or one who will inevitably recede into the shadows of golf history as another guy who's name prompts the question "that guy won a major?" 

They've landed on the perfect course at a time when the list of worthy champions runs almost twenty deep as thirteen of the top twenty-five players in the world have won at least one major and there are at least another five players who deserve to win their first. Now it just depends on whether the USGA learned from its mistakes and is willing to let the players be the stars instead of the Stimpmeter and the length of the rough. You know me. I'm the eternal optimist but for now I'll be over here not holding my breath.          

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