Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 24, 2010

The Golf Course Wins Again

After four days and 72 holes of golf on the Monterey Peninsula last weekend, there was a runaway winner of the 2010 U.S. Open. That winner was venerable Pebble Beach Golf Links, as set up for the Open by the USGA. Pebble Beach was an ideal venue to show just how big of an impact decisions by the blue-jacketed USGA officials have on the Open because it annually hosts a regular event on the PGA Tour.

In February, as one of three courses used for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Pebble Beach Golf Links played to a par of 72 at 6,816 yards. With a four round total of sixteen under par, Dustin Johnson won the tournament for the second year in a row. On the last day of the event, the only day that all of the golfers were playing Pebble, six of the nine players who wound up tied for eighth or better broke par. On that Sunday there were a total of twenty-one sub-par rounds, or just shy of one-third of the sixty-nine golfers who made the cut.

Between February and June the USGA narrowed fairways in the landing areas, grew multiple cuts of ever deeper rough to snare off-line shots, shaved down collection areas to invite balls rolling to the edge of greens to keep right on rolling off them, pushed back tee boxes to lengthen the course, and converted the second hole from a short par five to a lengthy par four.

The result was that this past weekend, the same stunning acreage played to a par of 71 over 7,040 yards. No one broke par for the tournament. Of the eleven players who tied for eighth or better, only one had more than one round under par over four days. And what Pebble did on Sunday to that one man was beyond cruel. Once again there were six rounds under par on the tournament’s final day; but this time it was in the entire eighty-three man field, not just amongst the leaders.

The aforementioned Dustin Johnson held a three stroke lead after 54 holes, at 6 under par. He seemed a good bet to claim his first major title, not only because of the lead but because he clearly likes Pebble. Aside from the back-to-back victories at the AT&T National he was the one golfer who had twice gone under par at the Open, having followed a one under par second round with a scintillating five under par 66 on Saturday. But in the space of twenty minutes on Sunday afternoon Johnson came entirely undone.

After recording an opening par, he hit his approach on #2 into the very edge of a greenside bunker. The depth of the bunker made it impossible for him to address the ball from his normal side. After turning around to swing left-handed, Johnson hit a chip perhaps three feet into deep rough. He then swung right under the ball as he attempted a lob shot onto the green, the ball popping up two feet into the air and settling back into the rough. A chip and two putts later, and Johnson’s three stroke lead had evaporated in the face of a triple bogey. One hole and one double bogey later, Johnson trailed by two. A few minutes and a bogey on the fourth later, Johnson was no longer under par for the tournament. Sadly for the lanky South Carolina native, the bleeding didn’t stop there. His final round of 82 dropped him all the way into a tie for eighth place.

U.S. Open history is replete with tales of disastrous final rounds. In fact, one need not even leave Pebble Beach to find a story as sad as Dustin Johnson’s. Early in the third round of the 1992 Open, Gil Morgan became the first man to reach 10 under par in the entire history of the national championship. By the time he walked off the 7th green, he was at minus 12, and seemingly cruising to victory. But then he played the next eleven holes in eight over par, and followed that with a nine over par Sunday round to fall all the way back to thirteenth place, eight strokes behind eventual winner Tom Kite. Still, the fact that this year’s horror show starred a player so obviously comfortable on this course was stunning.

Meanwhile there was of course also an eventual winner of this year’s championship. Before the tournament began, much of the talk was about how 2010 marked the 40th anniversary of the last time a European golfer won the tournament. So of course both the winner and the runner-up were Europeans. Who were these last two men standing against the beast that Pebble Beach became? Lee Westwood perhaps, frequent major contender of late and winner in Memphis the previous week? Ian Poulter, winner at the Match Play earlier in the season, ranked 9th in the world? Three-time major winner Padraig Harrington or young fellow-Irishman Rory McIlroy? No, the winner was thirty year-old Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, and second place went to thirty-three year-old Gregory Havret of France, who missed a nine foot putt at the last that would have forced a playoff.

McDowell has won six times on the European Tour in the course of a nine year professional career. But prior to Sunday he had just two top-ten finishes in limited playing time in the United States. It’s safe to say that other than his father, who watched his son win on Father’s Day, few if any of the spectators knew who he was. And while Havret was the French Amateur champion three years running, as a professional he has labored in obscurity, arriving at Pebble Beach ranked 391st in the world. But while it was certainly surprising that these two particular unknown golfers topped the leader board, unknowns contending at and winning the Open is no surprise at all. Last year it was Lucas Glover and Ricky Barnes, hardly household names, playing in the final group. A year earlier it was the journeyman Rocco Mediate taking Tiger Woods to 19 extra holes in a Monday playoff. A longer list of Open winners includes the likes of Lee Janzen and Andy North, both of whom won two Opens. Those victories constituted one-quarter of Janzen’s PGA Tour wins, and an incredible two-thirds of North’s.

The very conditions that make the U.S. Open so difficult for everyone also serve to level the field. At essentially rough-free Augusta National, Tiger or Phil can drive the ball off-line and still have a chance to use their superior overall ability to recover. Courses set up for the U.S. Open provide no second chances. In that environment any member of the legion of golf’s lesser lights, if he is able to keep hitting it straight and harness his emotions, has a legitimate shot at winding up as the top golfer on Sunday evening. I say “top golfer,” because the real winner of the U.S. Open is almost always the golf course.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: