SAN FRANCISCO — The single word most often used in describing what it takes to succeed at a U.S. Open is “patience.” If that’s the leader in the clubhouse in the U.S. Open Word Association Olympics, we’d like to introduce you to entry 1-B.
At the U.S. Open, attitude is king. It’s paramount. It’s the cherry on the sundae. A proper attitude is mandatory. You’re being asked to fight a bully twice your size behind the school at 3 p.m., and you’d better have a plan. That includes your mind being right.
Playing the U.S. Open is trying to tiptoe into a long, dark train tunnel. Oh, there’s a trophy ceremony every now and then, but for most of the 156 guys here, the experience seldom ends very well. This is the U.S. Open recipe – persistence, patience, toughness, grit – and very few seem to ever truly embrace it. One must accept that bounces won’t go just right, that putts will horseshoe out, that balls will hide in deep, spaghetti-thick rough, that pars are absolute gold. Birdies are rarer than a Vijay Singh sighting on The Comedy Channel. You want red numbers? Get a paint can. You have a better shot at finding Jimmy Hoffa. There are just certain realities here, one of them being that a U.S. Open competitor over 72 holes is apt to see more doubles than a salesman in a hotel lobby bar.
This is the place where’s a golfer’s most feared nightmare comes tapping on the shoulder. Your 18-hole leader, Michael Thompson, was 2 over through six holes, and darned happy to be there. Consider a handful of rugged “how-do-you-do’s” extended to players at our 112th national championship at storied Olympic: Young Andy Zhang, at 14 the youngest player ever to play in a U.S. Open, began his first Open triple-double. Now, that’s great in the NBA, but not on this circuit. Lee Westwood, coming off a victory in Sweden, opened his lucky 13th Open with a double. How’s that for a kick in the ribs? Phil Mickelson, teeing off at No. 9 in the morning’s marquee group, launched a 3-wood off the tee that never came down. Like his orb, his chances were instantly up a tree. Lefty walked back to the tee, reloaded, and made a fantastic 5. Sadly, it was the highlight of his 76.
Paul Azinger, here at Olympic working for ESPN, said he once played alongside a golfer who started his U.S. Open quad-quad-quad. That’s 12 over after three, or better known as a guest cameo on “Twilight Zone.” One could only hope there was a trap door somewhere on the fourth tee at that year’s championship that allowed said player to be swallowed into the Earth’s core and forever delivered from his misery.
The U.S. Open is a 5-hour haircut with tweezers, a 10-hour transatlantic flight in a middle seat next to Pee Wee Herman. It’s everything these PGA Tour silver-spooners aren’t accustomed to seeing. They take a quick and envious glance at flagsticks, swallow hard, and then steer mid-iron shots some 40 feet away. The smart ones do, anyway.
There’s a par 3 here, the 199-yard 13th, than can either gobble up a tee shot in the right trees or send it careening down a steep, closely-mown bank toward a hazard on the left. Thank you sir, I will have another.
Masters champion Bubba Watson was last seen wielding that pink driver of his far too frequently on Thursday at Olympic, even squashing a second shot off the deck with it on the longest hole in golf, the 670-yard, par-5 16th.
How’d that plan go, Bubba?
“Not very good,” he snorted. “I shot 8 over.”
It’s seven straight days of med-school exams. Luke Donald, the world No. 1, bogeyed half of his holes and did not make a birdie. Three-time major winner Padraig Harrington was trying to remember a time he four-putted in a tournament. At Olympic on Thursday, he did it twice. Matt Kuchar thought he played great in a practice round here last week and shot 72. These guys aren’t wired to compute that as success. What stretch of holes at Olympic are the toughest? The first 18, Kuchar said. Ba-dum-pum.
Is it in any small way possible for competitors to enjoy golf’s ultimate test?
“I certainly think you have to, even if you fool yourself a little bit, you have to,” said David Toms, one of the chosen few who was able to beat par at Olympic on Thursday. He shot 1-under 69. It was his 47th U.S. Open round dating to 1996; it was the third time he’d broken par.
“I mean, when you sign up to qualify for the Open or when you’re exempt for it, you know it’s going to be tough no matter what course you’re playing,” he said. “The setup is going to be difficult. They’re trying to protect par, no matter what. So you just have to enjoy it.”
Sure. Enjoy it. Just the way as kids we enjoyed green beans and castor oil.
Not that the 45-year-old Toms always programmed himself to try to have a good time here. It wasn’t until his seventh U.S. Open that he finally carded a round in the 60s, which at this event, can be about as rare as an Honus Wagner baseball card. Get this: Toms shot 7 over at Oakmont five years ago and tied for fifth. Love it? Doubt it. But that’s the Open. He finally got to a point where he put his hands in the air and surrendered. He said he turned a corner five or six years ago, and it’s definitely helped him. His epiphany: This championship does enough on its own to rough up a guy. There’s no sense in a player piling on.
“Attitude,” said Toms, speaking like a wise man who’d just climbed down from the mountain, “is all about a choice. You can get to a U.S. Open and let it beat you up, complain about it, talk about all the bad pins and the unfair bounces … but everybody has to play. In the end, everyone plays the same golf course. So you just have to learn to handle it.”
And viewing all the U.S. Open carnage on Thursday, some clearly do that better than others.