I feel like I’ve been attending a weeklong Wagner opera festival at which, by the last day, it was touch and go whether the singers would expire before the audience did.
This was an odd U.S. Open to watch on TV. It takes nothing away from winner Webb Simpson’s brilliant weekend (shooting 68-68) to say that watching play unfold on Sunday, you had the feeling that everyone was going to fall away.
It’s often the case with a U.S. Open that the winner staggers rather than marches. At least this time it came down to the last hole whether there would be a playoff, though the U.S. Golf Association’s choice of a hole location at Olympic Club’s 18th that was front left and just over a steep bunker made it impossible for anyone to hit it close in two all day. Too bad, because as we saw all week, the USGA and its executive director, Mike Davis, have raised the art of micro-managing course setup (and scoring) to an art form.
Just look at how they flexed the monstrous par-5 16th hole that played as long as 671 yards on Saturday and then played “only” 569 yards on Sunday. Not only did no one reach it in two on Sunday – or any day – but we saw players who missed the fairway finding themselves with 225 yards or more in for their third shots. On Sunday, when Jim Furyk fell apart with a disastrously yanked tee shot, he had 340 yards left for his third.
But there and throughout Olympic it wasn’t length that was the issue; as always, it was ground contour, and on some holes, ground that was shaved down. Witness the sad sight of Ernie Els putting from the swale behind the 16th green on Sunday while still very much in contention and having his first putt come back to his feet. With that, he was done.
It was, for each player other than Webb Simpson, simply a matter of time before they all became undone. The strangest might have been Tiger Woods, who looked brilliant the first two days, shooting 69-70 and making it seem that his previous victories this season at Bay Hill and Memorial were prelude to his formal return to glory. And then gradually, he, too, came undone, playing 24 holes from Saturday through the sixth hole Sunday in exactly 11 over par. By that time, NBC-TV executives must have been sick in anguish that they’d lose half the audience Sunday night to the Heat vs. Thunder playoff game.
Olympic is a weird place for a U.S. Open. Maybe it’s the ghosts there that live in that tree on the fifth hole, where Lee Janzen drove his ball in 1998 and where Lee Westwood lost his ball (and his chance to win) this time around. Or maybe it’s simply that the game’s giants come apart here: Ben Hogan losing to Jack Fleck. Arnold Palmer fading and Billy Casper passing him. Tom Watson giving way to Scott Simpson. Payne Stewart to Janzen. And now Furyk to another Simpson.
Maybe it’s the odd cant of those fairways and the way that golf here becomes something closer to bumper cars or short-track stock-car racing. Whatever it is, and as hard as it is to play that place, it’s actually harder to watch. Golf is best when players triumph, not when they stumble. If I’ve spent a week watching opera, I want the singers to end on a high note and not just run out of music.