2002: Whiners need not apply

Farmingdale, N.Y.

Welcome to the 102nd U.S. Open. Root canals to the left, thumb screws to the right. It’s about as much fun as a bank safe atop the head from 40 floors up.

Sleep in your car for the opportunity to plunk down $31 for a tee time on Bethpage Black? Shoot, some of the best golf pros in the world would have slept in their cars for the opportunity to go home a day early.

Nick Price is right. If this was any other tournament, they wouldn’t get anybody to play in it. Guess what? This isn’t any other tournament. It’s the U.S. Open. It’s a tournament that doesn’t have a champion, per se. Instead, it recognizes its No. 1 survivor.

Any questions as to who that would be after four roaring, rock-and-roll days outside the Big Apple? The crowds were deafening, as was the dominance of Tiger Woods, who continually adapted to the many changing faces and challenges of Bethpage. Struggle with the long game for two rounds? Simple. Putt like the reincarnation of Bobby Locke. And in the third round, with some formidable contenders finally knocking on the door and the prospect of a historic Sunday shootout looming, Woods, who didn’t have his “A” stuff for 14 holes, shifted into an auxilary gear, making two late birdies to slam the door.

Game on? How about game over? Sundays at the majors with this guy are little more than 18-hole coronations. Tiger Woods, the ultimate tease.

The longest U.S. Open test in history managed to ruffle a few feathers, but then, the Open never lacks for entries into its wooden complaint box. That’s why Jack Nicklaus used to smile and salivate when he arrived to a U.S. Open test – he realized that, before the first ball went in the air, about 70 percent of the field would be convinced mentally it could not win.

Nick Faldo, the savvy Englishman who plodded his way to six major championships, arrived at Bethpage knowing it wasn’t his kind of course. Toooo long. But all he had to do was keep his ears open for a couple of days to establish a new outlook for the week.

“I thought with everybody screaming at the golf course, that would help me,” said Faldo, the 44-year-old who walked away tied for fifth. “I had a good mental mindset for the week. I had nothing to lose . . . just go out and play as well as I could.”

The exam that is the U.S. Open is like no other in golf. Accept it.

“There are two things to know about the U.S. Open,” said Scott Hoch. “Expect nothing to be fair, and know you’re not going to have any fun.”

Is that so bad? This isn’t a race to see who can get to 35 under. It can be a lonely week if you’re a red number. It’s a tournament that rewards mental toughness, tenacity and perseverance as much as shotmaking skills. And unlike several “major” tests we’ve watched in recent years that turn into little more than who can hit the straightest 3-iron off the tee, Bethpage Black was a complete study, the whole enchilada.

No doubt, the Black left them blue.

Price ripped a decent drive on the 10th hole Friday in windy and rainy conditions and was shocked to hear his caddie, Jimmy Johnson, start calling for the ball to hook. Knowing the tee shot had no chance of reaching the fairway on the 492-yard par 4, Johnson was rooting for the ball to land in a crosswalk only a few yards wide.

Once he got to the ball, Price turned to a U.S. Golf Association official and deadpanned, “This fairway is a little narrow for me.” Added Price later: “He didn’t see the humor in that.”

The best players in the world were resigned to lay up on some par-4 holes (gasp!), use three shots to reach the par-5 fourth (unfathomable) and required to chop wedges out of dense rough that was akin to trying to hit a golf ball out of 6 inches of spaghetti. Welcome to Joe 12-Handicapper’s world. Asked to compare Bethpage to the 1974 Massacre at Winged Foot, where he won with a 7-over 287, three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin replied, “That sand wedge back to the fairway is just as effective here as it was in ’74.”

When Tom Meeks, senior director of rules and competitions for the USGA, walked onto the practice tee before Saturday’s third round, Ernie Els playfully raised his iron like a rifle and took aim at him. However, Meeks offered no apology for severe conditions many players said were way over the edge.

In the second round at No. 10, for instance, five consecutive groups went through without reaching the fairway. That is a tad severe, and Meeks later said the USGA likely would examine bringing the fairway back toward the tee the next time Bethpage is visited. Nonetheless, Meeks said the USGA traditionally plays within 5 yards of its “post” marking on any tee, and does not adjust because of conditions. Never has, and he hopes it never will.

“I know the PGA Tour oftentimes will go forward on tees when they get a weather forecast that calls for a lot of rain or wind,” Meeks said. “We don’t do that. I’m not saying that we’re right and the PGA Tour is wrong, but that’s our philosophy, and that’s theirs.”

Last I checked, the Open doled out a $5.5 million purse Sunday, including a cool million to its champion. A million bucks. If vying for such a treasure meant taking a few lumps on Bethpage Black, and getting one’s feelings hurt a bit by high scores, so be it. Sometimes, 75 can be a terrific roundof golf. Funny, but the players who accept the difficult obstacles that traditionally accompany the U.S. Open usually are the ones with late afternoon tee times on the weekend.

Some players who walked off with scores in the 80s and missed the cut still identified Bethpage as the most complete Open test they’d ever seen. Hit good shots, and it was fair. In the end, the best player in the world was crowned its top 72-hole survivor – no fluke – and the No. 2 guy was right behind.

For anybody wishing to carp and whine about the U.S. Open, there’s a simple alternative: Stay home. There are 8,000 or so applicants dying to take your place.

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