U.S. Open isn't about fair, it's about shooting the lowest score

Posted: Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Something strange happened the day after the U.S. Open. A black round cap about the size of a hockey puck mysteriously rose from the ground and started spraying water over Shinnecock Hills. In the golf industry, they call this a sprinkler.

Then a couple of players searched and found eureka! a pitch mark that needed to be repaired.

In other words, Shinnecock Hills returned to being a golf course, one of the finest in the country.

No one was sure what to call the links-styled course or the competition it held during a final round that identified the best players, humiliated the rest and set a U.S. Open record for complaints.

There is no denying the U.S. Golf Association, which treats par as its most precious commodity, went over the edge to make sure the toughest test in golf lived up to its reputation.

By continuing to double-cut the greens they were so dead, it's a wonder there was any grass left to mow and refusing to water them until certain holes became unplayable, the U.S. Open more closely resembled a demolition derby than a national championship.

''Good shots are not staying in fairways. Good shots are not staying on greens,'' Tom Kite said. ''You've got the best players in the world. If they can't shoot under par, then it's got to be out of control.''

Robert Allenby had the best round at even-par 70.

Five players shot 79 and still moved up the leaderboard.

The 28 players who failed to break 80 included Ernie Els, the No. 2 player in the world.

''It's not the first time they've done this, and it won't be the last,'' Mark Calcavecchia said of the USGA, shortly after grinding out a 75. ''On that note, I need a beer.''

But for all the silliness Sunday, the lasting image is U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen and runner-up Phil Mickelson playing a game unfamiliar to many others.

They were the only guys to beat par for the tournament.

They played the kind of golf that wins the U.S. Open.

It's not about whether the golf course is fair. It's about shooting the lowest score.

Tee shots don't stay in the fairway? Mickelson only missed two of the last eight fairways. He played with such control that he used a variety of shots to keep the ball on the green and below the cup, giving himself a chance at birdie. His run of three birdies in four holes to briefly take the lead was sensational stuff.

After closing with 71, Lefty was asked if it was a fair test.

''I don't know what to say. I felt like I played some of the best golf of my life,'' he said. ''I hit some of the best shots, I putted better than I probably ever have putted. And I still couldn't shoot par. So you tell me.''

Then again, he would have shot 69 if not for that three-putt double bogey on the 17th that perhaps cost him the second leg of the Grand Slam.

Goosen showed incredible resiliency, if not poise. Almost as impressive as Mickelson's birdie run was the Goose saving par on No. 13, saving bogey on No. 14, and answering Mickelson with a birdie of his own on the 16th to regain a share of the lead. He took only 24 putts in the final round, and had no three-putts for the tournament.

''The way the course is set up, it's important to save pars,'' Goosen said. ''I kept telling myself, 'Keep playing for pars and you can win this event.' And it turned out that way.''

Sure, it was tough.

One could argue that this is not how golf is meant to be played away from the flag, at times away from the green.

But it cannot be called unfair because everyone played the same course.

The last time a major championship came under this much scrutiny was the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie, already regarded as the toughest links in the world before a combination of high rough, narrow fairways and vicious wind made it even worse.

The winning score was 6-over 290. The winner was a guy named Paul Lawrie.

Davis Love III sniffed that Carnoustie got the champion it deserved, and he was right. Lawrie shot 67 in the final round and birdied the last two holes of the playoff with a 3-iron in 12 feet and a 4-iron in 3 feet. The guy who played the best golf won. (Jean Van de Velde played even better until his brain malfunctioned on the 72nd hole).

Instead of celebrating great play, the U.S. Open turned into a protest from players who were led to believe that this major would change its personality overnight.

It is not the greatest test in golf, only the toughest.

Everyone should know that by now.

''I come to the U.S. Open expecting nothing to be fair,'' two-time champion Lee Janzen once said.

Els took such a beating that he bolted from Shinnecock without saying a word after making four double bogeys, more than he had made all season. The 80 was his highest score ever in the U.S. Open.

''People will ask whether the USGA went too far in the setup of the golf course,'' Els wrote Tuesday on his Web site. ''Personally, I think the course was fair. Severe, but fair.

''It's a shame that we even need to have this debate, because Shinnecock is a wonderful course.''

Ultimately, it identified the best player.

Doug Ferguson covers golf for The Associated Press.



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