While the metal filings left over after engraving the name “Angel Cabrera” on the U.S. Open trophy have probably yet to be swept away, the mad choruses of the distance obsessed have already started their wailing. It sounds like Verdi’s “Dies irae” and has all the warm fuzziness of a requiem mass. I just hope they get it over with quickly this time, so that maybe there will be a chance to hear some of the real stories from one of the best golf championships I can remember.
A Perfect Storm
A U.S. Open at Oakmont is like the perfect storm. The course’s founder, H.C. Fownes, is supposed to have said something like “a poor shot should be forever banished to the infernal abyss and its creator disemboweled,” an uplifting philosophy which dovetails perfectly with the USGA’s century-old concept of the ultimate test of golf. Like it or not, the U.S. Open is, always was, and likely will forever be, about seemingly insane demands on precision and exacting punishment for those who stray.
What better place, then, to host a U.S. Open than Oakmont? The event was masterfully staged, with the conditioning and set-up of the course in perfect harmony with the philosophies of both the course architect and the USGA, and with none of the nonsense in the way of baked-out greens and psychotic hole locations we’ve almost come to expect at our national championship. Say what you want about the USGA’s blue-blazered blue bloods, their corporate courting, equipment eclipses, whatever – they nutted it this year.
Like the SATs
I have always thought that the ultimate golf championship should be like an SAT test. What I mean by this is not ridiculous vocabulary words and number two pencils, but a standardized test, in which there are enough questions of varying difficulty such that you see the full range of skill among those taking the test. Not so easy that everyone can get an “A” nor so difficult that the cream can’t rise to the top, but difficult enough to see how everyone stacks up against one another. I’m not saying that you have to create every kind of golf shot imaginable – there are different kinds of golf, golf architecture, etc., and most championships choose to make the style of play (wide open versus penal, etc.) consistent for the entire course and tournament – but what you’re after is a true spread of the abilities of the players in the field for that style of event.
This U.S. Open gave us that. Birdies were scarce but were available to those composed enough to make them. The rough was penal, but those decrying the loss of the creative recovery need look no further than shots like Justin Rose’s on number one Sunday, wherein, with seemingly no earthly chance of reaching the green from the deep rough, he gouges a low, no-spin shot that utilized the slope and ran onto the green. Seemed pretty creative to me.
Bomb and Gouge? Nah.
As for the setup favoring long hitters (Geoff Ogilvy, apparently bitter that 40 or so guys didn’t implode on the last day this year, states with alarming conviction that the narrow fairways take away the advantage of the accurate driver), I don’t think you can argue that point convincingly. The winner was a bomber, no question about it, hitting it almost 400 yards on the very downhill 12th (Woods hit it the same distance, and many modest length and short hitters were well over 300 there), but several players in the top ten in the tournament – Verplank, Furyk, Fasth, Kelly, Ames, Toms – are not long hitters by today’s standards. Some will look at Woods’s and Cabrera’s high rank in GIR (they were first and third, respectively) and proclaim “bomb and gouge” won out… except for the fact that short to modest hitters like Toms, Kelly, and Steve Stricker were also in the top of that category.
It appears that reports of the death of accurate iron play have been greatly exaggerated. In short, you needed to have everything clicking to compete, and it was a beautiful thing to see, indeed. So can we please dispense with the Armageddon talk about distance ruining golf? Can Golf Channel stop replaying Cabrera’s drive on 12, and maybe show some of his fairway bunker brilliance? It wasn’t a long-drive contest, for heaven’s sake, and in the end, it was the usual suspects – grinding out pars, avoiding doubles, making the eight footers – that won the day.
But beyond the testing of golf skills, the mental challenges were oh so evident on Sunday, weren’t they? First and most obvious was Aaron Baddeley, who began by swallowing his tongue on the first green and completely lost his stack, tilt, and putting stroke. The list of others who flirted with or held the lead and collapsed is long and includes the likes of Justin Rose, Steve Stricker, Stephen Ames, Bubba Watson, and of course Jim Furyk (we’ll talk about Woods later).
Furyk’s fatal miscue – maybe not as dramatic as that of Mickelson or Van de Velde, but still shocking – was almost certainly more mental than physical. A guy builds his entire game around accuracy, has one of the best wedge games in the world, and has just watched the guy in front of him bogey two straight holes to give up sole possession of the lead. Somewhere I can hear the squeaky Nicklaus voice advising caution. You wonder whether, in Furyk’s place, Jack would have hit 4-iron on 17, taking his chances with the wedge and his putter, and placing the pressure squarely on Cabrera to par 18 for a tie.
Yet this local favorite, by all accounts one of the most golf-intelligent, most calculating, most precise strikers in the world, elected to try to win it on his own – with power – by driving the 17th green in hopes of an eagle or easy birdie. Maybe it’s better to be aggressive there than not, and maybe he felt he absolutely needed the birdie to give him a margin for error on 18, but I think to be fair to all the other golfers – notably Mickelson – who get roasted for trying to overpower things and force birdies, Furyk’s play at 17 has to be categorized as a significant mental error. I may be wrong on this one, but I think it’s one Furyk might regret for a few years to come.
And then there’s Tiger. When you think about it, Woods’s streak – well, maybe streak isn’t the right word, but it’s certainly a notable statistic – of majors in which he is unable to come from behind to win is in many ways as interesting and mind-boggling as the way he has lapped the field in his victories. It’s not as if he’s never staged a comeback – just ask Steve Scott – but to use a racing analogy, Tiger is a speed horse, a frontrunner, and doesn’t charge by the field down the back stretch to win by a nose. I think we are far enough along in this amazing athlete’s career and have seen this type of finish often enough to know that there’s a pattern here, and I’d like to know what – if anything- is behind it. And I’m quite sure Tiger would like to know what’s behind it, too. If he still thinks he is going to better Jack’s record of professional major championship victories, sooner or later he will have to find a way rally in the ninth inning.
When Tiger wins, what do we usually see? Well, we see many, many great things, but two stand out. First, there is the display of nearly flawless technical golf that is virtually unprecedented in the game or in any sport. While certainly there are no perfect rounds, the list of majestic shots of all varieties hit by Tiger in the majors hardly needs recounting. But as obvious and striking as the golf appears, those who broadcast and write about golf seem almost more taken with the man’s mental toughness. In short, he is the gallows tree, the guillotine. When you meet up with him on Sunday, you know whose neck is going to be broken at the end of the day. This is the part of Tiger’s game that is most intriguing to athletes in other sports, who in this arena are downright fan-like in their admiration of Tiger Woods.
So where does it all go – the other-worldly golf and the invincible mind – when he starts out two behind, rather than with the lead, on Sunday? Well, before we even start answering that, I’ll be clear that I wouldn’t characterize Sunday as a “failure” for Woods’s golf or his mental game. He played a very solid round under tough conditions and was in it to the very end. However, to be fair, if we are going to give him credit for being the best in the world at closing the deal, we have to recognize that, solid golf or not, he really did let this one slip away. As to why, I think one possible explanation would be in the “comfort zone” concept. We all know this – whether it is the pro making five birdies in a row or the 16 handicapper with three straight pars, when any of us performs at a level well above our expectations, we begin to feel uncomfortable. “When will I collapse,” we start to wonder, and sure enough, we will it to happen.
Maybe Tiger has a different sort of comfort zone. Perhaps his unprecedented domination of golf on multiple levels has lead him to believe, somewhere in his subconscious, that this is the only way for him to win. When he isn’t lapping the field – or at least a couple of strokes ahead – the small voice inside says something must be wrong. It must have played with his confidence just a bit to have played so flawlessly on Saturday and not scored better. All it takes is the slightest degree of doubt or tension to creep in and spoil a shot, and you have to admit that some of Tiger’s shots on Sunday were, by his standards, ordinary or even poor (the chip on the third, the bunker shot at 17), and certainly below what one would expect from the man who is generally considered to be the most technically proficient and mentally tough athlete in the universe. Almost like the pressure got to him a little… like someone out of his comfort zone.
They talk about how Earl Woods groomed Tiger by setting him up for success at every level. Tiger is supposed to have “learned to win” this way. Perhaps now, having achieved a level of success nobody thought possible in golf, he is learning to lose. Golf is a fickle game, and the list of players who’ve had it and lost it is long. And while finishing second in the first two majors of the year should not be twisted into a harbinger of descent into the land of Ballesteros, Beck, and Baker-Finch, I believe that the next ten years of Tiger’s career, in which he aspires to continue winning majors without the capability for the sort of wholesale domination he exhibited seven years ago, may be far more interesting and entertaining than the last ten. Is there anyone in the world who would not rank him as the finest player in the world today, and by a large margin? I doubt it. Certainly I wouldn’t. But as for what is lurking around the next corner, I think we’ll have to just wait and see.
The Final Word
So congratulations to Cabrera, the first Argentine champion of our Open. The display of power, precision, and resilience was absolutely first rate. I’d normally advise against smoking for a professional athlete, but to see how he coped with monstrous Oakmont on Sunday with so many good players in his rear view mirror, I’m almost tempted to light up myself. And no matter what happens to this big man the rest of his life, he will always have the memory of winning the hardest one, on perhaps the toughest course, against probably the greatest ever.