A classic Open in the making.
Golf fans, and all lovers of sport, should get ready for absolute magic on the Monterey Peninsula. The U.S. Open that starts today at Pebble Beach has the makings of one of the absolute greatest tournaments of the television age.
Before explaining why this edition of the national championship should be so remarkably special, let’s consider, by way of comparison, the ten other best golf events of the past 50 years. Arnold Palmer ushered in the TV age in 1960 with his last-round charge to victory in the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, beating off an aging Ben Hogan and a 20-year-old phenom named Jack Nicklaus to do so. Six years later, Palmer exited center stage with an equally monumental collapse, losing the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic in a playoff to the always-underappreciated Billy Casper. Nicklaus’s victory in the three-way slugfest over Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller at the 1975 Masters featured hold-your-breath right up through the two final putts. At both the 1977 British Open at Turnberry and the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Tom Watson broke Nicklaus’s heart. Nicklaus’s astonishing win over Watson, Greg Norman, Tom Kite, and Seve Ballesteros at the 1986 Masters, with son Jackie on the bag, was a win for the ages. Again at the Masters, this time in 1995, Ben Crenshaw’s win just less than a week after serving as Harvey Penick’s pallbearer was a tear-jerker that may never be equaled. Crenshaw was again at center-stage for the greatest Ryder Cup comeback ever (in 1999), captaining the U.S. squad after insisting to a disbelieving press corps that the matches were still winnable. Tiger Woods’ completion of the “Tiger Slam” at the 2001 Masters — over tough challenges from David Duval and Phil Mickelson — remains the single most under-honored accomplishment in all of sport. And Woods’ 91-hole epic on a bum knee and fractured leg in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines was the bravest performance this side of Lance Armstrong’s cancer-to-champion odyssey, and probably more impressive than Willis Reed’s all-important cameo in the 1970 NBA championship seventh game.
So there: Those events are rarified company indeed. To rank up there with them, this year’s Pebble performance will have to be a doozy. Here’s saying it will be. Why? Because at the single most dramatically scenic venue in American championship golf, under the tough conditions favored by the U.S. Golf Association, this year will feature an unusually long cast of great players who enter the tourney both with their games in shape and with their histories suggesting a real chance to win. Consider that the two best predictors of U.S. Open success (after current playing form) are 1. previous Open success and 2. previous success at the particular course in question. After that, success in other majors and a sterling amateur (or young professional) résumé are great indicators as well.
In the previous four national Opens at Pebble Beach, these indicators definitely applied. In 1972, Jack Nicklaus already was a two-time U.S. Open champion and twice a victor (including earlier that year) at the Crosby clambake at Pebble. In 1982, Watson was a multiple-major winner and also a two-time Crosby champion. In 1992, Tom Kite was a frequent contender in majors and a former Crosby winner. And in 2000, Tiger Woods was, well, Tiger, and had already won the regular tour event at Pebble earlier that year.
So now we come to this year’s huge cast of characters. It starts with a Tiger Woods deservedly knocked from his pedestal, struggling with his game. My gosh, he’s probably about 14 shots worse over four rounds than he was in 2000. Of course, he won in 2000 by 15 shots, so the rest of the field still needs to have improved at least a stroke in the past decade in order to pass him. Then there is Ernie Els, himself a two-time U.S. Open champion. He was runner-up to Woods in 2000, and he has already won two events this year. In fifth place in 2000 was one Lee Westwood, English veteran of a string of Ryder Cup triumphs. He’s only the most consistent player in all of golf for the past year, with top-three finishes in the past three majors, a fourth place (after leading most of the way) at the Players Championship, a third place two years ago at the U.S. Open (one stroke shy of the playoff) at another California seaside course (Torrey Pines), and a victory just last week in Memphis.
How about Phil Mickelson, coming off a Masters win? Phil the Thrill, with his record-breaking five U.S. Open runner-up finishes, has won the regular tour event at Pebble twice. Former U.S. Open champ Jim Furyk also has won twice this year (but doesn’t have a superlative record at Pebble). Like Nicklaus in 1972 and Woods in 2000, young bomber Dustin Johnson won at Pebble earlier this year — in his case, for the second straight title. He was a first-team all-American in college and a victorious Walker Cupper. David Duval, who occasionally wakes from the golfing dead, finished in the top 10 in the 2000 Open, finished second at the Open last year, and finished second at Pebble earlier this year. Ricky Barnes, a former U.S. Amateur champ who tied Duval and Mickelson for second at last year’s Open, is probably the hottest non-winner on tour this year, with a 5th, a 7th, and a 3rd in tournaments just since contending seriously in the Masters before fading to a still-impressive 10th.
Then there are three veterans thought to be past their prime. Ageless Tom Watson of course has as many fond memories of Pebble Beach as anyone alive, and he’s playing on a sponsor’s exemption after coming within a single extra bounce of winning last year’s British Open at age 59 and 10 months. Earlier this week the Golf Channel devoted a full hour and a half to the tear-inducing story of Watson’s late caddy Bruce Edwards, who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease; never has the honorable sometimes prickly Watson seemed more human or more admirable. If Watson somehow still contends on the 71st hole, Edwards’ friendly ghost surely will be telling Watson to “knock it close.” Then there is former PGA champ and 20-time Tour winner Davis Love III, at 46 and two months just a month younger than Nicklaus was at the aforementioned 1986 Augusta triumph. Love has shown serious signs of life this year, and qualified for the Open two weeks ago in a playoff. Pebble is Love’s playground: He has already won twice there since the turn of the millennium.
And who finished second to Love’s last Pebble victory, a victim of a bumpy five-foot putt on the final hole? Fifty-one-year-old Tom Lehman, who qualified the old fashioned way at the same venue as Love two weeks ago. The week before that, Lehman won the Senior PGA championship after, yes, making a three-way playoff by holing a five-foot putt. Lehman, the 1996 British Open champion, famously played in the final group an unprecedented four consecutive years in the U.S. Open, so we know his fairways-and-greens game is built for Open tests. He has quite a history at Pebble, too: In addition to his runner-up finish to Love in 2003, he won the unofficial 1998 Calloway Pebble Beach Invitational with the same caddy, Andy Martinez, who will be with him this week; he was sixth in the 1992 U.S. Open there, and was third last year in a Senior Tour event there. He’s also playing to honor the memory of his father, a former pro football player who died last October at age 75.
Oh… and guess where Lehman met his wife, Melissa? At a certain place called Pebble Beach.
Look for Lehman to finish in the top 3 this week. And look for a shootout among shootouts, a finish beyond compare, a storyline for the ages, alongside a crashing surf on Sunday afternoon. Magic is in the offing, and a legend awaits its birth.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?