The Best Major - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Best Major
by

When Sam Snead first glimpsed the Old Course at St. Andrew’s, Scotland, he wondered what an abandoned golf course was doing tucked between the town and the sea. “The ugliest lookin’ thing I ever saw,” he said. Later, he professed to love it, as almost all golfers do.

Last weekend the Old Course showed itself at its absolute best as the host site of the 134th Open Championships — “British Open,” as we call it in the States. Tiger Woods won with a score of 14 under par, besting his nearest opponent by five strokes.Truly, it was closer than that, and the famed claret jug trophy hung in the balance till late in the final round. Truly, the field played well and scored well, with the halfway cut coming at one over par. This year’s Open proved the best major to watch in a long, long time. The players could actually score.

By contrast, the U.S. Open often humiliates players with the difficulty of the course setup: narrow fairways, cabbage patch rough, hummocky old-fashioned greens on some classic course like Oakmont or Medinah or Shinnecock Hills, greens designed in an era of simpler grasses and cruder lawn mowers, greens now groomed to a glassy speed they were never supposed to have. Putting — if you get a chance to do it — is torture on a green like that. One par-three at Shinnecock last year got so hard with its inverted cereal-bowl green, dry weather, and a wind blowing, that the first several groups on Sunday made triple bogies or worse. A ball simply dropped from waist-height would roll off the green. There was no chance to put a shot on it.

UNFORTUNATELY, THE USGA SETS UP U.S. Open courses like that nearly every year. The organization’s own description of the process may be found here here. It contains this most interesting statement: “There is no USGA target score for a U.S. Open. While the final score at some U.S. Open sites will be at or near par, the USGA does not try to formulate a course set up that will only produce a winning score of at or near even par.”

Given that USGA officials also talk about “protecting the integrity of par,” and that most winning U.S. Open scores are just about even par, that statement would make most pros gag. Most pros would say the USGA aims to make birdies impossible. Most pros also mutter that USGA executives aren’t really top-notch golfers (they aren’t), so they don’t know what they’re doing. The controversy roils up every year, some worse than others.

For the fan, all too many U.S. Opens present about as entertaining a spectacle as watching flies try to escape from a hot station wagon on a sweltering summer day.

NOT SO AT THE OLD COURSE this year. Without compromising on anything, the Royal and Ancient simply let the Old Course be itself. A few holes have been lengthened by moving the tees back, that merely to bring some bunkers back into play that today’s long bombers had been able to ignore. But the Course is essentially what it’s been for several hundred years, rock-hard, same turf wall-to-wall (tees, fairways, and greens), quirky (you have to drive over a building at the seventeenth tee), spotted with devilish bunkers that often have to be played out of sideways or backwards.

There are no trees. The rough is negligible, except for scattered patches of heather, which can sometimes be played from, and gorse, which never can. The course looks like a moonscape, all hillocks and bumps and hollows. Golfers who have never played the Old Course before talk about “aiming at clouds” when they hit shots to greens they can’t really see or differentiate from the surrounding turf.

At St. Andrews, as at other seaside links course, a golfer plays shots along the ground. Hard-hit shots roll and roll and roll. The usual PGA tour player’s high iron into a green, spinning a bit and then stopping, won’t work here. You can get crazy bounces, sometimes straight sideways if you happen to hit a mound or a hollow just in the wrong spot. The most commonly used club is the putter, sometimes from 40 or 50 yards away.

“If there’s nae wind, there’s nae golf,” say the Scots. One commentator said the Old Course really isn’t very hard on a calm day. Indeed, it does look as though a reasonably competent old lady could shoot 90 on a windless afternoon. Such days almost never occur on the coast of Scotland. The game becomes one of endless calculation and hunch, of anticipating the combined effects of ground and breeze. But bonuses come with the calculation. Four or five of the par-four holes can be driven in a single shot, and not just by the prodigious hitters — drives roll 40 to 60 yards, remember. Add the two par-fives, and you have a chance for six or seven eagle putts per round. And that, in turn, means you can post a very good score without ever having to one-putt. A good thing, that, as getting closer than 40 feet to the pin on most holes is a fabulous shot.

SO THE TOURNAMENT CAME DOWN to who could roll very long putts up alongside the hole the best, leaving a low-stress tap-in for par or birdie. Add a stroke or so per hole, and it’s the kind of game all of us duffers know very well, no less entertaining for watching the pros do it so much better than we can.

It is not the slow broiling torment of the finest golfers in the world being made to look like idiots on some tricked-up course in the United States. Yes, the British Open can get ridiculous, too. Carnoustie, a few years back, was so hard it made players want to quit. And the R & A has occasionally grown rough to hay length.

But this year they did it right. They left the course alone, and they let the players play. I wish the USGA would follow their example.

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