ROCHESTER, N.Y. — A golf open is not a contest between Nicklaus and Palmer, Hogan and Snead, Jones and Sarazen.
A golf tournament is more like a contest between Nicklaus and Nicklaus. It's not man to man. It's man against nature. The sailor against the sea, the trapper against the blizzard, the pioneer against the desert.
You take the golfer on the first tee. He doesn't look over and say, "My God, I gotta play Curtis Strange!"
What he says is, "My God! It's a dogleg left and I don't have a hook."
What scares him is not another guy with an eight-iron in his hand, it's water on the right, the green that slopes to the back, the wind coming off the ocean or one of the Great Lakes.
You look at a golf course and see the birds, the trees, the green grass--nature in its element. He looks and he sees double bogeys, out of bounds left, two-break greens, deep bunkers and unreachable par-fives. He feels like the captain of a sinking ship with no lifeboats. For a guy who has to play it, it might as well be downtown Beirut.
Golfers, to a man, know who the enemy is. It's that 6,902-yard hall of horrors out there, built just the opposite way his own game goes. If he plays a draw, he's sure it favors a fade. If he's a left-to-right player, he is positive it was laid out for a right-to-left guy.
Who can forget Lee Trevino talking himself out of a Masters green coat over the years, moaning that the sloping fairways do not yield to his low, boring shots?
Can anyone forget the American players, teeing up in their first British Opens and noticing that the greens are not the freshly watered dart boards they are used to in the States, complaining, "I can't play that run-up shot you have to play around here."
The course is like a bad bull to the matador, a noise in the attic to a guy who's afraid of the dark. And not only do courses frustrate players, sometimes single holes do.
Who can forget the trouble Jack Nicklaus had with the 18th at Riviera? If he could have handled that piece of real estate as well as he did finishing holes at other golf courses, say, the 18th at Augusta, he might have won another PGA, to say nothing of an L.A. Open or two.
If Oak Hill, where they are playing the 89th United States Open here this weekend, were human, it would be a junk pitcher.
We all know what a junk pitcher is. He's a guy who stands out there on the mound looking sad or even overweight. His uniform is a lousy fit because he doesn't care about things like that.
His pitch, like him, comes in nice and fat and off-speed and looking for all the world as hittable as a batting-practice lob. Then you swing--and the ball goes straight up in the air to be gobbled up by the catcher or the first baseman in foul territory.
The batter's forehead is creased with rage.
"He hasn't got a thing," he snarls, hurling his bat and a helmet back in the dugout. "My kid could throw harder, and she's a girl."
The junk pitcher keeps the hitters off balance. They scream at him, "Throw the ball up here like a man!"
That's the way Oak Hill is. It's not a brute of a course, a man killer, like, say, Pebble Beach. If Pebble Beach were human, it would be flying a skull-and-crossbones and have a parrot on its shoulder and a wooden leg and a dagger in its teeth and the Queen's navy would be looking for it with a rope on the Spanish Main.
Oak Hill is kind of your basic baby-faced sociopath. You wouldn't cross the street if you saw it coming. But you should.
It looks so innocent. It starts out with a par-four that is one of those holes whose fingerprints are all over the murder weapon but who is as unlikely a suspect as the butler.
Just ask Ben Hogan. Ben lost the 1956 Open by a shot here. Conventional experting blames it on a 2 1/2-foot putt he missed on 17 in the final round. But Hogan also took a 5 on this par-four that day and is quoted in the current Open program describing this hole as "the toughest starting hole in golf." If Hogan can't par it on Day 4 of an Open, it must be.
Hole No. 2 is called the Breather. Hah! The green is so small, you wonder what they did with the phone. Just to be on it puts you in the leather.
They don't call this Oak Hill carelessly. Three more oak trees and every hole would be a carom off the tee. It's not a course, it's a forest. As Fred Allen might have said, Oak Hill is a great place--if you're a squirrel. They've got some oak trees here that go as far back as Alexander Hamilton.
It's not one of those golf courses where you're going to shoot a whole bunch of 7s and 8s. It's too subtle for that. It doesn't blow you away. As with any junk pitcher, its stock-in-trade is to get you to try something you probably can't do.