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So You Want to Win the U.S. Open? Tough

June 10, 2003|THOMAS BONK

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. — We should have known a long time ago how difficult it is to win the U.S. Open, maybe from the very first one in 1895, which established the standard.

The first Open was staged at Newport Golf Club in Newport, R.I., and it was there for one reason. The founder of Newport Golf Club was also the president of the U.S. Golf Assn. That man, Theodore Havermeyer, was so into it that he paid the expenses of all the players to make sure the best showed up.

So 11 of them did. They played 36 holes ... in one day ... in October. The first U.S. Open was supposed to be held in September, but was postponed because the USGA didn't want to go up against the America's Cup.

It is believed to be the only time the U.S. Open has been shanghaied by a boat race.

Horace Rawlins shot 91-82 and became the first U.S. Open champion, claiming prizes of $150 and a gold medal. Rawlins also happened to be an assistant to the club pro at Newport Golf Club, and judging from the news reports and old photos, he had a clear edge in both local knowledge and handlebar mustaches.

If beating a golf ball to death around a tough course was what it took to win the first U.S. Open, it's probably not going to be much different this week when the 103rd Open is played amid withering pressure and mind-bending conditions at Olympia Fields Country Club.

Once again, don't expect smooth sailing.

It's never easy to win the U.S. Open, which remains the most difficult of the four majors. It's the toughest to win, hands down, year in and year out, simple as that. It's the America's Cup in a typhoon. It's walking the plank. This tournament flies the skull and crossbones over the clubhouse.

Now, look at the other three majors.

The Masters is hardly a walk in the park since they've lengthened Augusta National all the way to Atlanta, but at least it's played on the same course every year and you don't have to beat as many players to win it. Only 93 players teed up in April.

And because the Masters is an invitational, the field isn't always the strongest, although it has become much stronger in recent years.

A lot of experts believe the British Open to be not only the best major, but also the toughest.

Not true. Those links courses are quirky, all right, but other than the hay they grew right up next to the bowling alleys they called fairways at Carnoustie a couple of years ago, the courses really aren't difficult unless the weather is bad.

The British Open links courses have an almost total dependence on wind and rain to make them mean and nasty. Fortunately for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the organization that runs the Open Championship, there's always a pretty good chance of some awful weather in July in Scotland and England.

Then there is the PGA Championship, which has also gone to great lengths to sharpen its image by reducing the number of club pros in the field. The PGA of America has moved its big tournament to renowned courses, which is fine as long as they don't stick Valhalla in there too often. The PGA people usually produce the best field of any of the majors, and unlike the USGA, it doesn't believe that smoking par is a sin.

What it does have, however, is a reputation as a major in which a lot of players either win their first or their only big titles. And sometimes it produces champions who seem kind of, well, fluky. See Rich Beem.

Now, look at the U.S. Open. It's always played at the most classic of the classic courses that have been carefully pumped up to test a field of 156 of the world's best players.

Well, sort of. There are 10 amateurs in the Open this week, the most in 19 years. A total of 83 players got into the tournament by surviving the rigors of qualifying. It is the National Open, after all.

Unlike the Masters, the U.S. Open moves around every year. Unlike the British Open, it doesn't depend on bad weather to make it hard. Unlike the PGA, it's pedigree is better and more established.

Sure, the U.S. Open has its share of winners who are going to look strangely out of place if somebody ever gets around to taking the team picture of major champions, but that just goes to show you how hard it is to win.

How come Ben Hogan lost to Jack Fleck in 1955? How come Sam Snead won more tournaments than anybody, but never won the U.S. Open? How come Arnold Palmer won only one?

If being the hardest major to win doesn't make it the best, what other qualification carries more weight? Nobody thought of it in 1895, but they should have started the debate then, just to get the ball rolling.

If we had a little more wind in our sails, maybe we would already have settled it. Or maybe we'll know for sure by the end of the week.


U.S. Open Facts

* When: Thursday-Sunday.

* Where: Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club.

* The course: Two-time British Open champion Willie Park Jr. designed the No. 4 (North) Course at Olympia Fields, which opened in 1923. The club's first president was Amos Alonzo Stagg, the University of Chicago football coach.

* Length: 7,190 yards.

* Par: 36-34--70.

* Format: 72 holes, stroke play.

* Cut: Top 60 and ties, and anyone within 10 strokes of lead after 36 holes.

* Playoff, if necessary: 18 holes (stroke play) on Monday.

* Purse: $6 million.

* Winner's share: $1.08 million.

* Defending champion: Tiger Woods.

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