Wednesday, June 16, 2010
2010 U.S. Open: Site of a Golf Jubilee?
In the Catholic faith, every 50 years is a jubilee year for the Church. The year marks a renewal of the faith community. It allows for the cleansing of sins of any believer that walks through the pathways to sacred places, like cathedrals. The jubilee is an opportunity to rejuvenate and refocus.
For the sport of golf — particularly in the American national championship — Pebble Beach represents that sacred tradition. The United States Golf Association has made a commitment to the Monterey seaside links since it first was site to the US Open in 1972. Jack Nicklaus took the title that year in what would be his next-to-last U.S. Open. Ten years later, the national championship returned. Nicklaus' form did, too, but fell short to arch-nemesis of that epoch Tom Watson, who won his lone U.S. Open on familiar ground. Another decade passed before Tom Kite survived to win the '92 Open.
Were it not for millennial symmetry, the U.S. Open would have been at Pebble next in 2002. Instead, the USGA selected Pebble to host the 100th U.S. Open to launch into a new millennium — in a true jubilee year. The timing was fortunate for the sport. Tiger Woods was playing the best stretch of golf in his career. Facing mostly benevolent conditions, unlike much of the field, Woods won the national title by 15 clear of second place. His staggering -12 finishing total is quickly growing in stature as the greatest four days of golf ever played.
Ten years later, a new era in golf may be ushered in this outdoor jubilee of a tournament.
Woods, hanging onto the official number ranking by a thread, is no longer the obvious favorite. After having his life ravaged since last November at his own doing, Woods' game and form are in no position to win an Open for the fourth time. Observers say that Woods is all over the links in his early practice, indicating that his neck nor his swing have recovered from the sure stress that consumes his personal and professional life.
Yet still, this is an opportunity for Woods to walk through the door into a new era of his career. The conditions at Pebble are so firm that Woods said yesterday that he may be able to avoid the driver that is frankly untrustworthy in major conditions. If the course continues to play as it does, Woods could use the 3-wood and the 2-iron he inserted into the bag this week off of the tee. Having won majors on multiple occasions by playing a very controlled style, Woods may be a sneaky contender if the weather is as helpful to him this time as it was a decade ago.
Were Woods to win the 110th edition of this championship, he would reach not only his fourth Open, but his 15th major title. It would almost surely silence the critics that wonder aloud — alongside his competition — if Woods' game and stamina have dropped off a cliff as steep at the ones that many of Pebble's iconic holes rest upon.
For perhaps only the second time in his career, Phil Mickelson may be the clear favorite at the Open. Having had success at Pebble in the past, the reigning Masters champion also has the mental edge over the field that Woods lacks. Like Woods, though, Mickelson is errant off the tee — best evidenced by having to hit off of a cart path in Ohio in his last PGA Tour start. He was able to overcome that wayward tee ball at Augusta National, a much more forgiving venue with crevices in which Mickelson can hide his flaws.
Mickelson turns 40-years-old today. In a sense, that birthday will mark the next — and likely final — stage of his career. Now boasting four major championships, Mickelson has cemented his legacy as the second best golfer of this generation. It is his goal and his charge in the final decade of productive years that he may have remaining to gain on the all-time greats of the sport. He could get close to the company of Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer, and Tom Watson were he able to continue a run of majors by winning here. Unfortunately, karma seems to bully Mickelson at this tournament. He holds the record for most runner-up finishes with five. It would seem that someone like the left hander could bust down the door after weakening the latch so many times.
Even for a guy like Lee Westwood, the jubilee comparison is an apt one. Casual observers may mistake Westwood as the beneficiary of a catastrophic meltdown in Memphis last weekend, but Westwood is the real deal. Having lost out on the Masters in April because he was bested by someone else, the Englishman could easily be called the favorite. No player has gone back-to-back with the Open as the tail end, but it seems most plausible for Westwood. He is a transformed player from the man that first broke through 12 years ago in New Orleans. In fact, how appropriate that his first domestic win came in a city so different and ravaged since then. Westwood, too, underwent a disturbing period in his professional life where nothing went right. But, through determination, hard work, and a physical transformation that may only be mirrored by Tiger Woods, Lee Westwood is now truly at the top of the world class.
Westwood looks at his missed opportunities and failures with the same perspective that the other two best in the world do. They are lessons to be appreciated, not misgivings to be magnified. He could well draw upon fellow favorite Mickelson's hard luck road to a major breakthrough in 2004 as a blueprint for what is possible with diligence and a positive attitude. To break through all by itself would be a game changer for the sport. It would be Westwood's first major title, yes, but he would also become the first European-born player since Tony Jacklin to win the U.S. Open. He did that 40years ago in 1960. We'll blame the metric system for the lack of symmetry with the jubilee theme to this piece.
Though these three men are far and away the favorites to take the trophy this weekend in California, there are still other men who could truly transform the sport were they to win. Could Camilo Villegas or Sergio Garcia finally cash in on their potential greatness? Will a new American, like Dustin Johnson, discover what it takes to become a major champion? Were Angel Cabrera to win, he could continue to revive golf in South America — just in time for the 2016 Olympics. Will an Asian player break through again? Perhaps an absolute nobody could survive and win the Open. University of Georgia amateur Russell Henley hired a 13-year-old spectator to caddy for him in a practice round. Not quite Ouimet is Henley, but the mimicry of the gesture harkens back to another transformative event in the sport.
Regardless of who hoists the championship trophy, it is with sound mind that we know Pebble will crown a most worthy champion. In all four instances in which the U.S. Open has been contested here, a great player has won. It is all but guaranteed that the combination of course, field, and setup will ensure that happens again on the Monterey on Sunday evening.