SAN FRANCISCO – Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me right around this time every year, shame on the world's best golfers.
There is a U.S. Open Championship taking place this week, which means there is already major championship-level grousing about just how difficult the conditions are going to be.
Without fail, it happens in the days prior to every edition of the game’s greatest annual four-day grind. Competitors are asked their thoughts on everything from the severity of the setup to what the winning score will be. Almost instinctually, their brows become furrowed and their noses scrunched as if they just a sucked a bag of lemons. Like patients being interviewed before a root canal, one-by-one they proffer the cloudiest of gloom-and-doom scenarios.
The glass isn’t half-empty. It’s leaking from all sides.
“There's something on every hole that can get you,” Bubba Watson explained. “It makes it very difficult.”
“I think this probably tests the player,” Tiger Woods said, “more than any other championship.”
“Most of the time par is a good score and it's a grind out there,” Luke Donald added. “They make it tough on us.”
The “they” in question is the USGA, which to its own admission isn’t running a daycare center for the world’s best golfers. When asked after the appropriately nicknamed “Massacre at Winged Foot” in 1974 whether the organization was trying to embarrass competitors, executive director Sandy Tatum famously responded, “No, we're trying to identify them.'
And boy, have they identified them. Shaking their heads and shaking their fists. Muttering and shuddering. Psyched out instead of psyched up.
It’s one reason that Jack Nicklaus – winner of four of these tournaments in his career – once said, “A lot of players are eliminated the moment the tournament starts.”
Prior to Rory McIlroy winning last year’s edition of the event with a 16-under-par score on a soggy Congressional Country Club, the previous 10 champions had combined for just a 14-under-par total, with two winners at over par and two others at even.
To most competitors, that’s scarier than tight-roping across the Golden Gate Bridge.
“It's going to be all about mental,” said Watson, who won the Masters two months ago. “You know you're going to make mistakes; you know you're going to make bogeys. You have to keep going. What is par, 70? It's not really 70. It's over par. Five-over at the end of the week, just like at Oakmont [in 2007], probably has a great shot at winning.”
This week’s U.S. Open will take place at The Olympic Club, which hasn’t been part of the host rotation since 1998, giving players ample reason to be sufficiently freaked out entering the first round.
Already we’ve heard pity parties from the field, as if everyone who isn’t competing this week should sympathize with their plight of having to play in the national championship.
The opening six holes are supposedly the most brutal opening stretch ever witnessed; some have argued that 4- or 5-over could be among the best scores on those holes each day. The 13th and 14th holes have nowhere to miss. The 16th hole measures 670 yards, though it may be more imposing to say it’s nearly two-fifths of a mile. The final hole features a green that could fit inside your kitchen.
Sound intimidating? Perhaps Matt Kuchar summed it up best when he deadpanned, “The first 18 holes are extremely difficult.”
It’s enough to leave those watching on the couch at home quivering to the point that Cheetos cheese dust is readily shaking off their fingers.
It also leads to an all-too-appropriate question in response: Are this week’s gloom-and-doom proclamations legitimate or will they be completely unfounded?
We won’t have an answer to that query until the tournament is well under way, but oftentimes this is the case – and maybe it’s by design.
Just as players in the current NBA Finals will flop, dive and otherwise work to convince the referees for favorable calls, this is golf’s version of that strategy. Think about it: If players maintained this was a relatively easy setup prior to the tournament rounds commencing, they’d likely find a more difficult track come Thursday morning. Instead, the opposite is true, with pessimistic attitudes likely driving a kinder, gentler USGA plan that will negate any potentially “unfair” conditions.
Whatever the case, the song remains the same entering this U.S. Open. Listen to the competitors and they’ll have you believe this tournament is golf’s equivalent to reaching the final level of Angry Birds.
We should reserve assessment until play has started and scores are actually being posted. If you believe those who have reached this level, though, expect more angry this week and fewer birds.