MAMARONECK, N.Y. – At the quietest U.S. Open in history, Patrick Reed was walking down the fourth fairway when a fan bellowed out from a nearby backyard.
“Hey, Patty Reed: Why’s your caddie carrying a shovel?”
Emboldened, another joined in: This time, a crack about Reed returning stolen Rolexes.
They were well-worn jokes about Reed’s alleged transgressions, and the intended target never broke stride. Instead, apparently, he used it as fuel. He slung a short iron into the middle of the fourth green, the ball funneling within 5 feet of the hole. He looked back toward the heckler and offered a small, polite, how-you-like-that? wave.
“Keep talking, people,” said a member of Reed’s inner circle. “He lives off that s---.”
But that was one voice, not a thousand.
It happened on one hole, not all 18.
Whatever fire was lit was soon extinguished.
Compared to the other majors, the U.S. Open was thought to be the major least affected by the lack of on-site spectators; the typical soundtrack to this championship is a compilation of some moaning, groaning and complaining – from the players, not the fans. But we’re in New York, and the crowd here is – how do we put this delicately – more boisterous than most. These afternoons, in non-COVID-19 times, should have required a few post-round Advil. But inside the friendly confines of Winged Foot, both Reed and polarizing playing competitor Bryson DeChambeau played golf Saturday, for the most part, in peace and quiet.
“Any other U.S. Open final grouping you’ve got those two guys, things are going to be said and tempers are going to flare,” said Rory McIlroy. “Even if those guys don’t have to deal with it today, it just makes it a little different and maybe a touch easier if you’re in those final few groups.”
That’s to take nothing away from what Matthew Wolff accomplished in the third round here at Winged Foot. The 21-year-old went out in 30 and seized control of this championship, firing a 5-under 65 to take a two-shot lead heading into the final round. If he were to win, he’d become the first player to win in his U.S. Open debut since Francis Ouimet in 1913.
But after seven major rounds of silence, we’ve gathered a larger sample size, and the impact can’t be completely ignored. There are no roars for a birdie barrage. No consistent heckling for a meltdown. No buzz of anticipation as a leader contemplates a critical shot. No competitive tension. Majors are supposed to be about more than hitting great shots. They’re about executing while also dealing with expectations and nerves and pressure, and so far not even the weight of history has proven to be nerve-jangling.
“Everything is exaggerated with people,” said Xander Schauffele, who is five back at even par. “People yelling, there’s more noise. You have to try and focus more. Right now, it’s so quiet, it’s eerie, it’s weird. It’s not like anything anyone has experienced. It’s sort of like a college tournament, where you’re doing your own thing.”
These major leaderboards are starting to look like a college event, too.
Had he not turned pro early, Wolff would have been starting his senior year at Oklahoma State. He’s an extravagantly talented player, a PGA Tour winner already, but even he is wise enough to sense something’s missing, that perhaps his task has been made easier. Last month, in his first career major, Wolff shot 65 in the final round and tied for fourth at the PGA Championship. The winner that day was Collin Morikawa, also a year removed from college, who shot 129 on the weekend – the lowest 36-hole score by a winner in major history.
“I think coming down the stretch it maybe makes me a little more calm just to see less people,” Wolff said.
The void is acutely felt here at Winged Foot, which should have been lined with 40,000 bloodthirsty spectators, all rooting for carnage.
Does it make a difference?
“Absolutely. For sure,” said Wolff’s caddie, Nick Heinen. “It’s one less thing to worry about on a week when there’s a lot to worry about. Without all the roars, it just ... it just doesn’t feel the same. It’s nice for him, I think, just being quiet.”
Others will be impacted, too, both positively and negatively. McIlroy’s edge in experience, playing a decade in the major crucible, has largely been lost. Hideki Matsuyama doesn’t have to go over his round in painstaking detail without the large Japanese media contingent on hand. For four and a half hours DeChambeau won’t hear wisecracks about his weight gain and his power and his pace of play.
Instead, they’ll just chat idly with their caddie and try to survive an ever-toughening Winged Foot. Some of the roughly 2,600 on-site personnel will gather around the 18th green, ready to crown a deserving champion.
That polite applause will be the only noise on another eerie major Sunday.