Column: Identify the best, or embarrass them? Both
SAN FRANCISCO—The real star of this U.S. Open won't swing a golf club even once this week. Most fans couldn't pick him out of a lineup. No matter how aggravating The Olympic Club plays, he barely has enough hair left to pull any out.
He's Mike Davis, who became executive director of the U.S. Golf Association only last year, but has been responsible for setting up the U.S. Open courses for a half-dozen years now. One of his predecessors in both jobs, Sandy Tatum, was asked during one of the toughest Opens ever -- the so-called "Massacre at Winged Foot" in 1974 -- whether the USGA was trying to embarrass the world's best golfers.
"No," Tatum famously replied, "we're trying to identify them."
Thanks to Davis' handiwork alongside the Pacific Ocean this week, golf fans are getting to watch plenty of both.
There's no question about the quality of the names playing musical chairs on the leaderboard -- Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk, Graeme McDowell and Ernie Els, all of whom have won at least one U.S. Open. But whoever winds up on the top by close of light Sunday will probably know exactly why the place has been nicknamed the "graveyard of champions."
A year after Rory McIlory posted the lowest U.S. Open score ever -- 16-under 268 -- while pummeling a Congressional Country Club course already softened by rain, one hand is more than enough to count the number of players under par after three rounds at Olympic's Lake Course.
An even better testament to the Davis' balancing act is that while fans thrill watching their heroes sweat over nearly every par, not a single player has labeled the setup unfair. And this from a notoriously whiny group known to complain when the interior of the courtesy cars clash with their outfits or the wrong brand of shampoo turns up in the locker room.
"Most people don't understand, it doesn't matter how you set up a course, if you give them the ability to know when the ball lands that it's going to stop, it's significantly easier. That's what is going to make the U.S. Open this year -- without us trying to retaliate -- that much harder," Davis said before the players arrived at Olympic.
"When it lands, whether it hits the green or it's in the fairway, it's going to roll. You have to think about what happens when it lands."
That last part of the puzzle befuddled both the No. 1 and 2 players in the world, Luke Donald and McIlroy, who missed the cut and like countless golf fans are probably burrowed into a couch in front of the TV with widening grins on their faces. Just before heading for the airport Friday, Donald was asked how much harder Olympic was than Congressional.
"What was Rory after two days?" he asked
Told it was 10-under par -- though it was actually 9 under -- Donald brightened and said, "Probably about 10 shots harder then."
Make that 20 shots, since McIlroy was 10 over at the time, but who's counting?
Truth be told, more than a few guys.
"Last year we were trying to make birdies in the U.S. Open, and here," said Kevin Chappell, "you're trying to just survive."
Exactly what makes it that depends on who you talk to, one more testament to Davis' skill and the break he caught when four days of dry, sunny weather and light breezes made the course play just as firm and as fast as he envisioned.
"It just goes to show that firm greens scare the life out of professional golfers," Padraig Harrington said.
"Off the tee, it's the most demanding," Jordan Spieth said. "You're trying to place a drive out there that's going to carry 275 and land it in a 10-yard space."
"It's the reverse cambers," McIlroy said before departing.
Right. Whatever those are.