U.S. Open preview
The first U.S. Open was played 100 years ago in Newport, R.I., and had a grand total of 11 players. Horace Rawlings won it with a sizzling 173 over 36 holes.
In 1896, the second U.S. Open was played at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club here and James Foulis had a record-shattering 152.
The Open is back at Shinnecock for the second time since 1896, starting Thursday. The way big names are rounding their games into shape, next Sunday’s final round could find more players in contention than the 11 who comprised the entire field in 1895.
Defending champion Ernie Els, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Davis Love III, Corey Pavin, Phil Mickelson and Masters champion Ben Crenshaw all come into the U.S. Open having won a tournament this season.
They are joined by a gang of guys who’ve won on the PGA Tour this year after a few years of frustration. Bob Tway, a non-winner since 1990; Payne Stewart, who hadn’t won since taking the U.S. Open in 1991; and Mark Calcavecchia, a non-winner since 1992, all have rebounded with victories this year.
So has Peter Jacobsen, a nonwinner since 1990, who along with Vijay Singh is the only double winner on the tour this year.
Throw in Colin Montgomerie, the European PGA Tour money leader; Bernhard Langer; and Jose Maria Olazabal, if his foot holds up, and just about everyone except Rawlings and Foulis has their game in shape for Shinnecock.
Just look at the leaderboard from the Memorial tournament, won June 4 by Norman when he closed with a brilliant 66. Among the leaders were Calcavecchia, Crenshaw, Els, Faldo, Tom Watson and Nick Price, the player-of-the-year the last two seasons who seems to have bounced back from burnout.
If the final round at Shinnecock should happen to turn into a shootout, it would resemble the 1986 U.S. Open played at this links on the Atlantic Ocean, 2 hours east of New York City.
At 4 p.m. in that final round, nine players - Norman, Crenshaw, Tway, Stewart, Hal Sutton, Lee Trevino, Lanny Wadkins and Chip Beck - were tied for the lead. Raymond Floyd won with birdies on Nos. 11, 13 and 16, while everyone around him was falling apart. Floyd finished at 1-under-par 279 to win by two strokes.
It is fitting that the Open is coming back to Shinnecock, because if there is a theme to this year it is this: burnout and comeback. Price, Norman and Els - all coming off big years - had to take a break to get themselves back together mentally and physically.
“I just need some time off, pure and simple,” Price, winner of the PGA and British Open last year, said in May after missing the cut at the Masters and the Houston Open. “I’ve got to try to stop the problems I’m having, which is not enjoying myself on the course.”
After taking several weeks off to move into his new house in Florida and get a handle on a lucrative new business deal with Artigon, Price must have enjoyed himself at the Memorial. He closed with a 65 and finished at 12-under, showing that the Zimbabwean’s game is back to where he can contend in a major championship.
Els, the 25-year-old South African who defeated Montgomerie and Loren Roberts in the Open playoff at Oakmont last year, also took a few weeks off to work on his game and clear up some of the business matters that cluttered his life.
“I thought after the kind of year I had last year it would be a little easier for me,” Els said after missing the cut at the Masters. “I won a lot of money. I moved here and starting building a home. But I haven’t really settled down. And it has affected my play.”
Els came back with a victory in mid-May at the Byron Nelson Classic, then closed with a 68 to finish 10-under in the Memorial.
The guy who took the most time off and came back the strongest was Norman. After missing 6 weeks to nurse an ailing back, the Australian blitzed the field at the Memorial, shooting a 66 last week and finishing at 19-under for a four-stroke win.
“It’s not easy to not touch a club for 5 weeks, then hack it around at home for a week and come out and blow everybody away,” Calcavecchia said about Norman. “That doesn’t happen. It shows how good he is.”
David Duval, who tied for second with Calcavecchia and Steve Elkington, said of Norman: “Nobody else really had a chance today.”
Norman, who was won two British Opens and has challenged a slew of times in the other three majors without ever winning one, comes into Shinnecock on an up.
“I played exceptionally good golf all week,” Norman said after winning the Memorial. “I wanted to win this one really badly.”
Norman, who made three great par saves on the last nine at the Memorial, showed the imagination and touch that are needed to win at Shinnecock.
“What you have to do is expect the unexpected,” he said, “and know how to handle it when it comes.”
U.S. Open courses provide plenty of the unexpected. Shinnecock should provide even more than usual. It is one of the few Scottish-style links courses in the United States, and its treeless, barren expanse plays extremely difficult when the wind whips off the Atlantic.It has been an expectionally windy sping in the New York area, the kind of wind that made the first-round stroke average in 1986 soar to 77.8. No one broke par that day and only Tway matched it.The fairways will be a few yards wider this time around and the rough has been trimmed back to bring the bump-and-run shot into play around many of the greens. If the weather is mild the winning score will be well below the 1 under par Floyd won with in 1986.It would also increase the likelihood that someone like Norman or Els could run away from the field with a really low score.But if the wind blows, and it likely will, it will bring a ton of shotmakers into contention. And the Sunday scramble could look a lot like 1986.
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