Imagine a group of cyclists grouped together for a race up a steep mountain incline. They leave on the gun, and it becomes immediately clear that some of them aren't conditioned for this kind of strain. Their legs cramp, their chests pound, their bikes begin to wobble, and they pull off to collapse on the side of the road. Others continue, showing better form, but the problem is that the ascent never stops. If anything, the climb seems to become steeper, more painful. The amateur riders drop out for lack of experience. The former legends, past their peak, swallow their pride and quit. Some take calculated risks and waste valuable energy. Some hit a patch of oil or dirt and swerve into the ground. Some look at the mountain, and the size of the task unnerves them. They all falter.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, before the tournament began, there was ill-advised speculation that someone would shoot a 62 and break the U.S. Open record. Why? First, Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, is a par-70. Most courses used in Grand Slam events are par-72, so the theoretical history-maker would have a two-stroke advantage on his forebears. Second, Merion is short. The shortest U.S. Open course since 2004, in fact, with a few driveable par-4s. Third, it had rained in the week leading up, which meant that the narrow fairways would be softer, keeping errant drives from the rough. Ditto the greens. The players, so the thinking went, could just uncork their wicked drivers and attack the pins without fear of reprisal.
This was shortsighted, but not because those making the predictions were wrong about the golf course. They were just wrong about the United States Golf Association. The USGA runs several tournaments throughout the year, but the only one with a truly national reach is the U.S. Open. The organization prides itself on the idea that the tournament is a true test of golf skill, with a high level of difficulty. If you look at the list of U.S. Open winners, you'll notice that only two players since the whole thing began in 1895 have finished the tournament under par by double digits.
Those players were Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. This shit is meant to be hard.
The USGA had a reputation to maintain, so they began to construct the mountain. The tees were pushed back. The roughs were allowed to grow to lengths sufficient to disguise large snakes and small horses. The pins were placed in impossible positions at the apex of rival slopes, meaning if a putt missed on the uphill, it would roll an equal distance downhill. The 18th hole, famous for Ben Hogan's 1-iron onto the green in 1950 (and the most iconic golf photo of all time), played an absurd 521 yards as a par-4 and artificially inflated every player's score by four strokes. Over the weekend, the 18th yielded exactly zero birdies. That's quite a mountain.
There are a couple of ways to think about what the USGA did. Zach Johnson went negative, describing the course as "manipulated," and saying, "it enhances my disdain for the USGA." Of course, that was after he shot an opening-round 77. Phil Mickelson landed on the opposite extreme, pleased as punch about the setup, the difficulty, and everything else he might encounter in life. Of course, he had just ambled 18 holes with his lunatic grin to the tune of a 67 and the first-round lead. (A few days later, he showed that his private feelings might not be so enthusiastic.)
Tiger Woods might have had the most balanced response. The USGA made a lot of noise in the lead-up about how the winning score didn't matter. When asked if he believed that, Tiger's one-word reply was emphatic: "No."
The USGA also had some allies in its quest for difficulty. Weather delays on Thursday forced golfers to rush, wait, rush again, and wake up early the next morning to finish incomplete rounds. The rain led to mud-caked balls — on Wednesday, Lee Trevino advised players to hit their shots low, explaining that his golf balls used to "clean themselves" — and added difficulty controlling approach shots. And then, on Sunday, in case anyone felt comfortable as the back nine began, it rained again.
So forget the record-breaking 62. Nobody would even manage a 66. Following the first round, five players were under par. That number was reduced to two after the second round, and by Saturday night, only Mickelson's name had a red number beside it on the giant manual scoreboard overlooking the last green. Twenty-four hours and 18 holes later, the red numbers would be gone for good.
On a climb like this, it's interesting to note how the unfortunates dropped out.
The regional qualifiers, part of what makes the Open so unique, had no chance. The amateurs fared a bit better, with four making the cut, but the best of their group finished at +10.
Ian Poulter, who flirted with the lead on Friday, had his usual intimidation tactics working against playing partners Jason Dufner and Boo Weekley on Saturday. He strode ahead of the group so they could only see his back, avoided most conversation, and bugged out his eyes at every chance — the usual stuff that makes him so formidable in match play. And while this might have worked to psych out Dufner and Weekley, I realized watching him that the idea was all wrong for Merion. I can report that the miles of sand and grass and fescue and mud were not shaken by his ferocity; they were as implacable as the wall Mitch Hedberg played tennis against. Poulter finished at 11-over.
Sergio Garcia was heckled by fans yelling about fried chicken, making clucking noises, and encouraging him not to choke. These were obstacles he didn't need en route to +15.
Tiger Woods, who once faced down a similar course and obliterated it in the most dominant major win ever, faded on the weekend and couldn't be willed back into contention even by the television crews who watched their ratings plummet. (Note to editors: Please include a "Tiger Woods" tag with this post for traffic reasons.)
Billy Horschel came into Sunday just two shots off the lead and decided to wear octopus pants the same way that small monkeys smile as an act of submission to larger primates. He shot a 74.
Steve Stricker, a Midwestern man of impeccable manners and an absolute disaster under any kind of pressure, folded by the second hole on Sunday despite starting only one shot behind. He settled for a 76.
Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champ, had played brilliant golf with Hunter Mahan on Saturday. They pushed each other to greater heights, every tee shot in the fairway, every iron on the green. It was brilliant until they each gave two strokes back on 17 and 18. Still, by day’s end, they both found themselves with everything to play for on Sunday. But on the final day, either the nerves got to Schwartzel or he was infected by Stricker, his playing partner, on the way to 78.
Luke Donald did his best to keep England's 17-year major-less streak alive by spraying Sunday irons in every direction as he stumbled to a 75.
By late Sunday afternoon, when the dark clouds over Merion were preparing to open, late charges by Ernie Els and Dufner had failed to break +5, and the fade-outs by the other contenders were complete. Four golfers remained in the climb; the young Australian Jason Day, stone-faced Hunter Mahan, Justin Rose, and the darling of the gallery, the larger-than-life icon, the smiling lefty, Phil Mickelson.
Rose had been pursued by the Phil Roar all day long. He could hear it two groups back as he struggled to keep his composure. It broke Schwartzel, who had endured it for two straight days and finally gave up, looking across fairways in frustration as his own shots began to waver. It was like a wave, threatening to overtake everyone. The Philadelphia fans loved Mickelson, and they didn't care who knew it.
The Mickelson narrative was perfect. So perfect that most of the writers in the media tent claimed to hate it, and then wrote about it anyway. See, he'd skipped practice at Merion in order to attend his daughter's eighth-grade graduation on Wednesday night (she was speaking), then took a red-eye back from the West Coast before his 7:11 a.m. tee time Thursday morning. All that family commitment. And guess what? Sunday was Father's Day. He would win, and reap his karmic rewards.
Of course, Americans love Phil anyway. His roar was contagious, and it didn't even matter that he wasn't playing great golf on Sunday. And then, just when it seemed like he might have played himself out of contention, he sparked the loudest roar of the day.
There's a dramatic energy on Sunday at a major, and it comes in part from the constant stream of breaking news being exchanged between players, fans, and journalists. It's one of the few sports where the action doesn't take place in a central arena for everyone to see, and with every update on the looming scoreboards, with every crackle in the tiny radios in our ears, there's a shift in reality. In golf, you can get high on information.
Rose was at even par for the tournament on no. 16, leading Mickelson and Mahan by a shot. He had changed in and out of rain gear at least three times by the time he hit his drive on 16 straight and true. Walking down the fairway, he peeled and ate a banana while trying to appear calm. The fans shouted at him — there's no sport for inane shouting like golf — and when he stood over his ball and eyed the tricky uphill approach over a waste area, something strange happened. First, a fan on the left wouldn't stop yelling, "Don't chunk it! It's wet, don't chunk it!" In retrospect, it's probably a surprise that there's not more rudeness in golf galleries, but with the sheer amount of pressure on every shot, the words felt equivalent to throwing a full soda can at an athlete's head in any other sport. At that exact moment — and only that exact moment — that fan seemed like the worst person alive.
Then, just before Rose hit his ball, Mickelson hit a booming drive on no. 15. The holes are adjacent, and as he walked after his ball, Mickelson watched Rose as the fans cheered him on. When the gallery behind the ropes noticed Rose about to swing, they increased their roar, using Mickelson as an excuse to get louder. Maybe Mickelson should have stopped for Rose's shot, or maybe I'm reading too much into it, but when Rose's ball landed on the green and started to trickle farther and farther away from the hole, the noise of "encouragement" for Phil gained steam. He had finished in second place here five times. Maybe this was the year.
When Rose three-putted on the 16th green to fall into a brief tie for the lead at +1, you could see that him start to wobble as the moment and the incline grew.
Rose responded by sticking his long iron on the devilish par-3 17th, a 246-yard monster of a hole. And on 18, facing the hardest tee shot on the course, he painted a beautiful fade over the rising terrain, landing just 10 yards away from the plaque memorializing Hogan's 1-iron.
Remember what I said about the constant information highs? Walking down the fairway, a fan told me that Phil had bogeyed 15. What's more, Mahan had double-bogeyed. Rose was back in the lead.
Times have changed, and where Hogan used a 1-iron, Rose plucked the four from his bag. He hit it pure — a shot that could be its own legend, in different circumstances — two-putted for par, and walked to the clubhouse for the uneasy wait with his wife and caddie.
Mickelson and Mahan failed to birdie 17, and needing an already impossible birdie on 18 to tie, Phil made it even more impossible by hitting his drive in the rough. His second shot stopped well short of the green, meaning he would not even get a chance at his birdie putt.
The gallery was not deterred. They cheered and shouted, and they made their case for a miracle pitch. Then, somehow, the ropes keeping them at bay disappeared. They stormed the fairway in a moment that was exciting or terrifying, depending on your vantage, and you could see the look of panic in the eyes of police and security as they watched the oncoming rush. The people ran through bunkers, over the manicured grass, and only stopped reluctantly as the authorities formed a last line of defense. In the 360-degree theater that had formed, a chant rose: "Let's go Phil!"
He studied the green. It occurred to me, 50 yards behind, that if he somehow made this chip and forced a playoff, he would become immortal.
He came really, really close.
It turns out Rose lost his father to leukemia in 2002. I don't mention that because I think competing narratives should dictate who deserves to win a golf tournament, but only because it dawned on me during the trophy presentation, as it does so often, that there's always a part of the story you don't know.
"A lot of us come from great men," he told Bob Costas. "My job today was to carry myself on the golf course in a way I could be proud of. I couldn't help but look up to the heavens and think that my old dad Ken had something to do with it."
Justin Rose started 36 majors before winning his first, and now his climb is over.