June 18, 2009

And So It Begins...The Slobbering Onslaught of Endless Hyperbole

Every year, when the US Open begins, pundits, analysts and reporters fall all over themselves to top their previous year's hyperbole. Not only is it wildly inaccurate, it's insulting to the intelligence of the knowledgeable golf fan.

Without a doubt, the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines was one of the most exciting ever played. And without looking at television and web ratings, it was also one of the most widely watched ever. No one can deny the drama of a hobbled Tiger Woods dueling back and forth with Rocco Mediate, the happy-go-lucky journeyman with a heart of steel that stared Tiger down for 91 holes before a single shot and missed putt gave Woods the win. It was compelling, awesome and entertaining golf. But it was the best ever?

That's a hard call, unless you happen to have a TV camera in front of you. The sycophantic hyperbole coming out of the mouths of nearly everyone covering the event as the greatest tournament ever played was so incessant that it became sickening - it gave the feeling that one had downed three cobs of cotton candy and a gallon of soda besides. Great, yes, but to instantly label it the best-ever was probably wrong, because at the end of the day, little changed in the golf world as a result of the tournament. The king, Woods, had held his ground while the challenger, Mediate, was left to shake his head in admiration. That was the expected outcome.

Consider other great US Opens through history, some that had and have lasting effects on the game:

Former caddy and store clerk Frances Ouimet beat Harry Vardon and Ted Ray (the Tiger and Phil of his day) in 1913, after a playoff between the three men. To even get there, Ouimet had to make a courageous and unexpected comeback in the final holes of regulation and in the playoff he had to battle not only his nerves, but also two of the most enduring icons of the game. That he did, and the rest as they say, is history. Ouimet's stunning upset, coupled with US-born Johnny McDermott's 1911 and 1912 wins put golf on the map in the minds of US sports fans, and has to be one of the top 5 upsets in sports of all time. Not only that, the victory also inspired a great many to pick up clubs and try golf for themselves, which fueled an explosion of interest in the game that has never receded.

Another stunning US Open was Ben Hogan's win at Merion in 1950. Hogan, who had been left incapacitated in a horrific car accident the year before, was not expected to ever walk again, much less win a US Open. Playing with legs tightly bound in bandages due to poor circulation, Hogan played nearly perfect golf. At the 72nd hole, needing a par to join a playoff with Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio, Hogan struck a perfectly struck one-iron onto the difficult 18th green — a shot you may have seen in the immortal photo (left) taken by Hy Peskin — made his par and went on to win an 18-hole playoff to secure the championship the next day. A mere 16 months had passed since that accident, which at the time left Hogan's life in the balance.

The 1962 US Open battle between Arnold Palmer and a young Jack Nicklaus may rate as one of the best (if not the top) US Open duel. Palmer was the undisputed king of golf at the time, with thirty wins in the previous seven years, including four majors. Jack Nicklaus was a wunderkind Johnny-Come-Lately challenger at the time, but he had his own resume -- the 22-year old had the 1959 and 1961 US Amateur titles under his belt and had nearly bested Palmer in the 1960 US Open. Still, Nicklaus was searching for his professional win when he arrived at Oakmont, and few regarded the man still considered the greatest-ever to be a factor in the tournament.

Paired together in the first two rounds, the pair battled fiercely in a close-fought fight with Palmer pulling slightly ahead aver the first three rounds, but on Sunday, Jack pulled even to force a playoff. This did not at all please the crowd -- the '62 Open was played at Oakmont in Palmer's western Pennsylvania homelands -- and Nicklaus had to endure catcalls of 'Fat Jack,' poor etiquette on the gallery's part and open hostility from them as he challenged their beloved Arnie. Shaking all of that off, Nicklaus held steady and eventually forged a tie.

The next day in the 18 hole playoff, Palmer bogeyed the first hole and gave Nicklaus a lead he would never relinquish despite multiple charges from Palmer. After that win, Nicklaus earned the grudging respect of golf fans, went on to win another 18 majors and now is held as the greatest ever to play the game.
The 1962 US Open, however, was where one of the great rivalries in the game was set ablaze, and it lasted until both men retired from tournament golf...but one has to wonder if ever they privately tee it up somewhere and battle just for the sake of playing one another. Today, they are good friends, but on the golf course, they were fierce rivals with neither giving quarter to the other.

With all due respect to Woods in 2008, his was a top three or four win for the ages, but it is difficult to put his win ahead of the three aforementioned wins until it stands the test of time and the judgment of history. But that won't stop Johnny Miller, Golf Channel announcers or especially ESPN from making their exclamations of it over and over and over yet again in the next few days.

They will also incessantly proclaim this year's venue, Bethpage Black as the hardest course ever known to golf. Without a doubt Bethpage is an incredibly tough track, mainly because it is so long and straying from its fairways so punitive. Then again, that's par for any US Open course. Oakmont is tough, so is Pinehurst #2, so is The Country Club and so is Pebble in US Open form. All of them are tough and they all test the world's best to the limits of their ability. The USGA sees to it. And each course has its unique toughness that makes it the hardest test of golf on US soil every year. It's almost impossible to label Bethpage as the toughest ever when they are all uniquely and insanely difficult. Next year, at Pebble Beach, the same claim will be made of that course, then the year after that, Congressional, and so forth and so on.

No matter how tough Bethpage proves to be, I doubt the record for the highest cut line since World War II is in danger: 155 (+15) The Olympic Club, San Francisco, 1955. And more than likely, the highest winning score of 290 strokes by Jack Nicklaus for 72 holes at Pebble Beach in 1972 is equally safe. Unless one or both records fall this weekend, the repeated claims of "toughest ever" as specious and hollow, and should be allowed to go through one ear and out of the other. After all, it's made every year without fail. Until one of those two records are broken, the proclamations are nothing more than noise in the signal.

Frankly, with all due respect to Bethpage, it's not even close to the toughest championship venue in the current rotation of the majors: in my humble opinion, the toughest tournament golf course I have ever seen is Carnoustie, hands-down, bar none. Just imagine if the USGA got its hands on that beast!

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