By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) There’s something spectacular about the U.S. Open that the casual fan may not appreciate.
When the world’s best golfers get together to decide the national championship and the second major of the season, there’s high drama. Despite what they say at Augusta, this is the most meaningful of golf’s championship. If you really think about it, the Masters tradition is all about elitism. You have to be privileged to even gain a ticket to walk on the grounds.
But what’s really special about the U.S. Open is that it regularly brings the best golfers in the world to their knees. Those who run the United States Golf Association don’t want the top pros laughing and back-slapping as they walk their course and fire birdie after birdie.
They want to see them sweat as they hit from the rough and deep in the bunkers. They want to see the top pros in the world to suffer.
They want the best golfers to know that the game is not so easy.
It’s never easy for the rest of us but there is something uplifting to know that a golfer like Phil Mickelson or Luke Donald can occasionally take 7 strokes to complete a challenging par 4 or par 5.
For those of us who really enjoy seeing the pros put big numbers on the scorecard, this year’s U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco should really be special. You may remember that Rory McIlroy, the reigning boy wonder of the sport, won last year’s U.S. Open with a score of 16-under par.
That’s not the kind of number that the USGA likes to see. More often than not, a winning score at this major is in the 2-under to 4-under range. Even par is often a great score at the U.S. Open and the history at Olympic is that just four players (Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Scott Simpson and Tom Watson) have finished under par in four U.S. Opens that have been played there.
Every hole is a challenge at the Olympic, with thick rough and dogleg holes providing the course’s signature. It’s not that great players can’t handle these impediments, but when there are challenges on every hole, it tends to grind away at a golfer’s belief in his own ability.
One of the most unusual aspects to the course is the back-to-back par 5s on holes 16 and 17. The 670-yard 16th hole requires massive power and accuracy, while the 17th hole checks in at an easier-to-reach 522 yards, but the problem is that neither the fairway nor the green are level. Both have a left to right tilt that makes each shot a mental challenge.
In the end, several golfers will find a way to manage the dragon that is Olympic. Perhaps not slay it, but at least find a way to stay upright and within sight of par or maybe a stroke below. Usually, the focus is on Tiger Woods and his pursuit of major championships. While Tiger has won two tournaments this year –Palmer’s Bay Hill Classic and Jack Nicklaus’s Memorial – he is anything but dependable. His game has been up-and-down and it would be a surprise to see him play consistently for four rounds.
It would not be a shock for McIlroy to stay within himself and defend his championship. Unlike many of the top American players who wear their emotions on their sleeve and show their joy on great shots and their anger with poor ones, McIlroy is steady as he goes. Don’t mistake that attitude for being cavalier. He just knows that it’s a marathon and the idea is be standing tall at the end of 72 holes. McIlroy has the game to do just that and etch his name with the great players who have won multiple U.S. Open titles.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.