It sounds like an overheated ad campaign for one of those big summer movies: A seismic shift in the landscape! The premature end of an epoch! Men rising from the dead to eat their young! But this is no movie; it's golf's blockbuster summer, which blasts off next week with the U.S. Open, at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. The dizzying nine-week stretch that contains the final three major championships goes a long way toward defining any season, but the plotlines this time around are particularly juicy.
Last year was the coronation of the new Brat Pack, led by the under-30 stars who swept the first three majors—Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Justin Leonard. These three, plus a handful of their amigos, looked as if they were going to overrun the sport, but so far this season top billing has been co-opted by a group of salty veterans. The feel-good story of the year belongs to Tom Watson, the 48-year-old fossil who won the Colonial three weeks ago, while the only major to date has gone to Mark O'Meara, who mastered Augusta at age 41. Then there's creaky Fred Couples, who despite the fact that he's pushing 40 has won twice in '98 and sits atop the money list.
"The ball doesn't know how old you are," O'Meara said last week from the Kemper Open in Bethesda, Md., where he finished third, four strokes behind winner Stuart Appleby. "Some of the guys out here think I'm washed up. I like that. It's nice to show the young guys that some of us old-timers can still play the game."
Before anyone reports O'Meara and his contemporaries to the bureau of child welfare, it should be noted that twentysomethings Leonard, Woods and David Duval are all among the top 10 on the money list, and Els and Phil Mickelson, who celebrates his 28th birthday two days before the start of the Open, have won tournaments as well. But everybody knows the only things that really matter are the majors, and Olympic is ill-suited to the recklessness of youth. Olympic is a tight little bandbox boasting what some are already calling the gnarliest rough in Open history. That figures to take the driver, and any chance of winning, away from Duval, Mickelson and Woods, the young bucks who have bashed their way to the game's forefront. As Jack Nicklaus, 58, showed us with his near miss at the Masters, the majors are a different ball game than the first-one-to-20-under-wins birdie-fests on the PGA Tour. "What the U.S. Open comes down to is this: How do you deal with the bad crap that happens to you, not how low can you go," says Tom Lehman, 39, who has led the last three Opens heading into the final round. "It's a test of resiliency, a test of patience, and that's something that's learned only over time."
Not surprisingly, some of the kids frown on this kind of talk. "I don't think experience is the thing that matters," says Leonard, who finished 29th at the Kemper. "Look what happened last year [in the majors]."
The stage is set for a showdown between the forces that author P.J. O'Rourke has identified his latest book as "age and guile" and "youth, innocence and a bad haircut." (Presumably that last bit refers to John Daly.) Were experience the only thing that matters, Watson would rate as the prohibitive favorite. At the last Open at Olympic, in 1987, he finished second by a shot, giving away the tournament to Scott Simpson in an act so charitable it should have been tax deductible. Watson knows the quirks of Olympic like few others, having studied up while an under-grad at nearby Stanford. (Ditto for Woods, though few of the other youngsters can claim any sort of familiarity with Olympic, as it hasn't hosted a Tour event since the '94 Tour Championship.) Watson's ability to think his way around a USGA layout has been demonstrated with 11 top 10 finishes in the Open, including his classic victory just down the coast from San Francisco at Pebble Beach in 1982.
However, Couples and O'Meara offer eloquent rebuttals to the notion that playing a lot of U.S. Open golf confers any sort of advantage. Both men have lost their way in the long grass. Since 1984 Couples has failed to make it to the starting line at two Opens, missed the cut twice and cracked the top 10 only once. With his fragile back Couples is loath to try to fight his way out of the brutal rough. Besides, short putting has always been a chink in his armor, a failing exacerbated on the always slippery Open greens. Of course, O'Meara's record makes Couples's look sterling. The Open has exposed O'Meara's driving, which is the untoward combination of short and crooked. (For the '97 season he was 153rd in distance and 168th in accuracy.) From 1989 to '94 O'Meara missed six straight cuts in the Open and in '95 he didn't even make it through sectional qualifying. He celebrated by taking his family on a vacation to the Bahamas. "Which was probably a good thing," O'Meara says. "My expectations had gotten so low for that tournament." He has finished a respectable 16th and then 36th in the last two years, and his breakthrough at the Masters has him looking ahead to Olympic and a run at the Grand Slam.
"Yeah, right," O'Meara says with a smirk. "I would never say something is impossible, but that's right next to impossible." But, he adds, "my expectations for the Open are a lot higher after Augusta. I learned some things there about how to play in the majors, about hanging in and keeping myself in check."
Yes, there's that experience thing again, which leads to another rejoinder from Leonard: "You don't have to be old to be experienced." Els is proof of that. In just five appearances the 28-year-old has established himself as one of the great Open players in the game's history, having won twice and finished worse than seventh only once. Leonard's learning curve isn't as steep, but he's headed in the right direction after three Opens, going from 68th as an amateur in 1993 to 50th in '96 and 36th last year.
With his dependable (if short) driving, savvy course management and brilliant short game, the Open is the major that would appear to best suit Leonard, his heroics at Royal Troon last year notwithstanding. "I don't really have an opinion on that," he demurs. "I certainly look forward to the [U.S.] Open. I learned early on that golf is a game of patience, of minimizing mistakes and of taking advantage of opportunities."