Yes, the U.S. Open was riveting, and, yes, Payne Stewart was I a heroic winner. Even so, several things disturbed me about the tournament. Excuse me, the championship. Call me a heretic, but Pinehurst No. 2 did not cause me to genuflect.
Granted, I was not on the premises, but I did do a full couch potato, watching virtually every minute of the 29 televised hours, from the ceremonial opening of the telecast at 11 a.m. on Thursday to Stewart's joyous celebration on Sunday evening. In the early going, I found those approach shots to the false fronts of the greens fascinating, heartbreaking, amusing—take your pick. "Nice shot," Johnny Miller and Co. would say. But then you would hear "Hold it.... It's still moving.... There it goes," as ball after ball rolled down the steep embankments.
By the weekend all the greens began to run together in the mind, 18 cereal bowls turned upside down. "The green is 6,000 square feet," I was told, "but the safe landing area is only 1,000 feet," and then television would show a cartoon image of the green with an inner ring designating the safe area. At times even Miller seemed to despair as approaches from 200 yards that landed 15 feet short of the pin rolled by the cup, appeared to stop, then trickled on and down, winding up well off the green.
At first it was interesting to see what clubs the players would use from these awkward positions. NBC showed us the options on tape: wedge, middle iron, putter, fairway wood. But after a while I really didn't care which club was used. More often than not, the player "rescued par." By Sunday evening we television viewers had probably seen 200 such shots, none of which were memorable, save those that fell short and rolled back to a player's feet.
The players were nearly unanimous in their praise of old No. 2, so I'm clearly in the minority, a golfing dolt among connoisseurs. Tiger Woods hopes the tournament—excuse me again, the championship—will return to Pinehurst soon, a natural sentiment because this was his best Open, and Lee Janzen was quoted several times as saying that he has often been asked which is the most difficult course he has ever played. "Now I know," he said. Fine, but for viewing pleasure, give me Augusta, Pebble Beach or St. Andrews.
The clock-watching business bothered me, too. "Let's bring the USGA's David Fay in here because we have a slow-play problem," we were told during the third round. "David, what's up?" With that, Fay explained that the final pairing that day, Stewart and David Duval, was "on the clock" because the players had lost touch with the pair ahead, Woods and Tim Herron. Duval, Fay explained, had been given a warning for taking more than 45 seconds to hit a shot. Minutes later Fay said mat Duval and Stewart were off the hook because they had caught Herron and Woods, who themselves were now on the clock for falling behind the group ahead of them. The entire scenario, with different players, was repeated during the final round.
Give me a break! First, you sentence the players to a course designed by the Marquis de Sade, then you zero in on the leaders, each struggling to be identified—a. USGA term—as the national champion, and you tell them to get a move on. It's one tiling to caution some slow-playing oafs in the middle of the pack who are on their way to shooting 29 over par, but if the leaders are playing a tad slow, whom are they holding up? Besides, it's academic. You will never, ever see the day when the USGA slaps a two-stroke penalty on the leader. "Sorry, Tiger, you were ahead by one, but now you're a stroke behind." No way.
I was glad to see the Open end. I understand why the players came off the 18th green drained. Just watching for roughly seven hours a day was draining. But if they played it again next week, you know what? Warts and all, I wouldn't miss a moment.