On Wednesday night in Tulsa, a man with chiseled features and shiny shoes stepped brightly across a hotel lobby, right past a golfing blue blood, an accomplished old gent with good club memberships. In a hushed voice the older man said, "There's Bernhard." The autograph seekers missed Langer. They were too busy chasing Fred Funk and Frank Lickliter.
They've become stars, the golfers have, even your Fred Funks and Frank Lickliters. About 20 of them were congregated in and around the lobby of the players' hotel this night, waiting for their courtesy cars, late for their dinner reservations. It was a scene: players talking on cell phones as thin as Hershey bars; another, well-cologned, wearing wraparound shades on his forehead, mousse in his hair and a silk shirt on his gym-built body; several guys with knockout blondes attached to their hips, college buddies, managers, even young-looking parents in their wakes.
Put these guys on TV every week, put a half million in their money market accounts, spare them the ordinary cares of the world, and what you have is something glamorous, as glamorous as the NBA once was. For good or for bad, the Tour has become a glittering circus.
Except during four days in June, which is exactly the way the USGA, the stern church watching over American golf, wants it. What all those guys chilling in the Double Tree lobby didn't realize was that there was nowhere to go in Tulsa. In fact there's never anywhere to go during a U.S. Open.
Some years the USGA screws up and takes the national championship to a place that's beautiful or charming or interesting: Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, the Hamptons. That's a nice thing for golf's accidental tourists: wives of players, sportswriters, traveling fans. It's nice for NBC. The smart players, however, know it's a mirage. A day in their lives during the U.S. Open always comes down to this: hotel-course-hotel, room service. Or, hotel-course-hotel, McDonald's. They bring their putters back to the room.
Southern Hills, Oak Hill and Baltusrol. Pebble Beach, Shinnecock Hills and Pinehurst. You only think you see a difference. Actually, they're all the same place once the USGA gets through with them, once the players realize what they're playing for. The best thing about last week's Open at Southern Hills was that it was even more boring than usual. That's what the U.S. Open is: a colossal test in the ability to withstand tedium, a torture so exquisite that it is, in the end, exciting in its pureness. Nothing glittery about it.
One of the great clich�s of the U.S. Open, born in truth, is that from a field of 156 men, maybe 20 have enough game, will and patience to win the thing. Lee Janzen and Tiger Woods have already shown that they do. Thomas Bjorn, David Duval, Padraig Harrington, Scott Hoch, John Huston, Tom Lehman, David Toms—one or two of them might win the tournament someday. Davis Love III headed back to the hotel right after his Friday round, bags of fast food in one hand, putter in the other. Add a dozen players of your own if you like, but no more.
Every freakish once in a while a player with tinsel, a Payne Stewart, will win the Open. (Woods doesn't count. Yes, he's awash in sparkle because of TV, but what he really is is golf's ultimate grinder.) Ben Hogan, Andy North and Scott Simpson, they are the prototypes, now and forever.
The U.S. Open has nothing whatsoever to do with cell phones, hair mousse, trophy brides or carefree living. You can light up a cigar when you win in the desert, have the membership stand for you when you win at Augusta National or drink single malt at midnight on the 18th green when you win in Great Britain. Fine. At the U.S. Open you grind for 72 holes, then look up and find out whether you've won.
U.S. Opens are mean, and so are their courses. They are Southern Hills last week. The winner of the Open hits punch shots out of the rough to exactly the correct layup yardage, hits iron shots to the fat of the green, hits a fairway wood off the tee without even a thought of letting loose with a driver. Playing in a U.S. Open is a trip through hell. There's no deep joy in winning the thing, only relief. Byron Nelson, Ken Venturi, Tiger Woods, they'll tell you that. All Retief Goosen did was outlast 20 other guys. The rest of them, focused on the wrong things, never had a chance.