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Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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Published: 6/13/2003

Ideally suited for Opens

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. - Let's build the perfect U.S. Open golfer. We can use spare body parts, an Erector set, whatever's handy, although what we're creating is more a concept than flesh and bones.

He would be an accurate driver of the ball, not particularly long, but someone who knows enough and has game enough to avoid snarly, gnarly rough.

He would hit iron shots so true to the line that you'd think it was a laser locked on the flagstick.

He'd be sporty with the sand wedge because, perfect or not, there are always going to be hiccups on an Open course.

And on the greens, well, he'd have the nerves of a surgeon. The eye of an archer. The soft hands of a baby. What was it they used to call Loren Roberts? The boss of the moss. Yeah, that would be it.

Personality? Somewhere between boring and deceased. Never too high, never too low, about 110 over 70 on the blood pressure cuff. Cool, calm, always collected.

So there's our guy. Want to give him a name? OK, let's go with Justin Leonard.

Seriously, how has this man not won a couple or three National Opens by now? They are played on courses where fairways are squeezed as narrow as a model's waist, where the rough is more hay than grass, where greens are tilted sideways and cups are cut atop knolls and look smaller than the change in your pocket.

Everything about Justin Leonard's game would indicate he's the man for the job.

Yet, prior to his opening-round 66 yesterday in the 103rd U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, Leonard had played 30 rounds in Open competition to a combined 79 over par. In his last three tries, he'd gone 73, 78 and 73 in first rounds.

How is this possible?

“On paper, yeah, I'd agree,” Leonard said. “Length isn't usually a factor. There's a premium on accuracy and putting well. You have to eliminate mistakes. Yeah, that's usually me.

“But knowing my game suits the event may have caused me to put more pressure on myself. I'm trying to be a little more casual about it this time.”

Yesterday was a nice feeling for Leonard because, as he put it, “I've shot myself in the foot in more first rounds of Opens than I'd care to admit. If you come out and make a mistake, hit a few wayward shots, the Open is so penal that everything is magnified. You can lose confidence and momentum very quickly.”

Rarely is any momentum built on an Open course, but rarely is an Open held at Olympia Fields. Bobby Jones played in the last one, 75 years ago.

This time, the field ate the joint alive. A year ago at Bethpage Black on Long Island, there were five sub-par scores in the first round. There were just 25 the entire week.

Yesterday there were 24. One guy, Englishman Brian Davis, holed his approach shot at the 576-yard first hole to spark an eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie start. IN THE UNITED STATES OPEN!

There were 10 eagles, all told. It was more like the B.C. Open. USGA officials immediately huddled to discuss moving the final three rounds to Medinah or Cog Hill or some nearby course that might put up a fight.

“I know the USGA has probably not gotten the golf course where they'd like it,'' said Jay Don Blake, whose 66 tied Leonard for second place, one shot behind an ageless wonder, Tom Watson, and Brett Quigley.

No kidding, Jay Don.

The rough isn't swallowing balls, the greens are receptive, putts are rolling at member-guest speeds.

Still, Leonard wasn't about to concede that his round was the product of easy conditions.

“I think this is definitely a U.S. Open course,” he said. “It stands out. It doesn't have the length, but that's a good thing. I don't think we need to be playing that type of golf course every year. It's smaller, but every bit as challenging. The course will firm up gradually. We'll have some wind. It'll get tougher.

“But I'm playing well. I'm confident I'll handle whatever they throw at us.''

As should a prototype U.S. Open player.



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