By now we’ve all seen them. They crop up frequently on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and in all the other virtual places Tour pros hang out.
Videos illustrating the speed of the greens and the length and thickness of the rough at historic Oakmont Country Club, venue for this week’s 116th U.S. Open Championship, have been two a penny the last couple of days.
Here's a good one from European Tour pro Max Kieffer.
And another from former US Amateur champ and 2015 BMW PGA Championship winner Byeong Hun An.
The 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell posted a few eye-opening videos on his Twitter page, including one of Associated Press golf writer Doug Ferguson having a go with a wedge out of the cabbage short of the 17th green, and moving the ball a few inches.
We watch in stunned disbelief, slowly mouthing the word “wow” as a ball that appears to have come to rest on the green, rotates one dimple and slowly meanders 50 feet away, finally ending up against a formidable collar of rough.
Or we chuckle as players take a hack at a ball they can barely see and barely move it, knowing if they did hit it hard enough to reach the putting surface the ball would inevitably race across the green and settle into another hellish lie on the other side.
There’s a fleeting sense of respect for the superintendent (and Oakmont's John Zimmers is one of the best) able to produce these incredible surfaces and for the club members that apparently love this sort of thing. There’s also a tinge of sorrow for the unlikely qualifier who will not have seen anything like this in his life and whose joy and excitement at having made it to Oakmont will likely turn to anguish as he takes on this beast while trying to quell overwhelming nerves. Take, for example, PGA Tour Latinoamerica player Mark Anguiano, who qualified with a 66 at the Olympic Club and 68 at Lake Merced in Daly City, Calif., and who rolled a 15-foot putt off the 11th green in Monday’s practice round and said he "felt foolish."
And then there’s a moment of admiration for players we know are going to break 80, even 70, on a course where we’d have trouble keeping it in double digits.
Slowly, however, these transitory feelings give way to a certain gloominess and despondency as we remember how watching a typical U.S. Open can go. This is not cheery entertainment.
This is not something non-golfers switch on with a view to maybe taking the game up one day. No one curious about this sport watches the world’s best players hacking out of rough, four- and five-putting insanely fast greens and looking shell-shocked as they walk off the 18th five hours after starting, then excitedly heads out to Nevada Bob’s to buy him some gear.
But you have to do it. You have to watch the U.S. Open. Of course you’re going to watch the U.S. Open. It’s the U.S. Open.
But this is the event where seemingly every approach shot hit with more than a 5-iron ends up in the same low-point on the green regardless of how high, hard or well they were hit. This is the event where well-struck drives bound through absurdly narrow fairways and dive deep into the rough. This is the event where players jeopardize the health of their wrists by taking a full-swing from the long grass.
Former USGA president Sandy Tatum famously said the championship didn’t try to embarrass the best players but rather identify them. The NCAA individual champion in 1942, a USGA Executive Committee member for eight years and a 2011 inductee into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, Tatum, now 96, is a great friend of golf who has contributed so much to the game during his long life. But the comment for which he is best known is a little contentious to say the least.
The list of winners at the U.S. Open does indeed include most of the game’s best – Sam Snead is the glaring omission, but he had plenty of chances – but there is a handful of unfancied champions just as there is at the other major championships. With the greatest of respect, were Ed Furgol, Jack Fleck, Orville Moody, Dick Mayer, Lou Graham, Scott Simpson, Steve Jones, Michael Campbell or Lucas Glover regarded as the best when they won their lone major title?
Some will think this sacrilegious, blasphemous, disrespectful. That’s fair enough. The U.S. Open has played a pivotal role in the game’s history obviously, and is regarded by many as golf’s most prestigious title. But is it not a little odd the organization that so wants to attract new players and exists "for the good of the game" puts on a tournament that tends to suck the joy out of it?
This Sunday evening, only a handful of people will look back and insist they enjoyed the experience -- the winner, and those spiteful Oakmont members who, we often hear, relish the thought of visitors having a miserable time on their golf course, and who will celebrate what will surely be one of the championship's higher winning totals in the last 50 years (assuming it doesn’t rain and the greens become a little softer).
I’ll be glued to the action, of course, hoping for another seat-edge finish like we had at Chambers Bay last year. But as shot after shot ends up buried in the rough, great players are forced to thrash inelegantly at their ball just a few feet from the green, and what appear to be good putts trickle despairingly past the hole then continue rolling for 30 seconds or more, I’ll also be wondering if this really is golf as it should be.