The End of Fairways?
Thoughts on Last Year’s U.S. Open and the coming of 2021 majors
“Schadenfreude” is perhaps the greatest word in the German Language. It means the enjoyment of the suffering of others but not the kind like watching people writhe in pain. Rather, the term is used for the pleasure you may feel watching people running around in the rain while you are sitting under a nice roof with a cup of coffee. The U.S. Open gives average golfers this opportunity. Instead of a constant barrage of birdies, we can watch pros duff it short of the green, three put from 20 feet, and shank it over the green. But with the onslaught of more and more power and ball speed, the opportunities for schadenfreude have become scant. However, hopes were high that the old white whale, Winged Foot, would deliver.
After only hitting 12 fairways in 54 holes, Matt Wolff should have been toast. Instead, he held the lead. Disclaimer: I’m a huge fan of Matt Wolff. Anybody that can rock a swing like that, roams outside the box, and I can dig it. It takes more than talent to play that way; you need a strong sense of self and guts of steel. But watching him birdie the 467-yard par four fourth from the thick cabbage and walk into the clubhouse five under after only hitting two fairways made something inside me twitch.
Wolff’s playing partner, Brendon Todd, hit 12 of 14 fairways, but came in 10 shots behind Wolff for the day. Paired with Wolff for the final round is Bryson DeChambeau, whose game plan has been clear from the start: just bomb it. “If the ball goes as far as it usually does,” he told the New York Times, “I’m comfortable in the rough, because with a wedge or a short iron I can still get it to the green or to the front of the green. That lowers the intimidation factor of the rough.” But by overpowering the rough of one of the toughest tracks in the country, we’ve been robbed of the game’s greatest test: that of character. “Don’t let them see you sweat,” the old adage goes, but If you win the U.S. Open at Winged Foot that way, we feel cheated.
During the Championship, I was reminded of my own personal Winged Foot: Pawleys Plantation. Just 27 miles south of Myrtle Beach, I’ve avoided this Jack Nicklaus design and its 140 slope rating for nearly 40 years. All week, me and my 10 handicap navigated trees in the middle of fairways, long carries over water from the rough, and the terrifying island green 13th. The course lived up to its reputation and then some, arguably Myrtle Beach’s toughest. It certainly demands every shot from the amateur, and I seemed to be able to hit most, but as a three-over-par round soon ballooned, I reached the point of pressing the pencil into the scorecard to the verge of snapping it in two. Then, I looked over at my wife and calmly slid it back in place. As we rode to the final tee and the salty wind off the marsh poured over me, I realized that it was in fact the most important round of my life.
On a three-week golf-cation in Myrtle Beach, travelling up highway 17 has been at times a bit like passing through a cemetery. “Waterway Hills,” with its tram from the parking lot to its Robert Trent Jones design, is ghosted, overgrown wilderness. Further up on the left “Heather Glen,” named the public golf course of the year in 1987, is now a sleek set of condos. And who could forget “Marsh Harbor?” The course you could hit a drive in North Carolina, pass over South Carolina and with a little draw land back in North Carolina. Now, all that’s left of it is a faded, pale sign. As a boy, my father and I played all these courses, usually the first year they opened. The last one we played together was Moorland. A brute of a course designed by P.B. Dye, it got the better of us on a muggy July day in more ways than one. I threw a few balls, he a couple of clubs. We yelled at each other and ended the trip early, driving all the way back to Alabama without saying a word. It was regrettably the last of many great golf adventures we had together.
Now an adult, teaching my wife the great game at Pawleys Plantation, I check my scorecard before heading up to the 18th tee. It isn’t pretty. I had long revered the course and had hoped to break 80. I brought my best game, but it wasn’t enough. If I just would have hit a three wood of the tee on the tenth hole or not tried to cut the corner on one, I tell myself. As I stare down the last fairway then look back at her, it comes to me: the real win was the fact that I didn’t lose my shit. I kept my composure, and from high above, I could feel my father smiling down on me.
The U.S. Open has long served as the ultimate test for the best, a grand magnifying glass of character: we see who you are, your strong points and weakness, your blowups and fist pumps. We experience every shot with you, the fear of failing, the agony of lost opportunities, and the triumph of a mighty will. In the end, as much as we amateurs love to watch the pros struggle, deep down we still hunger to see the great rise into something heroic. We want that example, that inspiration.
A New York Times headline from earlier in the week read: “New-Era Golfers Prepare to be Humbled at Winged Foot.” That didn’t happen. While the majority of the traditional players were, those at the top are as new-era as new-era gets. Wolff is all of 21 and DeChambeau is a recently remade post-quarantine bomber. These two power hitters have pulled a Jedi mind-trick, telling themselves, “there is no rough.” But without rough, there is no fairway. The two define each other like night divides day. The hero needs the dragon, poised with poison and dripping with danger. Without that dichotomy, isn’t the moral of a major tournament more of a science and less an art?
Two months from the Masters and the beginning of “Major” season, what will it be this year? Hopefully, more rough.