IT DOESN’T happen very often. Only Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods have managed it in the last five decades – and for good reason. Just a month or so apart, the US Open and the Open Championship typically present almost diametrically opposing challenges.
So winning both in the same year becomes an incredibly difficult proposition for even the most gifted player. Jack Nicklaus, winner of 18 major championships and runner-up in 19 more, couldn’t get it done.
This year at Merion was the exception in terms of total yardage, but, traditionally, the US Open is played on a course that is very long, very narrow and features very thick rough. The Open can be like that too. Carnoustie in 1999 springs immediately to mind. As does Muirfield in 1966, when eventual runner-up Doug Sanders told the R&A they could keep the prize money if he could have the “hay concession”. And, given the evidence of your correspondent’s own eyes just six days ago, the famous East Lothian links will present a similarly “hit it straight or die” challenge when the world’s best arrive next month.
Still, even allowing for that disappointingly one-dimensional truth, there remains a fundamental distinction between the prevalent course set-up philosophies employed by United States Golf Association and the R&A.
“The difference between golf’s two biggest championships is that, with few exceptions, Open venues tend to be played as they are supposed to be played,” claims former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy.
“Yes, there have been a few back tees added over the years but, even now, the Old Course at St Andrews is played close to how it should be played.
“The same is true at, say, Lytham, which is played as the local members play it. This year Tiger, Ernie, Phil and all the rest will play Muirfield as the Honourable Company [of Edinburgh Golfers] play it,” adds Ogilvy.
“In contrast, the USGA likes to put its own mark on every US Open site. This year at Merion they were certainly dictating to us how we had to play the course. It’s quite formulaic. As narrow as they can get away with, rough as long as they can get away with and greens as fast as they can get away with. Every shot struck was as difficult as the USGA could sensibly make it.”
As ever, the 36-year old Australian, one of the modern game’s keenest and sharpest observers, makes a good and thought-provoking point.
While the R&A has recently exhibited an ever-increasing tendency to meddle with the set-up of Open courses, the game’s ruling body outside the United States and Mexico has a long way to go before their level of manipulation approaches that of their counterparts across the pond.
“The Open has certainly seen some healthy rough on a few occasions,” continues Ogilvy. “But, generally speaking, the championship is played on a ‘back-tee’ version of the course the members play every week. At St Andrews you are presented with lots of width, angles and strategy. Muirfield isn’t quite like that but it does ask you to hit great shots all day long. I like both of those scenarios.
“So it isn’t often an Open venue is overtly ‘tricked up.’ We go there and play the course as we find it. Having said that, there was a bit too much rough going on at Lytham last year and more than one fairway had been ‘pinched in’ where it never had been before. So the R&A is not immune to temptation. Despite what they say about not caring what the winning score turns out to be, they do want the Open to be played on a difficult course.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two Opens is, however, that one offers an inherent variety of shot and challenge and the other, generally speaking, does not.
“I could practise for the US Open all year long,” claims Ogilvy, who picked up his so-far only major title at Winged Foot in 2006. “I know what I’m going to get when I arrive. I know it’s going to be long and narrow. The Open isn’t like that, mostly because of the variable weather patterns in the UK.
“At Lytham last year we were dropping out of water-filled bunkers. But, at Hoylake in 2006, there wasn’t a blade of green grass on the course. The ball was running sixty yards and presented us with a different examination.
“So the challenge can vary hugely. You never know what you’re going to get.
“At the Open you have to adapt to whatever the course gives you and the very best players are best equipped to do that, but you can get your game into US Open ‘mode’ whenever you need to. I know, six months beforehand, what I’m going to get. At the Open I don’t.”
OK, so what is the ideal scenario at our Open, the perfect confluence of meteorological and course set-up factors that will produce the best and most interesting challenge and, not coincidentally, the most entertaining spectacle?
“What I want to see at every Open is a fast-running course where the ball spends a long time on the ground,” responds Ogilvy, who grew up playing the wonderful ‘Sandbelt’ courses of Melbourne.
“That’s the most fun. Yes, it freaks me out when I get there and watch a shot land 20 yards short and bounce over the back. But, by the end of the week, I love all that. It’s certainly more challenging. If a ball doesn’t do anything when it lands, the flight and shape of the shot is obviously less important.
“Which is why St Andrews is so much fun. Yes, there are holes where you need to fly the ball on to the green but, most of the time, the run-up shot is an option, as it will be at Muirfield.
“Look at the list of champions there. It’s like a who’s who of the very best: Ernie Els; Nick Faldo; Tom Watson; Trevino; Nicklaus; Gary Player. Every one is a player with a complete game, a man who can hit all the shots.”
Given even reasonably decent weather over the next two and a bit weeks, Ogilvy and his peers are sure to be hitting shots that spend a fair amount of time hugging the turf. But the field isn’t going to have quite as much fun as they might like. Certainly, the length and density of the rough at Muirfield is likely to disappoint Ogilvy – and also eliminate the most exciting aspect of links golf.
“The biggest thing the Open usually has that the US Open does not is the recovery shot,” he adds. “I think we need that. If you take away that option, the game is diminished. Golf is most interesting when you put a good player in a spot that asks for something other than a ‘normal’ shot. That’s what the Open does consistently. I have to come up with a plan or an idea and maybe not hit the standard 5-iron I practice on the range.
“And that is the biggest difference between the two Opens. I can prepare for the US Open on the range. But I can only prepare for the Open on the course.”