Among golf's majors, U.S. Open one of a grind Field, conditions toughest of all


The U.S. Open is a rough that looks like a bad hair day and a green that resembles the surface of the moon.

Coated with Teflon.

It's a leader board draped in black -- the official color of the bogey.

It's a lone man, drenched in sweat, eyes glazed, limp with fatigue, staggering up a final fairway.

And they call him the winner.

"At the Open, all you can do is hit and grimace," said Andy North, a two-time champion. "It's not very pretty. You're out there, grinding your guts out. It's a survival test."

This annual rite of golf masochism begins again Thursday on the Lower Course at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. Tom Kite is the defending champion and par may yet be the score to beat.

After weeks of plying their trade on lush, forgiving courses, these millionaires are in for some hard time by the Garden State Parkway.

Gentlemen, start your whining.

The Masters is Augusta National and the link to Bobby Jones.

The British Open is golf's Eden re-created on a string of courses that dots the countryside like pearls on a necklace.

And the PGA is a mid-summer, middle-American diversion, the tournament as state fair.

But the U.S. Open is the toughest major of them all.

And here's why.

The field

If you have $100, the talent and a dream, you're welcome to qualify for the U.S. Open. Five thousand, nine hundred and five golfers took the plunge when local qualifying tournaments began May 14 in Boise, Idaho.

By the time the sectional events ended last week, established pros John Mahaffey and Bob Tway were scrambling for Open spots just like rookie rabbits on the tour.

A 16-year-old high school junior named Ted Oh played his way into the Open. A rising pro star named Phil Mickelson did not.

That's golf democracy in action.

Whoever gets in is usually playing awfully well.

Of the 156 players in the field, 67 received exemptions for past excellence. One of them was Jack Nicklaus, who won two of his four Opens at Baltusrol.

Had the United States Golf Association not granted an exemption to him, Nicklaus would have been forced to qualify.

Just like a high school junior -- or a tour rabbit.

The setup

The fussy men who run America's championship often tamper with perfection, turning fabled golf courses such as Pebble Beach, Winged Foot and Medinah into golfing Frankensteins.

They prune fairways until only narrow landing areas are left. They grow the rough five inches long. They keep the greens firm and fast. They extract every pleasure from the game in an effort to prove that there is greatness in the ability to shoot par.

You would think that the professionals who love the game would enjoy this challenge.

You would be wrong.

"Seven-over par, that's the USGA's interpretation of a great Open," said Payne Stewart, the 1991 champion.

"The USGA wants to see you challenged and tested," he said. "At the British Open, they just let the cream rise to the top. They just let nature take care of the winning score, and they don't

care what it is."

The last time the USGA brought its Open to Baltusrol in 1980, Nicklaus won with an 8-under-par 272, the lowest score in history.

The fussy men have been hard at work the past months, devising ways to fortify the defenses of Baltusrol's 7,022-yard, par-70 course. There are only two par-5s on this layout, at the 17th and 18th holes.

Frankenstein lives.

International intrigue

OK, so American golf isn't what it used to be. The Masters jacket usually goes to a guy with a British passport. A green card can come in handy during the final round of the PGA. And only one American, Mark Calcavecchia, has won the British Open in the past nine years.

But the U.S. Open still bears a made-in-America label.

The last foreign-born player to win the Open was Australian David Graham, in 1981. And he's now as Texan as Gov. Ann Richards.

The last European to win America's championship was Tony Jacklin in 1970.

There are all sorts of theories on why the international stars can't win the Open.

"In Europe, you can invent shots around the greens," said David Frost of South Africa. "Here, the greens are so small, you have to play target golf."

"The U.S. Open is generally played on the hardest golf course of the lot," said Australian Wayne Grady. "And the U.S. Open is epitome of modern golf course set-up."

"It's only in the past four or five years that we've had competition from Europe," said Seve Ballesteros of Spain. "Ten years ago, I was among the only ones from Europe to play here. That has all changed."

And the change eventually will produce another international winner.

Kite may have won last year's Open, but on his heels were Colin Montgomerie, Nick Faldo and Nick Price.

"I have absolutely no clue why a European hasn't won the Open for a while," Kite said. "It's just a very short snapshot in time that just happens to be the case. Why they've done well at the Masters? Why not at the Open? Who knows?"

The crowds

The dateline will read New Jersey, but this year's Open is taking place in the heart of the New York metropolitan area.

New York may have charms, but its golf galleries are not among them.

At Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., in 1984, Hale Irwin imploded as fans mindlessly wandered onto the course. And Fuzzy Zoeller, the eventual winner, stopped to admire one fan who was performing a cartwheel.

In the middle of the fairway.

Two years later at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y., Greg Norman ran into a slight problem.

A fan challenged him to a fight.

"People in New York are not shy to speak their minds," said Frost, who had to step back from the winning putt at the 1992 Buick Classic title at Westchester Country Club because ice cubes were clanging on the rim of a glass.

"I think the golfers are a little more conservative than most people in the New York area," he added. "The people here are pretty jovial."

Note to U.S. Open competitors: bring your earplugs.

The history

The U.S. Open is about myth and legend. This is not some weekly tour event that is long forgotten the moment the winner's paycheck is cashed.

When you win the Open you follow in the footsteps of Francis Ouimet and Jones and Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus.

You follow, too, in the footsteps of Jack Fleck and Orville Moody and North, men who rose from obscurity to achieve golfing greatness, if only briefly.

"When you've won the Open, you've become the best player in your country," North said. "I used to dream at night on practice greens, that the 5-foot putt I was going to sink was the one that would win the Open. And then, one day, I faced that kind of putt."

The burden is heavy.

History awaits.

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