The strangeness in the air on Saturday carried over into the wee hours of Sunday morning when the fire alarm woke up a bunch of cranky scribes at the media hotel around 1am. Myself included. Naturally, it turned out to be a false alarm. Somehow, the disconcerting announcement didn’t sound in my room (thank God for Twitter,huh?), but I did get the “false alarm” one.
Good news is I could understand all three languages used: Spanish, Mandarin and English (played in that order). You know, just in case I missed the first or second message the fourth time it was repeated. Better news: I didn’t listen to the evacuation order and leave my room for the Media Pajama Party in front of the hotel. Now that would have been a spooky nightmare!
The game plan was to rest up and then wake up early to write this post — which I’ve been thinking through since Friday evening — but alas, here I am, up and at ’em. Let’s hope some of this makes sense…it goes back to a quote Jim Furyk gave me after the final round of the Masters in April.
Jim Furyk, the 42-year-old veteran, shot an even-par 70 to remain atop the leaderboard, along with Graeme McDowell, heading into the final round of the U.S. Open at Olympic. No surprise. The course and the setup is a perfect fit for Furyk Golf. What does that mean? Think the opposite of Bubba Golf.
During his opening comments of his Friday post-round presser, Furyk, who won the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, said he “plodded along” that afternoon at Olympic.
“I kind of collected myself and plodded along today and was able to birdie No. 15,” said Furyk on Friday. “Although I missed a short one at No. 18, I played very beautifully on the front and was able to make a couple birdies on the way in and get it to 1‑under (Friday).”
Funny. 2010 U.S. Open champ McDowell, who was paired with Furyk in the first two rounds, used the word “plodder” to describe him.
“You’ve got to play Jim Furyk Golf, said McDowell on Friday when asked to identify qualities a player needs to succeed at a U.S. Open. “I watched (Thursday) and I watched it again (Friday). He doesn’t take chances he doesn’t have to take on. He gets it back in the fairway. He putts well. Holes out well. Takes his chances when it comes. And that’s my type of golf as well.
“I think you have to be, I don’t like the world plodder — it’s kind of a little bit disrespectful. I think that it’s an aggressive-to-conservative-to-targets-type player You got to take your shots on, but play safe.”
G-Mac and Furyk, who both posted 54-hole totals of one-under, made several complimentary remarks about the other this week. Furyk likes G-Mac’s game because he’s “tough.”
How do you define “tough”? Or for that matter, “plodder”?
Well, the two go hand-in-hand. In my mind, a plodder is tough player who shows a lot of resilience, and most importantly, patience. He’s a grinder. Sometimes it’s not the prettiest golf in the world or the most sexy, but it gets the job done and the ball in the hole. He doesn’t waste any shots. He keeps the ball in play. He’s textbook, predictable, steady and conservative, but he makes his move and strikes when he sees the right opportunity. He’s relatively boring, which is considered a compliment to a golfer, especially if he’s a plodder.
“I think basically that on a golf course like this you have to go from spot to spot and it doesn’t have to look or be fancy, it has to work,” said Furyk in his post-round presser on Saturday when asked for his definition of a plodder and interpretation of G-Mac’s remarks. “And I think we have styles of games where we put the ball into play, we put the ball on the green and take our chance at the putt and then move on.
“When I’m playing well, that’s the kind of golf you play at a U.S. Open usually, especially at a place set up firm and fast like this. And I think that’s what he meant by his definition. And I believe it’s a good one.”
Look at the leaderboard — it’s actually not surprising. There’s a type of golfer whose game fits this style of golf. They’re not necessarily “plodders,” but they’re strategic and smart players. Many names are past U.S. Open champions: Furyk, McDowell, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, and of course, Tiger Woods. Then there are guys who have good records at this major championship: Lee Westwood (T7 at the ’98 U.S. Open when it was last held at Olympic,; 3rd in ’08 and T3 in ’11), Kevin Chappell (T3 in last year’s debut), Matt Kuchar (T14 and low-amateur in ’98, T6 in ’10), and Martin Kaymer (T7 in ’10). Jason Dufner is someone I’d consider a bit of a plodder.
Sunday won’t be a two-man race. Not at a U.S. Open. Not when the scores are so tightly packed. I’m thinking if you’re within five shots of the lead (+4), you still have a chance. Rewind to ’98 here. Eventual champion Lee Janzen started the day five off the pace and trailed by as many as seven after bogeying two of the first three holes. He rallied to beat the late Payne Stewart by one stroke.
A similar scenario is likely in 2012, of course. It’s quite possible for a player at +4 to shoot 3- or maybe 4-under, while the leaders shoot a few over. Let’s say Tiger fires a 67 and Furyk and G-Mac post 73s.
With the exception of Tiger and maybe Chappell, who is the youngest and least proven of the guys at four-over or better, these guys aren’t bombers. They are good ballstrikers who tend to fly under the radar. That’s what gets it done at the U.S. Open. Like any major championship or run-of-the-mill PGA Tour event, you have to pick and choose your spots to score and also when to back off.
Some golf courses and tournament set-ups are more forgiving and don’t put as much of a premium on precision, like the Masters. The U.S. Open obviously takes it to the nth level, which some consider sadistic, but that’s the USGA’s M.O. It’s most challenging test of the year that rewards patience, accuracy and toughness. It’s the four most grueling rounds of a golfer’s season. There are more roars for pars than birdies.
When Sunday rolls along — if you make the cut — you’re spent. Mentally and physically (Olympic ain’t an easy walk). Every golfer I stalked down on Saturday looked and sounded worn out.
“(Furyk) is super mentally tough,” said Hunter Mahan, who is six-over through 54 holes. “He’s not going to waste any shots. There’s not one shot out there that doesn’t have his full attention. This is a long week. It’s the longest four days of a golfer’s year. There’s just not an easy shot. You can’t let you guard down. No matter no club you have, no matter how far you have, it’s just tough and it wears you down.”
Yep, only the strong survive. The type of golf is a bit defensive, but as Furyk points out, you have to pick the right moments and you can’t attack — you have to reel back. It’s not the most thrilling golf in the world. Many don’t have the discipline to play U.S. Open-golf for 72 holes. They get greedy and too aggressive.
“I think you have to bide your time and get through certain holes each day trying to make pars,” said Furyk in his post-round presser on Saturday. “And there will be a couple of opportunities you get. If you can drive the ball in the fairway, there are some places you can get short irons in your hand and there are some pins that you can attack. You just have to be patient and wait for those moments instead of trying to force them.”
Now, when I spoke to Furyk at the Masters, I wanted his insight on Bubba winning (before he had actually won — I think Bubba was on the 11th or 12 hole still). Furyk brought up knowing when to be aggressive and the advantages of being a long hitter, but he emphasized creativity being the most important factor.
With all the hype around Phil Mickelson heading into this week, disappointment ensued when he opened with a 76. I think I was among the minority that either hadn’t tipped Phil or wasn’t surprised. Oh, and same goes for Bubba, who shot 78-71. You can’t play Bubba Golf and win a U.S. Open — at least not at Olympic.
“Until you get the chance to win here, it’s definitely an extra notch up of controlling your nerves and slowing the pace down and sticking to what got you there,” said Furyk, whose playing style is more conservative and conventional (not his swing, though).
“I’ll tell you what — I wanted to throw a brick through the TV when I saw Phil on No. 13 (in 2010) in the pine straw, I was yelling, ‘Just lay it up!’
“And then (Phil) hit it five feet. So I said, ‘Maybe that’s why he’s winning the Masters and I’m not.’
“I think you have to pick and choose your times, but eventually at a course that’s difficult and severe, you’re going to have to hit some really good golf shots.”
You see, this is a fitting way to understand why Furyk is tied for the lead and Phil is T42. The tables are turned at the U.S. Open. Furyk takes the safe shot and lays up, which is why he already has won a U.S. Open and in prime position to capture another.
Meanwhile, Phil picks the risky and aggressive approach (and he doesn’t like it when he’s forced to pull back and play more conservatively — he’s not a big fan when there’s such a premium on precision), which is why he’s been a bridesmaid five times at the U.S. Open.
This tournament is far from over, though. Phil is too far back to end his bout of close calls, but there are 17 players within five shots of the leaders, Furyk and McDowell, both of whom would make great champions and stories — one for the steady vets and a third consecutive U.S. Open title for Northern Ireland, respectively.
I’d love to see Lee Westwood, who has come up just short seven times in the past five years, get that major monkey off his back. We’d all like to see Tiger redeem himself from Saturday’s shoddy round (but if history is a good indicator, Tiger has never come from behind to win a major). Then there’s 17-year-old amateur Beau Hossler, a junior in high school, who bested Tiger by five shots on moving day. Ernie Els, a two-time U.S. Open champion, endured a rough patch and then had several close calls to win recently. A win for Els would complete the wonderful, feel-good comeback story.
May the best plodder win. Or perhaps I should replace that with underdog. They’re almost interchangeable in my mind. As I keep saying, history has taught us that the U.S. Open at Olympic sets the stage for major disappointment. Even if that’s the case, it’ll still be an intriguing finish.
(Getty Images/Harry How)