Which Ben will win on Sunday?
The United States Golf Association says this whenever asked about their choice of a venue for the U.S. Open: “The USGA selects venues for the U.S. Open that rank among the most challenging courses in the United States. We intend that the U.S. Open prove the most rigorous examination of golfers. A U.S. Open course should test all forms of shot making, mental tenacity, and physical endurance under conditions of extreme pressure found only at the highest levels of championship golf.”
They have certainly met those criteria in selecting Chambers Bay, the links-style layout overlooking Puget Sound in Washington State. The question is: Has the USGA gone overboard with its emphasis on “challenging, rigorous, endurance, extreme”?
The public course which opened in 2007 can play to almost 7,900 yards, but length is not the issue. With just a single tree, wall-to-wall fescue, impressive elevation changes and ungodly greens complexes, this is a U.S. Open challenge unlike any other. With all due respect to Shinnecock Hills (which has hosted four Opens and will do so again in 2018), this is, as architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. says, not just a links course, but one on steroids.
Not surprisingly, Jones defends his design, echoing the USGA’s criteria. “The course will yield to great shot-making. It will not yield to poor thinking. This isn’t a normal Tour event; it will test every aspect of play.”
Taking that into account, will Chambers Bay reward the truly best player or will it identify this week’s golf equivalent of an idiot savant?
Remember Ben Curtis, who won the 2003 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s? Curtis, a 27-year-old 300-to-1 long shot who got in the field through an obscure and no longer existing exemption, was ranked 396th in the world. He had never seen the course, was unfamiliar with links golf. Yet he successfully fluked his way around those hard, fast, dry, confounding links to win by a shot over Thomas Bjorn and Vijay Singh.
You could say he was the best player that week. Tough to dispute, seeing he hoisted the Claret Jug on Sunday. Since then he has won only three times on Tour, but those titles were definitely not majors: the Booz Allen Classic, the 84 Lumber Classic and the Valero Texas Open. One major, two classics and an open. All depends on how you define those terms, I suppose.
In 1953, the U.S. Open was played at Pennsylvania’s intimidating Oakmont, called “the monster.” Prior to the tournament, many players voiced concerns about how difficult the course would play. Revered sports writer Dan Jenkins called it “Quote Heaven.” Based on that, he must be relishing some of the players’ comments leading up to this week’s championship.
Ben Hogan won his fourth U.S. Open by six over Sam Snead at Oakmont in 1953, calling it the best golf he had ever played. The USGA’s criteria had been met.
All Hogan shared with Ben Curtis was a first name and the fact they were major winners. How they claimed the latter honour, a half-century apart, couldn’t be more different. The legendary Hogan remains one of the best ball strikers of all time, winner of nine majors and 69 pro titles. Curtis remains a curiosity, a historical anomaly, a four-day headscratcher.
Which Ben will Chambers Bay produce come Sunday? The result may say more about the course and its conditions than the eventual champion.